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THE DICHOTOMY BETWEEN FATE AND FREE WILL IN MEDIEVAL LITERATURE

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A study about fate and free will as seen by some medieval authors. (Everyman, The Wife of Bath, Murder in the Cathedral, Julius Caesar, Macbeth)

A study about fate and free will as seen by some medieval authors. (Everyman, The Wife of Bath, Murder in the Cathedral, Julius Caesar, Macbeth)

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  • 1. ISFD Nº 41INGLES – 4º AÑOLENGUA Y CULTURA IV  THE DICHOTOMY BETWEEN FATE AND FREE WILL IN MEDIEVAL LITERATURE ALUMNO: QUESADA, NORMA NIEVESDNI: 16.776.718E-MAIL: nor.que@live.com.arPROFESORA: GRODSKI, BARBARAFECHA DE ENTREGA: 2 DE DICIEMBRE, 2011CURSADA: 2011
  • 2. Table of contentsIntroduction............................................................................................ 2Fate vs free wil ....................................................................................... 3The Wheel of Fortune or Rota Fortunae.............................................. 3Everyman and human beings’ final destiny......................................... 4The Wife of Bath and fate as an excuse................................................ 4The Wife of Bath and the power of will to change fate....................... 5Murder in the Cathedral and fate used conveniently......................... 6Julius Caesar ignoring signs of fate...................................................... 7Macbeth and decisions altering future................................................. 8Conclusion............................................................................................... 10Bibliography............................................................................................ 11References................................................................................................ 11Apendix.................................................................................................... 13 [1]
  • 3. Introduction One of the issues dealt by authors in the medieval times has to do with theinfluence of fate and free will in human beings’ lives. Whatever destiny is called – fate,god-will, fortune, God hand, etc. – this supernatural power has always been presentalong history in people’s beliefs. In spite of that, many people prefer thinking that theyhave the power to change the course of their lives through their own decisions. The analysis of various works – Everyman, The Wife of Bath by Chaucer,Murder in the Cathedral by Thomas Elliot, and Shakespeare’s plays, The tragedy ofJulius Caesar and Macbeth, two of them fictional and three of them which reflecthistorical facts – will lead us to discover to what extent these authors believed that ourdecisions can change our lives. [2]
  • 4. "Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved." (William Jennings Bryan) First of all, some definitions of vital importance for this work need to beintroduced: fate or destiny is the power that is believed to control everything thathappens and that cannot be stopped or changed; fortune are the good and bad thingsthat happen to a person, family, country, etc.; free will, the power to make your owndecisions without being controlled by God or fate.1 From the beginning of the times, there has always been a lot of discussion aboutwhether we have the capacity to change our destiny and make a difference, or whetherwe have to accept it as it is written in the Tablets of Destiny - a clay tablet inscribedwith cuneiform writing, also impressed with cylinder seals, which, as a permanent legaldocument, conferred upon the god Enlil his supreme authority as ruler of the universo2.For those who believe that free will governs their lives, taking decisions is not only away of changing things, but also a responsibility. Although the options can be various atthe moment of choosing a course of action, you have to determine which the best foryou is and how it will influence your future. On the other hand, those who blindlybelieve in fate, or destiny, or fortune, or God hand regulating their lives will attributetheir success or their failure to them without trying to have any kind of control.Depending on what our position is, we will see things and live in a different way. During ancient times, Roman and Greek philosophers assigned the fickle nature ofFate to the Wheel of Fortune or Rota Fortunae, which was spun at random bygoddess Fortuna. Philosophers say that Fortune is insane and blind and stupid, and they teach that she stands on a rolling, spherical rock: they affirm that, wherever chance pushes that rock, Fortuna falls in that direction. They repeat that she is blind for this reason: that she does not see where shes heading; they say shes insane, because she is cruel, flaky and unstable; stupid, because she cant distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy.3 Later on, in medieval times, Christianism used Fortuna for religious instruction,and to make people become aware of the low value of temporary things during their1 Hornby, A. S. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English. 7th Edition. OxfordUniversity Press, 2005.2 Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.3 Pacuvius, Scaenicae Romanorum Poesis Fragmenta. Vol. 1, ed. O. Ribbeck, 1897 [3]
