Fortune and Nature in Canterbury Tales and As You Like It
The medieval world was a complicated place, full of the "chain of being," astrological influences, elements and humors. A man's life was supposedly influenced by all manner of externals acting by destiny or chance. "Fortune" and "Nature" are two terms that include many of these factors, representing chance and inborn qualities. Shakespeare mentions the two frequently, most notably in an extended dialogue between Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It. Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales also provide many examples of Fortune and Nature's combinations in human affairs. His Pardoner's Tale, Miller's Tale, and Wife of Bath's Tale all depend on the effects of these two metaphysical forces.
The Host wails that "The yiftes of Fortune and of Nature / Been cause of deeth to many a creature." (Pardoner's Tale, ll. 9-10). And so it proves, literally, in the Pardoner's Tale. The three young men, upon finding the treasure-trove of gold florins, explain that "This tresor hath Fortune unto us yiven / In mirthe and jolitee oure lif to liven." (ll. 491-2). Fortune has guided them on their quest, whether in the tavern as the funeral happens to pass by or on the road as they encounter the immortal old man who knows of Death's trove; and Fortune, too, causes their downfall, as "it happed him par cas / To take the botel ther the poison was, / And drank, and yaf his felawe drinke also, / For which anoon they storven bothe two." (ll. 597-600). Yet Nature assists in their demise: all "riotoures three" have already been established as drunkards, so it seems only "natural" for them to celebrate with the wine carried by their erstwhile comrade. The free-wheeling, physical, life-loving nature the comrades have displayed earlier in the tale, their "cupiditas" for wine, wassail, and women, set up the avarice that will spring to the fore after Fortune's intervention.
The Miller's Tale, likewise, results from a collusion of Fortune and Nature. Interestingly, Nicholas practices astrology, a science which reads Nature to determine future Fortune. Alison's Nature seems unclear to both John and Absolon, though Nicholas understands her well enough, and finds a Fortunate plan for removing her husband for a night. The Miller's contrived yet humorous tale would not work without the complex interaction of the character's individual Natures and the vagaries of Fortune that allow John's...