One of the most important issues in the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is that of choice. Do the characters have the ability to choose what they want to do, or are they simply destined to participate in death and destruction? There is ample evidence of both fate and free will in the play, and the presence of both greatly affects the interpretation of the plot and the characters.
Fate as a dominating force is evident from the very beginning of the play. The Chorus introduces the power of fortune in the opening prologue when we are told that Romeo and Juliet are “star-crossed” (destined for bad luck) and “death-marked,” and that their death will end their parents’ feud. Fate and fortune are closely related in the play, as they both concern events that are out of human control. By telling us that Romeo and Juliet are destined to die because of their bad luck, Shakespeare gives us the climax of the play before it even begins. This strategy, which seems odd considering the end has been spoiled for the audience, serves two purposes: it allows the introduction of the power of fate and fortune over people’s lives by declaring the fate of Romeo and Juliet at the very beginning, and it also creates tension throughout the play because they very nearly succeed despite this terrible declaration. Thus the opening prologue sets up the fate/free will problem.
The characters themselves all believe that their lives are controlled by destiny and luck, and Romeo is a prime example of this. When Romeo and his friends journey to the Capulet’s ball in Act I, scene iv, Romeo hesitates to go because he has had a bad dream:
...[M]y mind misgivesSome consequence, yet hanging in the stars,Shall bitterly begin his fearful dateWith this night’s revels and expire the termOf a despised life, closed in my breast,By some vile forfeit of untimely death (I, iv. 106-111).
Romeo not only acknowledges the power of the stars, which tell what fate has in store through astrology, but he also believes that his destiny is to die. Romeo’s belief in fate also affects his interpretation of events. When Romeo kills Tybalt in Act III, scene i, he claims that he is “fortune’s fool” by having contributed to his own downfall. In Act V, scene i, Romeo demonstrates his belief in the power of dreams to foretell the future once again when he believes that he will be reunited with Juliet on the basis of another dream. However, when Balthasar informs him that Juliet is dead, Romeo once again rails against the power of fate: “Is it e’en so? Then I defy you, stars! / Thou knowest my lodging” (V, i. 24). Romeo finally tries to escape from his destiny at the end of the play by committing suicide to “shake the yoke of inauspicious stars,” ironically fulfilling the destiny declared by the Chorus in the opening prologue.
Other characters in the play believe in the power of fate as well. Juliet appeals to fortune when Romeo escapes to Mantua in Act III, scene v:
“O Fortune, Fortune! All men call thee fickle. If thou art fickle, what dost thou with himThat is renowned for faith? Be fickle, Fortune,For then I hope thou wilt not keep him longBut send him back” (III, v. 60-64).
Juliet demonstrates here that she not only believes in the power of luck and fate over her own situation, but that Romeo himself has faith in those concepts. Friar Laurence also shows his belief in the power of destiny over people. When Romeo runs to his cell after killing Tybalt, Friar Laurence acknowledges that Romeo does indeed have bad luck: “Affliction is enamored of thy parts, / And thou art wedded to calamity” (III, iii. ll.2-3). As a priest, Friar Laurence naturally believes that destiny exists, as God has planned out all events. However, the friar will also become a victim of fate by the end of the play. His letter to Romeo, which details Friar Laurence’s plan for Romeo to pick up Juliet at the Capulet tomb after she has awakened from the effects of the potion, could not be delivered because of the “unfortunate” quarantine of Friar John. Friar Laurence then has the misfortune of accidentally tripping over gravestones while running to meet Juliet, which delays his arrival until after Romeo has committed suicide. Friar Laurence recognizes the power of fate to overrule his good intentions when Juliet awakens: “A greater power than we can contradict / Hath thwarted our intents” (V, iii. ll.153-154). The fact that Friar Laurence, Juliet, Romeo, and the other characters in the play believe so strongly in fate and fortune is not surprising, given...
(The entire section is 1902 words.)
Romeo and Juliet: Essay Topics1) Discuss the character of Romeo and his infatuation with Rosaline. Does this weaken the credibility of the love he feels for Juliet?
2) Friar Laurence serves many dramatic purposes in the play. Examine the Friar and his role in Romeo and Juliet.
3) Mercutio is considered to be one of Shakespeare's great creations, yet he is killed relatively early in the play. What makes Mercutio so memorable a character?
4) Examine the role of women in Romeo and Juliet.
5) Romeo and Juliet are referred to as "star-cross'd lovers". Discuss the concept of predetermined destiny and how it relates to the play.
6) Discuss Juliet's soliloquy that opens Act 3, Scene 2, paying particular attention to its poetic merits and relevance to the overall play.
7) Many references are made to time in the play. Discuss the passage of time throughout Romeo and Juliet.
8) What sets Romeo and Juliet apart from Shakespeare's other great tragedies? In particular, what differentiates the young lovers from other Shakespearean heroes like Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet?
9) Mercutio gives a wonderful monologue on Queen Mab in Act 1, Scene 4. Examine this passage and discuss its literary qualities. Of what significance is Mercutio's speech to the overall play?
10) Juliet's suitor Paris is compared throughout the play to Romeo. Examine carefully the similarities and differences between the two young men who love Juliet.
Daily Life in Shakespeare's London
Life in Stratford (structures and guilds)
Life in Stratford (trades, laws, furniture, hygiene)
Stratford School Days: What Did Shakespeare Read?
Games in Shakespeare's England [A-L]
Games in Shakespeare's England [M-Z]
An Elizabethan Christmas
Clothing in Elizabethan England
Queen Elizabeth: Shakespeare's Patron
King James I of England: Shakespeare's Patron
The Earl of Southampton: Shakespeare's Patron
Going to a Play in Elizabethan London
Ben Jonson and the Decline of the Drama
Publishing in Elizabethan England
Religion in Shakespeare's England
Alchemy and Astrology in Shakespeare's Day
Entertainment in Elizabethan England
London's First Public Playhouse
Shakespeare Hits the Big Time