  • 5. lives on Earth. They referred to that wheel as the "wheel of life" or the "wheel offortune," "which never stands still, being constantly subject to the turns of fate"4. In the morality play of unknown author, Everyman, when Death first appears hespeaks about the final destiny of every man: Lord, I will in the world go run over all, And cruelly outsearch both great and small; Every man will I beset that liveth beastly Out of God’s laws, and dreadeth not folly; He that loveth riches I will strike with my dart, His sight to blind, and from heaven to depart, Except that alms be his good friend, In hell for to dwell, world without end.5The character Everyman, who represents all men living on Earth, summoned by Godwill, is told that he has to go on a journey that will lead him to the afterlife – finaldestiny reaching him. He asks for the company of Fellowship, Kindred and Cousin,Beauty, Goods, and Strengh, but he is abandoned by all of them to make his journeyalone. Only Good Deeds and Knowledge, which has been previously neglected by thecharacter, can save him at the end, when he demonstrates his intention of changing hissoul fate through Confession. I pray you, help me in this need Or else I am forever damned indeed; Therefore, help me to make reckoning Before the Redeemer of all things.6 It does not matter how much he pleads or how many things he offers to themessenger for a few more days, this voyage is not going to be postponed. The FinalJudgement for Catholics is inevitable, nobody can avoid the day of reckoning; however,if you are willing to repent of your sins, God will welcome you to Heaven. Chaucer also used the dichotomy between fate and free will in some of hisbooks. For instance, in the Prologue of his tale The Wife of Bath, the widow explainsher own character in terms of astrology. The influence of planets at her birth datedetermines her dominant personality, something she takes advantage of and she has nointention to change. She has also a birthmark of which she likes to talk about in public,as well as gap-teeth that are supposed to identify women as lecherous and voracious. Allof these signs give her the possibility to behave in the way she is – authority-4 Dictionary of Symbolism, p. 3795 Gassner, J. Everyman. A modernized version.6 Cf. 5 [4]
  • 6. challenging, trouble-making, bossy, liar, quick-tempered – without feeling embarrassedor ashamed, because she is not guilty but her fate. Venus gave me my lust, my lecherousnesse, And Mars gave me my sturdy hardiness.7Moreover, what she really does is to use her fate as an excuse to be able to do her will,which is mainly being able to break the rules. At those times, women’s role was to helptheir husband run the states, especially when the men were at battle. Their main dutywas to give her husband a son – although it was preferably to deliver between six toeight children as mortality rate was very high – and to look after the household servants.Nevertheless, they had no rights and they were considered as their husbands’ property.That is not obviously the case of the wife in question, who would negotiate everythingwith her husbands or dominate them, if that was not possible, by means of sexualintercourse. In the tale itself, when the Queen and the ladies decide to pray to the King forgrace in favour of a knight who has raped a maiden, we can observe how the women’scollective will can change the fate of the man who has been condemned to die. TheQueen gives the knight a quest to answer a question – “I will grant you life if you cantell me what thing it is that women most desire."8 – in a lapse of a year, so he begins ajourney to search for its solution, becoming an errant man who travels through citiesand forests. All his efforts are in vain, and the year is almost over, untill the moment hepasses a forest and sees a circle of women dancing. When he approaches to them, theyvanish; only one of them, old and ugly, remains in the place and promises to help him ifhe grants her a wish. They return to the court and the woman tells the knight the answerto his quest: “women desire to have dominion over their husbands as well