“A pair of star cross’d lovers….” To what extent was the tragedy a result of bad luck or destiny? To what extent was it brought about by the people involved?
Romeo and Juliet’s tragic death comes as a climax of a tale of passionate love. Raging in the background is an even more passionate family feud that thwarted the “star-crossed lovers”. To what degree is sheer bad luck, or destiny, or the freedom of choice of the title characters themselves, to blame?
The answer must begin with the examination of the play’s three central themes.
I will examine each in turn, and see to what extent it contributes to the young lovers’ demise. I must however say at once that as the play progresses, Shakespeare succeeds to knit the key themes so subtly together that it is difficult to unravel them. That is to say luck is so closely bound to destiny, destiny to choice and choice to bad luck.
Let us begin with chance or its synonym, coincidence. Chance is a wavering factor which is often overlooked. However, the prologue hints at it: “misadventur’d piteous overthrows”. Chance creates many of the unfortunate circumstances throughout the play, while misfortune directs how events unfold. A major coincidence that shaped the entire narrative, is the chance meeting by Romeo and Benvolio with Capulet’s servant who could not read.
“My master is the great rich Capulet, and if you be not of the house of the Montagues, I pray come and crush a cup of wine.
And so they learn of Capulet’s ball. This encounter is perfectly timed considering Benvolio is looking for something to take Romeo’s mind off Rosaline. The meeting set off an unlikely chain of events. Romeo and Juliet fall in ‘love at first sight’. They marry without their parent’s consent.
Misfortune makes its entrance here and touches the title characters. Romeo’s banishment initiates the series of events that leads to the lovers’ deaths. When Juliet learns that Romeo murdered Tybalt, she grieves for her love:
” Ah, poor my lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name,
When I, thy three-hours wife, have mangl’d it?”
This causes her parents to arrange her marriage to County Paris. In desperation, she seeks comfort and advice from Friar Lawrence who provides a herbal potion that will feign her death. The Nurse could have prevented Juliet from taking the potion yet she did not sleep with Juliet that particular night. *The plan seems flawless but time is against Romeo, Friar Lawrence and Juliet. Friar John gets quarantined because of the plague and thus Romeo receives the wrong information. Romeo learns of Juliet’s death and stops by an apothecary for poison before setting off for Verona.
The following examples deal with “close-calls” which involve coincidence and timing. After Romeo had slain Paris and entered the tomb, he utters some revealing words:
“Thou art not conquer’d, beauty ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,
And death’s pale flag is not advanced there.”
Here Romeo notices how alive Juliet looks. All he had to do was touch her and she may have been awakened and their deaths avoided. Or was fate conspiring against them as well?
Many characters often indicate that Romeo and Juliet’s misfortune is their own fault for being passionate, young lovers, such as Balthasar, when warning Romeo not to be rash:
“I do beseech you, sir, patience:
Your looks are pale and wild, and do import
Like other characters, Romeo and Juliet themselves realise how chance and misfortune go together in their lives. Juliet, ever-analytical, ponders the role of coincidence in her new-found love:
“My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!”
Perhaps the irony of coincidence lies in how Romeo and Juliet find true love in “a loathed enemy”. Up until the ball, coincidence seems to have benefited Romeo and Juliet in their cause. However, at the same time, Chance’s other aspect, namely Misadventure, harmed them. All meetings between Romeo and Juliet after the masque lead them closer to their fate. Their meeting at the balcony was a cruel coincidence that intensified their love. After this, the couple decide to marry and so the countdown to their deaths begins.
The Prologue highlights fate or destiny. One of the central themes in this tragedy, destiny is a predetermined path of life over which you have no control. In other words, the Elizabethan understanding of the word is bound to the Fateful Sisters, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos. They controlled the birth, life and death of all men.
The “star-cross’d lovers” seem aware of how destiny casts its shadow over their love. Romeo is more conscious of it and constantly wrestles with it. On his way to the masque, he fears for:
“Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date”.
