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In “Romeo and Juliet”, Shakespeare introduces two interlinked themes that appear almost constantly throughout the play, those of fate and love. The basic establishment of the two warring houses of Capulet and Montague is key to this and the outline of the plot.
The First scene shows both sides of the story – displaying dialogue from members of both houses – and helps to describe the inherent hatred that members of each house have for each other, without fully understanding why; it’s simply their destiny.
Shakespeare uses techniques of language extremely well – such as the use of mystical phrasing and ominous sounding dialogue. This surely takes advantage of Elizabethan Englishmen’s natural superstition and belief in fate. Many times throughout the play, descriptions are used of characters or of their actions, noticeably three times in the prologue that can be thought of as fatal or unchangeable in terms of paths in life.
The natural opposition to destiny and fate however, is human action.
Shakespeare also makes good use of characters and their actions to present this and how actions can change pre-determined fate. It can be argued however, that human mistakes may simply also be governed by fate such as the fact that the servant who was chosen to deliver invitations to Capulet’s party couldn’t read, ultimately leading to Romeo and Benvolio getting invites. Capulet might see this as a human error however; those of a more superstitious persuasion might simply think that this ignorance on Capulet’s part is the hand of destiny.
The key theme of love is used extremely well as an explanation for the character of Romeo and his actions that lead, ultimately to his death. He is often described as overwhelmed by love and certainly we see that this blinds some of the decisions that he makes. The more elderly characters in the play represent the maturity and wisdom towards love that those with experience have. The younger generation of characters in general however, are used by Shakespeare as a description of the heady recklessness of youth, the prime example of bad judgement based on immaturity in terms of their approach to love. For example going to a party that they shouldn’t be at and in particular, Benvolio’s attitude towards having a relationship; going out to find many women and not simply being lovesick, captivated by one woman that he doesn’t have a chance with such as in the case of Romeo and Rosaline.
The prologue is used deliberately by Shakespeare to seemingly firmly establish the theme of destiny in Act One. This section read out by the chorus at the start of the play introduces the storyline to the audience; almost telling them what is going to unfold.
“Is now the two hours traffic of our stage”
(Prologue, Line 12)
This is the confirmation that this prologue is not simply an introduction but in fact, the entire plot of the play. By informing the audience of what the plot will entail, Shakespeare cleverly uses the prologue as a useful structural device to dramatically introduce the theme of destiny. The audience know that Romeo and Juliet will die and they can now follow the story through with this knowledge, taking note of destiny’s hand in deciding the plot.
Destiny as a theme is recurrent throughout Act One of “Romeo and Juliet”. It is, however, difficult to distinguish whether and event or any of its consequences are due to fate or simply chance in relation to human error. There are various glaringly obvious examples of how Shakespeare has intended to introduce the idea of fate. He makes an extensive use of language that is mystical and ominous to introduce the theme of destiny to the audience. There are several references to destiny in the prologue, some subtle and others less so:
“A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;”
(Prologue, Line 6)
Clearly, the sense that the two lovers are “star-cross’d” implies that their shared destiny is mapped out for them – mainly it’s Shakespeare’s references to the stars that highlights an almost mystical influence, among many of the contemporary audience, mysticism and superstition was more rife than it is nowadays therefore, instances involving the intervention of supernatural forces would make the tale and tragedy more believable. In reference to the couple “taking their life”; Shakespeare presents it almost as this is due to the influence of the stars and certainly as the play progresses, this theme is recurrent. The plague of Mantua is a prime example of this. The seemingly fateful intervention means that the letter going to Romeo is a day late with one thing leading to another, this is eventually the cause of his false interpretation of Juliet’s “Death” – based on what he’d been told by a friend – and therefore, his suicide.
In addition to the commentary of what will happen during the plot, there is also another example of how, even from birth; the lives of Romeo and Juliet were laid out for them:
“From forth the fatal loins of these two foes”
(Prologue, Line 5)
Shakespeare here refers to the warring Capulet and Montague families. Clearly, key to the theme of destiny here is the use of the word “fatal” as a description of the enormity of the birth of Romeo and Juliet in terms of destiny. This is also a key link to the rest of the play as an initial sense of the feud going on in the town of Verona between the families which has an enormous influence on the plot, for example, it’s the main cause of Romeo and Juliet not being allowed to see each other, forcing them to fake Juliet’s death so that they can be together, ending eventually in tragedy.
