Are Romeo and Juliet’s fates sealed from the very beginning?Posted: Thursday 6 August 2015
I first saw Romeo and Juliet in primary school. My friends and I watched the Baz Lurhmann film version at a sleepover. Everyone was obsessed with Leonardo DiCaprio and none of us knew how the story ended. So you can imagine our heartbreak when the credits started rolling and we realised there would be no happy ending for the young lovers. Maybe if we’d focused more on the language and less on how dreamy Leo looked, we’d have realized that from the very start of the play, Shakespeare tells us that Romeo and Juliet don’t get to sail off into the sunset together. Which leads me to answer a big fat YES to this week’s question. And here’s why.
You know, that bit at the start of the play where we pretty much get told repeatedly that Romeo and Juliet are both going to die:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows;
Doth with their death bury their parents strife.
The fearful passage of their death-marked love;
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage….
Pretty clear, isn’t it? Look at those adjectives used to describe Roms and Jules! Star-crossed – meaning ill-fated, literally crossed or opposed by the stars. Misadventured – referring to bad fortune. Fate and death are introduced from the word go. Romeo and Juliet’s love is “marked by death” from the beginning.
Both Romeo and Juliet experience moments of foreboding where they intuit the tragedy that lies ahead of them. Early in the play, as Romeo prepares to attend the party where he will meet Juliet for the first time, he says:
…For my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night’s revels and expire the term
Of a despised life closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
Somehow, Romeo knows that this night is significant. Something big is about to happen and it’s going to lead to his death. But he pulls a Taylor Swift (shakes it off) and heads to the party anyway. Then later in the play, after R & J have gotten married and spent their first night together, as Romeo is leaving, Juliet suddenly says:
O God, I have an ill-divining soul!
Methinks I see thee, now thou art so low,
As one dead in the bottom of a tomb:
Either my eyesight fails or thou look’st pale.
Less than 48 hours later, this image is exactly what Juliet is met with when she awakens in the Capulet’s vault and finds Romeo dead by her side.
The Friar, along with Nurse, helps Romeo and Juliet. But he also constantly expresses unease at the startling speed and lack of moderation with which the lovers carry out their whirlwind romance. He – quite rightly – worries that tragedy could ensue and warns Romeo several times, like here:
These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume.
The crazy fast and intense way that Romeo and Juliet fall in love makes the Friar nervous, and it also has a supernatural quality to it, a sense of idea of predestination, fate – whatever you want to call it. Some power beyond any human control that decided these two young people would meet, marry and die within a matter of days. It doesn’t matter what they or those who love them do to try and change things, their fate is sealed. And this is exactly what the Friar discovers at the play’s conclusion:
A greater power than we can contradict
Hath thwarted our intents.
The Friar hoped R & J’s love could mean reconciliation between their warring families. He was close. It is in fact their deaths that “bury their parent’s strife.” Were the young lovers always fated to be a necessary sacrifice to finally bring about peace? Are their deaths a divine punishment handed out to both Capulets and Montagues for all the trouble and discord they have caused?
Despite all this, the magic of the play is that even knowing all of the above, even hearing all the warnings and references to fate and the stars, Shakespeare still gets us sitting in our seats hoping and wishing that somehow things could be okay after all. That Romeo might be able to “defy the stars.” That the timing should work out. That love will defy fate and there will be a happy ending after all. Which there so very, very nearly is.