He begs for mercy and rather strangely asks for destiny to guide him:
“But he, that hath the steerage of my course,
Direct my soul.”
He again tries to challenge fate when he believes Juliet to be dead and cries, “I defy you stars”. This exclamation is one of a man who is trying to outwit fate by choosing to be with his beloved even if it is in death.
Juliet experiences similar premonitions:
“Prodigious birth of love it is to me,
That I must love a loathed enemy.”
Romeo and Juliet are a couple who are not just rebelling against fate but resisting a society in conflict:
“From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”
The play’s underlying theme is the lovers’ struggle against each family’s hatred for one another. There are other social drawbacks that further impede the lovers’ happiness such as Romeo and Juliet’s social position, the defence of family honour and the power of Lord Capulet over Juliet.
How about the six suspect characters responsible for this tragedy? We are looking at them as men and women with their own motives and impulses. There is the Nurse. She is Juliet’s faithful servant who treated her almost like a daughter, changed the course of events by betraying Lord and Lady Capulet. If the Nurse had not done Juliet’s bidding and acted as her messenger, it is possible that Juliet would have abandoned the idea of her marriage to Romeo and the couple’s deaths could have been averted. However, there is a strong likelihood that the Nurse’s influence notwithstanding, the couple would still have gone ahead with their fated marriage once they had fallen in love.
Mercutio, one of Romeo’s friends and a supporter of the Montague household was pivotal. He encouraged Romeo to go to the Capulet’s masquerade and duel with Tybalt in town. But for that the couple would not have met and the deaths would not have occurred. However is Romeo destined to meet Juliet regardless of the actions of others?
The Friar is a mutual friend of Romeo and Juliet. He helped the young couple to marry. But for him, it is possible that they would have given up the idea. But then, it is possible they would have gone ahead.
Tybalt is the cousin of Juliet and bad-tempered enemy of the Montague household. When Benvolio mentions peace to him, he retorted:
“…I hate the word,
As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.”
He agreed to fight Romeo in town. He earned himself the reputation of being easy to enrage.
“Here comes the furious Tybalt back again.”
Mercutio tauntingly calls him a “rat-catcher” and he howls back: “What wouldst thou have with me?” If it were not for that, there would have been no duel, no deaths and no banishment.
His influence on the events leading up to his death and that of his young wife is considerable. Romeo is a man of haste, reckless haste all through the play. One is tempted to say that haste is fate’s companion. He should have bided his time before asking Juliet to marry him. Juliet says, with a touch of regret:
“I have no joy of this contract tonight,
It is too rash, too unadvis’d, too sudden,”
Also he should not have rushed back to Verona after hearing of Juliet’s death. When Balthasar counsels him to be patient, he brushes me aside: “Leave me, and do the thing I bid thee do.” Romeo also acted violently and impetuously when he killed Tybalt and, later, Paris. Shortly before he killed Tybalt, he muses of: “Tybalt, that an hour hath been my cousin.” Perhaps if he were more thoughtful, he and Juliet would have lived.
In short, it is difficult to be absolutely certain that fate, chance or people’s choice, each by itself contributed to the tragedy of the “star-cross’d lovers”. It is more convincing to hold that these factors are influential in part, or at least part of the time. Overall, they have acted in concert. Indeed, the tragedy will be meaningless if it were hung solely on one peg called fate, or another peg called chance or yet another peg called human nature or for that matter free will.
As one critic has said: – “Romeo and Juliet is unmatched in Shakespeare … the subtle outrageousness of (his) drama is that everything is against the lovers: their families and the state, the indifference of nature, the vagaries of time, and the regressive movement of the cosmological contraries of love and strife.”
“What is left on the stage at the close of this tragedy is an absurd pathos: the wretched Friar Lawrence, who fearfully abandoned Juliet; a widowed Montague, who vows to have a statue of Juliet raised in pure gold; the Capulets vowing to end a feud already spent in five deaths – those of Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, Romeo, and Juliet.”
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