The hatred between the two families is inherent and presented in such a way that it appears that many; particularly the younger generation, don’t even understand why they loathe each other:
“The quarrel is between our masters, and us their men”
(Act One, Scene One, Line 18)
This is part of the initial dialogue of Act One, between two servants of the Capulet’s, Sampson and Gregory. It is a good display, that even down to the lowest levels of the two families, a natural hatred is felt for each other. It is recognised that the feud is between their masters but that it’s their duty as servants of the house to take part and assault Montague’s whenever possible, indeed, at this occasion, a fight ensues not long after this dialogue. In terms of destiny, this inherent force can be seen as one controlled by destiny, and that by carrying out a relationship with Juliet, Romeo is in fact defying the path that has been laid out for him. This defiance is shown most clearly during the Act Five, Scene One where Romeo’s clear declaration – “Then I defy you stars!” – is that whatever fate has in store for him, he will try to overcome or face the consequences. This is, however, good evidence of his belief in the existence of fate that was introduce in Act One by his obsession with love and how it controlled him. In killing himself here, Romeo believes that he has conquered the idea of fate introduced in Act One by taking control of his own life. It can be interpreted however, that the path of fate leads to his death anyway, and this is just the destined way of carrying that out.
During Act One, leading up to the party, Romeo spends most of his time complaining about his broken heart and generally showing the audience how he is fixated by love:
“Ay me, sad hours seem long”
(Act One, Scene One, Line 156)
This is the dialogue as the audience first meets Romeo; he is talking to his cousin Benvolio. His description of “sad hours” is in reference to how he has been awake since the early house of the morning due to his lovesickness. Romeo’s fate can be interpreted as though he is destined to be obsessed with love and have his life guided by this. Indeed this becomes true, as it is due to Romeo following his heart that decides the plot of the play. During the dialogue between the two towards the end of Scene Two the audience learns of how Romeo is failing in his quest to marry Rosaline. This, to Romeo, signals the end of his quality of life, if he can’t have Rosaline, it just isn’t worth living. Benvolio on the other hand, consoles Romeo, telling him that he should give up on Rosaline in order to go on a search for another suitable wife. Indeed, it’s Benvolio’s advice that results in the pair going to the Capulet’s party in Scene Five:
“Go thither, and with unattainted eye compare her face with some that I shall show, and I will make thee think they swan a crow”
(Act One, Scene 2, Lines 87-89)
What must be asked by the audience here is the question of whether the fact that an illiterate servant was sent by Capulet to hand out the invitations was simply human error, an oversight in the planning of the party or was it caused by the influence of destiny? A chain of many things must have gone wrong in for Romeo to end up going to the party. Either way, it was this fatal mistake that lead to Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio attending Capulet’s party. Surely Benvolio must have known when he persuaded Romeo to go to the Capulet party, that the only women they would meet would be Capulets.
At Capulet’s party, Romeo and Juliet meet and kiss for the first time, leaving the already vulnerable Romeo panging after her long after he leaves the party. Of note, is the fact that halfway through the party, Romeo realises that Juliet is a Capulet from Juliet’s Nurse, this is what causes him to rush away from the party. Likewise, after Romeo’s departure, Juliet learns of Romeo’s Montague blood.
Romeo’s final statement on the matter “my life is my foe’s debt” is a proclamation that now, whatever happens, the consequence of his courtship with Juliet in terms of his life, will be decided by the Capulet’s. It is however a blatant statement of defiance in the face of destiny, that he’ll go out against the grain and carry on seeing Juliet.
In Scene 4 of Act One, Romeo shows that he can foresee that something will happen at the party that will ultimately end his life:
“Some consequence yet hanging in the stars…Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen”
(Act One, Scene Five, Lines 106-113)
Again, we have here a reference to the stars. But Romeo, again defying destiny directs his comrades to lead him to the party for, he is so overcome by lovesickness, that he would sooner find a woman of the house of Capulet and die, than live forever more in his current state. This is reflected later on in the play in Act Two, Scene Seven, “Then love-devouring Death do what he dare” for Romeo, this is a direct challenge to the forces of destiny for it to do what it wants, he needs to love for without, he would sooner die.
