Fate in 'Romeo and Juliet'

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

Olivia Hussey
circa 1967: 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 sad 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 in the story of the two teenagers from Verona whose feuding families can't keep the pair apart.


Were Romeo and Juliet Fated to Die Together?

In the opening lines of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare appears to allow the audience to be party to 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.” Throughout the story, the audience is encouraged think about fate and to what extent our actions are free.

Because we know Romeo and Juliet’s fate from the outset we are constantly hoping that they will take a different course – perhaps that Romeo will arrive just after Juliet has woken. However, their fate is sealed and the audience is asked to question destiny and the ability to make free choices.

Scenes of Fate in Romeo and Juliet

When Mercutio shouts “a plague on both your houses” in Act 3, Scene 1, 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.

The idea of fate permeates many of the events and speeches in the play. Is it fate that Friar Lawrence’s plan to inform Romeo of Juliet’s faked death is not realized due to unforeseen circumstances? Is it fate that Romeo kills himself when he does?

Romeo and Juliet see omens throughout the play, continually reminding the audience that the outcome will not be a happy one.

Their deaths are a catalyst for change in Verona: the dueling families are united in their grief creating 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?

If we examine the play through another lens, however, there's some evidence to suggest that Romeo and Juliet's fates were not wholly predetermined, but rather a series of unfortunate and unlucky events.

For instance, much of the plot of the play hinges on Romeo's killing of Tybalt. But since Tybalt has just killed Romeo's close friend Mercutio, it makes sense that Romeo would seek revenge. This would hardly seem to be an example of something predetermined; both killings happen in the heat of the moment.

But it's hard to escape Shakespeare's opening words, telling the audience that the two were destined to die. A literal reading of the text leads us to conclude that the young star-cross'd lovers had the deck stacked against them before they ever met: their families' long-standing feud would have been an obstacle difficult for even the most devoted lovers to overcome.