Fate and Free Will in Romeo and Juliet

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Fate and Free Will in Romeo and Juliet

By | June 2011
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One of the most important issues in the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is that of choice. Do the characters have the ability to choose what they want to do, or are they simply destined to participate in death and destruction? There is ample evidence of both fate and free will in the play, and the presence of both greatly affects the interpretation of the plot and the characters.

Fate as a dominating force is evident from the very beginning of the play. The Chorus introduces the power of fortune in the opening prologue when we are told that Romeo and Juliet are “star-crossed” (destined for bad luck) and “death-marked,” and that their death will end their parents’ feud. Fate and fortune are closely related in the play, as they both concern events that are out of human control. By telling us that Romeo and Juliet are destined to die because of their bad luck, Shakespeare gives us the climax of the play before it even begins. This strategy, which seems odd considering the end has been spoiled for the audience, serves two purposes: it allows the introduction of the power of fate and fortune over people’s lives by declaring the fate of Romeo and Juliet at the very beginning, and it also creates tension throughout the play because they very nearly succeed despite this terrible declaration. Thus the opening prologue sets up the fate/free will problem.

The characters themselves all believe that their lives are controlled by destiny and luck, and Romeo is a prime example of this. When Romeo and his friends journey to the Capulet’s ball in Act I, scene iv, Romeo hesitates to go because he has had a bad dream:

...[M]y 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 (l1. 106-111).

Romeo not only acknowledges the power of the stars, which tell what fate has in store through astrology,...
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