as their 9lovers, and to be above them in mastery”. The Queen is pleased with his answer andthe ugly woman asks the knight to marry him. The knight unwillingly accepts the oldrepulsive woman as his wife only to keep his promise after her saving his life. In thismoment, we could less than imagine that fate cannot be avoided. Despite this, when theold lady gives him the opportunity, in their first night together and after defining a truegentleman, to choose between having her ugly and old for the rest of her life, butobedient and faithful to him, or having her young and fair and have to expose himself to7 Chaucer, Geoffrey. Canterbury Tales. Everyman’s Library. The Wife of Bath (line 611).8 Cf. 7 (line 48)9 Cf. 7 (line 181) [5]
  • 7. the risk of all men coming to his house for her, he freely decides to let her choosewhichever she considers more pleasing and favourable for both of them. I don’t care which of the two I get; For whatever pleases you suffices for me.”10This act of gentilesse and strong will on his part convinces the woman to becomebeautiful and good for him for ever. Now, leaving aside fiction, Thomas S. Elliot also deals with fate and free will inhis historical play Murder in the Cathedral when he refers several times to the wheel,to God’s providence and his plan for history. After seven years of living in France as arefugee because of a conflict over power with King Henry II, the Archbishop ofCanterbury, Thomas Becket, returns to England. There, he is welcomed by a group ofwomen – choir – who let the audience know that life during his absence has been veryhard – “living and partly living”11 – but they prefer him being away than running therisk of loosing his life as the conflict is not fully solved. Becket receives the visit of fourtempters, who offer him physical safety, power, wealth, fame, a coalition with theBarons and the glory of martyrdom depending on his decision to serve the King, theBarons, or the Church. Danger is in the air and the three priests that are under Becket’sorders are aware of that. Nonetheless, the Third Priest’s advice is to let things happen asthey have to: For good or ill, let the wheel run. The wheel has been still, these seven years, and no good. For ill or good, let the wheel turn. For who knows the end of good or evil? Until the grinders cease And the door shall be shut in the street, And all the daughters of music shall be brought low.12The choir performance is foreshadowing Becket’s murder, something that he chooses toignore in order to seek for martyrdom. For Elliot, as he establishes it in the Interludewhen the Archbishop is preaching to his people on the Christmas morning, a martyr isdesigned by God: The true martyr is he who has lost his will in the will of God, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr13.10 Cf. 7 (line378)11 Eliot, T. S. Murderin the Cathedral.Harcourt, Inc. 196312 Cf. 1113 Cf. 11 [6]
  • 8. Afterwards, he receives the visit of four knights, who accuse him of several crimesagainst Henry II and his kingdom – ambition, pride, envy, ingratitude, rising up falseopinions against the King, insolence, greed, appropriation of power, transgression andreversing his policy and becoming indifferent to the fate of his country since themoment he became Archbishop. Finally, after asking the priests to leave the churchdoors open, Becket dies in the hands of the four king’s knights, not being able – and notwilling – to escape his fate while the Third Priest defines that day as any other day inwhich the divine design will be present. In the tragedy of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, Caesar is leading aprocession along the streets of Rome during the Ides of March when a soothsayer warnshim about his death. This warning is not taken into account by Caesar, who is rejoicingon his triumph over the sons of Pompey the Great. At the same moment a conspiracy tokill the emperor is taking place among his generals, who think he is getting tooambitious and powerful. Cassius, while trying to convince Brutus to become part of theplot, assures that they are responsible of the power Caesar exercise over them as he saysthat every man has the power to change his fate in certain occasions: Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.14Caesar himself has an intuition that something is wrong when he refers to Cassius lookas “lean and hungry”. Even his wife, Calpurnia, has a dream in which she sees a statueof her husband full of holes and bleeding like a fountain – a foreshadowing of the thirtythree times he is going to be stabbed later that day –, a lioness giving birth in the streetsof Rome, warriors fighting in the clouds, dead people yielding from their tombs andCaesar’s ghost, all signs that something bad is going to happen, so she asks her husbandto stay at home. He seems to be going to follow her advice, but when Decius asserts thatwomen are not able to interpret dreams, Caesar decides to ignore his wife and, defyingfate, he goes to the Capitol, where he is brutally assassinated. After his death, Brutusand Marc Antony present their speeches to the crowd. The latter believes that a civil waris possible in Rome due to the recent events and, this belief, transmitted to the peoplewhile he delivers his speech, pushes the crowd to rebel against the conspirators and14 Shakespeare, W. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Worsworth Library Collection.2007.Julius Caesar. (Act I, Sc II) [7]
