In Romeo and Juliet, which is more powerful: fate or the characters’ own actions?
In the opening Prologue of Romeo and Juliet, the Chorus refers to the title characters as “star-crossed lovers,” an allusion to the belief that stars and planets have the power to control events on Earth. This line leads many readers to believe that Romeo and Juliet are inescapably destined to fall in love and equally destined to have that love destroyed. However, though Shakespeare’s play raises the possibility that some impersonal, supernatural force shapes Romeo and Juliet’s lives, by the end of the play it becomes clear that the characters bear more of the responsibility than Fortune does.
Though the Prologue offers the first and perhaps most famous example of celestial imagery in Romeo and Juliet, references to the stars, sun, moon, and heavens run throughout the play, and taken as a whole that imagery seems to express a different view of human responsibility. In Act 1, scene 4, Romeo says that he fears “some consequence yet hanging in the stars” when he and his gang approach the Capulet’s ball. In his next mention of stars, however, Romeo doesn’t refer to their astrological power. Rather, he uses the image of stars to describe Juliet’s otherworldly beauty. Most of the subsequent celestial images in the play follow in this vein, from Romeo’s love-struck comparison of Juliet to the sun to Juliet’s own wish to “cut [Romeo] out into little stars” when he dies. Throughout the play, these astral images are more often associated with the two lovers than with divine fate, emphasizing that, as the play’s action escalates, we cannot simply place the blame for the tragedy on some impersonal external force.
It’s true that Romeo and Juliet have some spectacularly bad luck. Tybalt picks a fatal fight with Romeo on the latter’s wedding day, causing Capulet to move up the wedding with Paris. The crucial letter from Friar Lawrence goes missing due to an ill-timed outbreak of the plague. Romeo kills himself mere moments before Juliet wakes up. It’s also true that the lovers aren’t solely responsible for their difficult situation: Their friends, their families, and their society each played a role in creating the tragic circumstances. However, even if we allow that fate or some other divine force caused Romeo and Juliet to fall in love at first sight, thereby setting the action into motion, Shakespeare makes it clear that the characters’ own decisions push that situation to its tragic conclusion. Either Romeo or Juliet, it is suggested, could have halted the headlong rush into destruction at any of several points.
Romeo’s propensity for rash action gets him—and his beloved—in a lot of trouble. His impulsiveness has made him a romantic icon in our culture, but in the play it proves his undoing. From the very beginning, Shakespeare cautions us not to view Romeo’s sudden fits of passion too idealistically—after all, Shakespeare makes a point to show that Romeo’s love for Juliet merely displaced another, earlier infatuation. Through his hasty actions, Romeo arguably drives the play toward tragedy more aggressively than any other character. He climbs over Juliet’s wall the night they meet and presses her to bind herself to him. He kills Tybalt in a blind rage. Then, thinking Juliet dead, he poisons himself. Romeo never thinks his actions through, and his lack of foresight makes him responsible for their dire consequences.
Though Juliet proves a strong-willed partner for Romeo, she bears less of the blame for their joint fate because she, at least, is wary of the speed at which they progress. In the balcony scene, she compares their love to lightning, which flares up suddenly but can just as quickly fade into darkness. Unlike Romeo, each of Juliet’s fateful choices is a logical response to a situation. She agrees to marry him because she needs evidence that he is truly committed to her. She takes the potion not out of despair, but because she believes Friar Lawrence’s plan will set things to rights. Though each of her choices ends up getting her and her lover deeper into trouble, those choices are at least the result of sober, careful reflection. Only when she sees her beloved dead does she succumb to his style of rashness, killing herself out of grief.
Romeo and Juliet concludes with a strong condemnation of the characters’ actions. In the closing family portrait, the Capulets and the Montagues gather around the tomb to witness the consequences of their absurd conflict. Even if you don’t believe that Romeo and Juliet could have saved themselves, you must admit that their families’ blind hatred caused the situation, not the gods. As the Prince notes, even “[t]he sun for sorrow will not show his head” on that tragic day—even the heavens are pained at the human foolishness they see below.