The play opens with a sonnet introducing the three main themes, and also informing the audience of how the plot would unfold. Romeo came from the ‘Montague’ family, and Juliet from the ‘Capuluet’, two houses involved in a long-term feud.
“A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life ;”
Shakespeare’s use of ‘star cross’d lovers’ portrays how the characters are opposed by, and will fight fate. The word ‘star’ could also represent this theme, as the word is a connotation of destiny such as in the phrase ‘it’s written in the stars’. This suggests their deaths were destined to take place. Another key idea Shakespeare has used is the singular word ‘life’, conveying that Romeo and Juliet’s love was so deep, their lives were entwined. An additional phrase in the prologue that states the lovers’ eventual death was due to fate is ‘death-mark’d’, enhancing the idea that it was not their fault.
Although the prologue in general claims fate was responsible for Romeo and Juliet’s death, there are counter arguments for this.
“Is she a Capulet?
O dear account! My life is my foe’s debt.”
The character Romeo speaks these words during the Montague’s party, very early on in the play. It is evidence he knows that by continuing his love for Juliet, trouble will erupt. The words ‘My life is my foe’s debt’ could be interpreted as foretelling the ending to the play, as he is saying he owes his life to his enemy.
Although Romeo and Juliet were well aware of the consequences of their relationship, they continued it, defying their parents’ trust. This is something that would have been highly frowned upon both at the time it was written, and the period in which it was set. Family would have been regarded as a high priority, especially as they were who generally arranged marriages, choosing someone specifically sufficient for the family. Both Romeo and Juliet abandon their families for each other.
“I’ll no longer be a Capulet.”
Shakespeare has written Juliet’s words in a way that they show determination, and that she treasures her very recently found love more than those who will be with her all his life. An audience of when the play was written may view this as a selfish act, that one could rid their family for their own benefit, and their actions would be greatly frowned upon.
The fact that Romeo and Juliet knew what their relationship could potentially lead to didn’t stop them, and they made the choice to continue it. Furthermore, this greatly contradicts that their death was a result of fate, because your destiny is said to be something uncontrollable, However when you make a choice, you are initially deciding how the future will plan out.
Nonetheless, there are two tolerant characters in the play that influence their choices. The first is Friar Laurence, who can be interpreted as Romeo’s father figure. He encourages their relationship, believing it to solve the family feud.
“Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,
And vice sometime’s by action dignified.”
The philosophical belief of the Friar is that evil can transform to good by the right action. In this case, Romeo and Juliet’s love will end the hate between the Montagues and Capulets, again evidence of a Love Vs Hate theme. Shakespeare has used a rhyming couplet to show the significance of the phrase, perhaps hinting to the end of the play. This is because the lovers’ deaths do eventually release the feud between the families, indicating that they are the “right” action.
“His help to crave and my dear hap to tell.”
Shakespeare’s use of the word ‘hap’ also draws the audience’s eye to the key themes of the play, and how the plot will unfold, as the word means fate. It can also convey that Romeo believes Friar Laurence holds his fate therefore could be portrayed that he was partly responsible for the lovers’ deaths. This supports the argument that they were indeed victims of fate, the fate that lay in the hands of the friar.
The other tolerant character in the play and also very close to Juliet is the Nurse, which shows a parallel relationship to that of Romeo and Friar Lawrence’s. The Nurse is a surrogate mother to Juliet, and in both relationships the parent-figure does the wrong thing for the right reason, thus a paradox. This is because both would never have imagined that by letting Romeo and Juliet continuing their relationship, it would consequence in their deaths.
A strong argument that Romeo and Juliet had themselves to blame for their fortune, is Tybalt’s killing. Had Romeo not killed the Capulet, his banishment would have not taken place and their lives may have been saved. This argument is expressed in the following quote.
” This day’s black fate on mo days doth depend;”
An audience would interpret this quote to state that the day Romeo killed Tybalt, would influence and effect the days to come. ‘Black’ denotes evil, and ‘bad’ which shows these days would be merciless. Shakespeare has also used alliteration at the end of the quote, which focuses the audience on the final words of the quote, setting out the rest of the play.
The character Romeo’s actions also only greatened the hate between the two families that shows he was also partly responsible for the deaths.
Although, ultimately this feud had nothing whatsoever to do with the lovers, as the prologue states ‘ancient grudge’. The hate already existing only commenced the chain of events leading up to their suicide, putting their families in the blame. It was this hate that killed their love, but their love that came out strongest and consequently destroying the original hate.
It is also interesting to examine the lovers’ beliefs.
“O, I am Fortune’s fool.”
These words, spoken by Romeo’s character shortly after killing Tybalt sum up their view. He has blamed the entire series of negative events on fate and refuses to accept any responsibility, even blaming Tybalt’s death on fate. He believes he is at war with fortune, and that it continuously plays around with him and his emotions.
“A greater power than we can contradict
Hath thwarted our intents :”
Shakespeare states that whatever the characters intended, fate has already ruined. The key factors of the play that lead up to the ‘star cross’d’ lovers’ deaths can be placed in a ‘responsibility pyramid’; with fate being the main cause, the Nurse and the Friar contributing but also Romeo and Juliet. Nonetheless, the choices that they made were what caused the run of tragic events, however without fate, the lovers would never have encountered the suffering they did. Therefore Romeo and Juliet were victims of events beyond their control, but also contributed themselves.