  • 9. leads to the so feared result. Omens and prophesies are present all along the play andmost of them come true; that might drive us to the conclusion that characters have nopower over their lives. Similarly, in the tragic play Macbeth, Shakespeare focuses on the matter of manwill being able to change their future. The question here is what forces a correct manlike Macbeth to commit a crime. Again, he uses the three witches’ prophesy to make hisaudience think that external forces can control the main character actions and future. Macbeth is a soldier who clearly knows the difference between good and evil.At the beginning, having defeated two invading enemy armies, Macbeth and Banquoare crossing a moor when they meet three witches who tell them that Macbeth willbecome a thane and, later on, King of Scotland, and Banquo will never be a king but hisheirs will. The two men give no importance to the witches’ words until the momentsome generals come to congratulate them on their victory and inform them that Macbethhas been named thane of Cawdor. King Duncan arranges to dine at Macbeth’s castlethat night and Lady Macbeth is informed of the facts by his husband. Immediately, shebegins to plan Duncan’s murder that very night by getting his chamberlains drunk andblaming them the following morning. Macbeth does not agree with her plot in thebeginning but her insistence makes him change his mind. He does not want his wife tothink him a coward and promises her hell "do all that may become a man."15 Macbethstabs Duncan while he is asleep and the following morning he does the same with hischamberlains, what leads him to the throne. Duncan’s sons flee from there, consideringthemselves in danger too. Meanwhile, Macbeth arranges Banquo’s murder, fearing hisheirs will claim their right to the throne. Afterwards, Banquo’s ghost visits Macbeth,who reacts angrily, shouting to his guests, who mainly belong to the nobility. This eventmakes his subjects become resistant to his kingship. Macbeth decides to pay a visit tothe three sisters. More prophesies are presented to him and he is warned about Macduff,who has been one of the members of the opposition during his accession, because hecannot be damaged by any man born of woman. Having learned that Macduff hastravelled to England, Macbeth orders that his family has to be killed, what leadsMacduff to seek for revenge. In the meantime, Malcom, one of Duncan’s sons, isgathering an army in England, which Macduff joins, to dispute the throne with the15 Shakespeare, W. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Worsworth Library Collection.2007.Macbeth. (Act I, Sc VII) [8]
  • 10. support of the Scottish nobles. In the battlefield, Macduff explains that he was born byCaesarean section before killing Macbeth. Malcom is now the new king of Scotlandand, with that fact, the prophesy becomes true. On one hand, the characters actions seem to be controlled by the witches’prophesy – fate. On the other hand, we can observe a man whose convictions change astime passes and who deviates from his prosperous future, loosing everything because ofambition. [9]
  • 11. Conclusion Fate or free will. Free will or fate. An issue related to faith, to religion, tosuperstition, to beliefs. Would the end of each character have been different if theirdecisions had been others? Problems arise when we take for granted that we cannotchange anything and we do nothing – but doing nothing is also a decision – or when weplay to be God and think we are able to make all things become completely different. Ofcourse, these two positions are extremes, and there are always things we can modify andothers we have to accept as they are. We have to be aware of the fact that we are notable to change everything, but we shouldn’t let everything happen at random, either. Wehave to be very careful every time we take an important decision, we should take everypossibility into account and choose consciously the better alternative as we can, notonly change our future but, affect other people’s in the process. On the other hand, wehave to be positive about the facts that we cannot change, as there will surely be areason for things to be that way. All in all, we have at least the freedom to choose what we are going to believein, what is possible or impossible for us. Watch your thoughts, they become words. Watch your words, they become actions. Watch your actions, they become habits. Watch your habits, they become your character. Watch your character, it becomes your destiny. (Author anonymous, reiterating the teachings of Buddha) [10]