Scene Three of Act One, is a prime example of how Shakespeare uses character to present the theme of controlling destiny through:
“I’ll look to like, if looking liking move…Than your consent gives strength to make it fly”
(Act One, Scene Three, Lines 98-100)
After a long conversation between Lady Capulet and Nurse about the subject of Juliet getting married, they eventually call her in to hear her reaction. Whereas Romeo is captivated by love and marriage, with those around him telling him to calm down, Juliet doesn’t seem unduly bothered. Yes, she’d love to get married; the idea is fantastic to her. However, she’s more willing to wait for the right man than simply marry Paris as her mother wishes. Both the Nurse and Lady Capulet believe hat Juliet is destined to get married, become a housewife and have many children at what is seemingly young age by today’s standards. Indeed I’d go as far as to say that the Nurse is fixated by the task of helping Juliet to settle down. However, the above quote is her final statement that on a compromise, she won’t promise to marry Paris but at the party, she’ll have a look around at the gentlemen on offer to her. Important here, is the idea of love at first sight. She suggests that she will decide upon a gentleman however, not flirt with him outrageously. I think that this idea of a destiny as a housewife is quite typical of the time. However, Juliet, or at least someone in her position would probably have been expected to marry whom her mother told her to and not whom she wanted. This is a good example of Juliet’s submission to Nurse and it must be asked at this point if this shows a lack of Juliet’s control of her own fate.
Romeo, in comparison to Juliet not recognising that she can’t control her destiny, shows acknowledgement that he will go along with whatever fate throws at him, this perhaps comes from his awful lovesickness at the start of the play. His statements of how his life is controlled by fate at that stage are echoed in Act 3, Scene One, where during the fight that ensues here, he states “O, I am fortunes fool” this kind of language is very similar to the sort that he uses in Act One, he’s simply following his destiny now. Indeed, the scene itself is set well by Shakespeare to reflect the theme of destiny introduce in Act One. Another fight between the Capulet’s and the Montague’s. This time, Mercutio, very close to Romeo’s heart gets murdered causing Romeo to murder Tybalt, eventually leading to the Prince, the representation of law and order in the world exiling Romeo from Verona. Again, another chain of events is presented by Shakespeare that will have great effect on the climax of the story, the centre of all the pathways of destiny; the crucial moments in which the ill informed Romeo chooses death (and therefore the conquering of destiny) over a life without Juliet.
What must be asked of the plan leading to the eventual deaths of Romeo and Juliet is about the involvement of Friar Lawrence. His plan of action to get the two out of Verona is extremely complicated and carries many risks. Surely a man of his wisdom should show more sense given the many unknown things that could go wrong. However, the faking of Juliet’s death goes ahead and as predicted, an unforeseen circumstance ruins the Friars plan and Romeo and Juliet die.
The final chilling reflection of destiny, introduced in Act One comes at the very end of the play in Act Five, Scene Three. Upon learning of the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, the two families flock to grieve. On page 120 the Prince resuscitates the prediction of the prologue that named the relationship between Romeo and Juliet as a “Death Mark’d Love”, he places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the two feuding families:
Capulet, Montague? See what a scourge is laid upon your hate”
In other words, the two families should feel ashamed of themselves for not having recognised the beautiful thing that is love, that was blossoming right in front of them. Instead they decided to persecute the young couple for their feelings. The extreme measures that they had to go to in order to carry on their relationship were caused by the fear of their families’ potential actions and in the end; it was one of these extreme measures that killed them.
In conclusion, Shakespeare presents destiny through the uses of language, character, plot and setting. Many of the ideas introduced in Act One are echoed later on in the play seemingly to establish more firmly the hand that destiny plays in the story of the love struck couple. The various chains of events that mean that Romeo and Juliet’s relationship is fundamentally doomed are, as far as I can see, through Shakespeare’s presentation, the result of destiny. To the contemporary audience also, this would be a believable explanation of the plot. For the more sceptical modern audience, there may be arguments that events – such as the illiterate servant inviting Romeo and Benvolio to the party and the Plague in Mantua that resulted in Romeo finding out the wrong information about Juliet – are in fact caused by human error and oversights in planning (such as those committed by Friar Lawrence).
However, for me the overwhelming argument is that yes, some things may be down to more mortal reasons but the overriding theme, especially in the context of this play gears the audience towards a belief in fate. Therefore, any human error simply comes under the theme of destiny, if a couple are destined to die, than the supernatural powers that decide their fate will make sure of this through whatever means necessary, including manipulating human will to create a chain of important events that lead to death.
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