The Role of Fate in 'Romeo and Juliet'

Were the star-cross'd lovers doomed from the start?

British actors Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting join hands in 'Romeo and Juliet'.
Larry Ellis / Getty Images

There's no real consensus among Shakespearean scholars about the role of fate in "Romeo and Juliet." Were the "star-cross'd lovers" doomed from the start, their tragic futures determined before they even met? Or are the events of this famed play a matter of bad luck and missed chances?

Let's take a look at the role of fate and destiny in the story of the two teenagers from Verona whose feuding families couldn't keep them apart.

Examples of Fate in 'Romeo and Juliet'

The story of Romeo and Juliet asks the question, "Are our lives and destinies preordained?" While it is possible to see the play as a series of coincidences, bad luck, and bad decisions, many scholars see the story as an unfolding of events predetermined by fate. 

For example, in the opening lines of "Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare allows the audience to hear his characters’ destiny. We learn early on what is going to happen to the title characters: “a pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life.” As a result, the idea of a preordained ending is already on the audience's mind as the story plays out.

Then, in Act One, Scene Three, Romeo is already feeling that fate is planning his doom before the Capulet's party. He wonders if he should attend the party, as "my mind misgives / Some consequence yet hanging in the stars."  

In Act Three, Scene One, when Mercutio shouts “a plague on both your houses," he's foreshadowing what's to come for the title couple. This bloody scene in which characters are killed gives us a glimpse of what's to come, marking the beginning of Romeo and Juliet’s tragic downfall.

When Mercutio dies, Romeo himself foreshadows the outcome: "This day's black fate on more days doth depend / This but begins the woe, others must end." The others upon whom fate later falls, of course, are Romeo and Juliet.

In Act Five, when he hears of Juliet's death, Romeo swears he will defy fate: "Is it even so? Then I defy you, stars!" Later, as he plans his own death in Juliet's tomb, Romeo says: "O, here / Will I set up my everlasting rest, / And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars / From this world-wearied flesh." This brave defiance of fate is especially heartbreaking because Romeo's suicide is the event that leads to Juliet's death.

The idea of fate permeates through many of the events and speeches in the play. Romeo and Juliet see omens throughout, continually reminding the audience that the outcome will not be a happy one.

Their deaths are also a catalyst for change in Verona, as the dueling families become united in their mutual grief and create a political shift in the city. Perhaps Romeo and Juliet were fated to love—and die—for the greater good of Verona.

Were Romeo and Juliet Victims of Circumstance?

Other readers may examine the play through the lens of happenstance and coincidence, and thus conclude that Romeo and Juliet's fates were not wholly predetermined but rather a series of unfortunate and unlucky events.

For instance, Romeo and Benvolio happen to meet and talk about love on the very day of the Capulets' ball. Had they had the conversation the following day, Romeo would not have met Juliet.

In Act Five, we learn that Friar Lawrence's messenger to Romeo, who would have explained the plan of Juliet's pretend death, is detained, and Romeo doesn't get the message. If the messenger had not tried to find someone to accompany him on the trip, he would not have been held back.

Finally, Juliet wakes just moments after Romeo's suicide. Had Romeo arrived just a few moments later, all would have been well.

It is certainly possible to describe the events of the play as a series of unfortunate events and coincidences. That said, it is a much more rewarding reading experience to consider the role of fate in "Romeo and Juliet."