  • 12. Bibliography  Hornby, A. S. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English. 7th Edition. Oxford University Press, 2005.  Pacuvius, Scaenicae Romanorum Poesis Fragmenta. Vol. 1, ed. O. Ribbeck, 1897  Dictionary of Symbolism, p. 379  Gassner, J. Everyman. A modernized version.  Chaucer, Geoffrey. Canterbury Tales. Everyman’s Library. The Wife of Bath (line 611).  Eliot, T. S. Murderin the Cathedral.Harcourt, Inc. 196  Shakespeare, W. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Worsworth Library Collection.2007.ReferencesLynch, T. (1996). DS9 trials and tribble-ations review. Retrieved October 8, 2008, from Psi Phi:Bradleys Science Fiction Club Web site: http://www.bradley.edu/campusorg/psiphi/DS9/ep/503r.html  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. (Last modified 2011). From web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tablets_of_Destiny  Medina Portal Net. (n.d.) Gods and Heroes at the Archaelogolical Museum of Milan. From web site: http://195.176.180.15:82/medina/courses/cm0910/group3/pages/poc.php?ID_PO C=20&ID_Lang=1  Jokinen, Anniina. (1996). Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature. From web site: http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/everyman.htm  Goucher College, Department of English. (2007). ENGLISH 211: English Literature Beowulf to Dryden. From web site: http://faculty.goucher.edu/eng211/Everyman.html [11]
  • 13.  Harvard College, English Department. (2004). The Geoffrey Chaucer Page. From web site: http://www.courses.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer The Green Man Review Magazine. (2011). The Roots and Branches of Arts and Culture. From the web site: http://www.greenmanreview.com/book/book_eliot_murder.html Mabillard, Amanda. (2000). Julius Caesar Study Questions. Shakespeare Online. From the website: http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/juliuscaesar/juliuscaesarstudyq.html Mabillard, Amanda. (2000). Heebie-Jeebies: The Curse of Macbeth. Shakespeare Online. From the web site: http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/macbeth/macbethfaq/macbethcurse. html BBC. (2011). BBC History. Historic figures. From the web sites: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/becket_thomas.shtml http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/caesar_julius.shtml http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/macbeth.shtml [12]
  • 14. Appendix Wheel of Fortune /Rota FortunaeWheel of life - buddhism [13]
  • 15. Goddess Fortune is the personification of luck in Roman religion (I century A.D.). She is theequivalent to the Greek goddess Tyche. Her father seems to be Jupiter and like him, she can begenerous. She brings either good or bad luck according to the person she is dealing with. She isrepresented veiled or even blind, and she comes to represent lifes capriciousness. She is alsothe goddess of fate: sometimes she helps people to foresee their future. She protects grainsupplies and, for this reason, she is usually portrayed with ears of wheat in her arms. But herfamous attribute is the wheel, symbol of the fortune that the goddess turns spreading amonghumans’ good or bad auspices.Gods and Heroes at the Archaelogolical Museum of Milan. From web site:http://195.176.180.15:82/medina/courses/cm0910/group3/pages/poc.php?ID_POC=20&ID_Lang=1 [14]
  • 16. The introduction to the play Everyman, by unknown author, and the drawing that accompanied it. [15]
  • 17. The Wife of Bath while describing herself. The lady of her tale showing her both possible appearances.The knight and his wife – first night together. [16]
  • 18. The choir of ladies in Murder in the Cathedral.Thomas Becket being assassinatedby the four knights of King Henry II. Canterbury Cathedral, Plaque at Thomas Becket Murder Site 2005. [17]
  • 19. Cassius and Brutus planning Julius Caesar deathThe moment Caesar is killed. Mark Antony delivering his speech after Caesar’s death [18]
  • 20. The three witches at the beginning of Macbeth tragedy. Macbeth and Banquo on Horseback Encounter the Three WitchesMacbeth at the moment hesees Banquo’s ghost. [19]
  • 21. Macbeth killed by Macduff in the battlefield. [20]