Romeo & Juliet Essay

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A high school, freshman year, english essay discussing the effect of the theme of fate in Romeo and Juliet, in terms of context, language, and structure.

Submitted: April 03, 2017

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Submitted: April 03, 2017

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How does Shakespeare portray fate in Romeo and Juliet?

William Shakespeare has a number of famous plays, one of which is the iconic but tragic tale of two lovers called ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Throughout this play he portrayed the dominant theme of fate using formal and poetic language to help convey and increase its effect, as well as taking into account society’s belief systems and their dependence on fortune. He knew that since religious views, astrological interests, and superstition impacted the lives of the people of the 16th century; fate would be an important theme to maintain and focus on throughout the play. He could be sure that his Elizabethan audiences would prefer and enjoy the theme of destiny rather than themes of free-will and determinism. As a result of this, the playwright made fate play a major role in his performance because his audience would be able to relate and compare themselves to the fact that Romeo and Juliet were ruled by fate and destiny – just as the audience themselves thought they were. This infamous love story would have ended in a very different way if the characters’ fate was not preordained – but then again it might not have ever reached our ears if their fate followed a less lethal path.

At the beginning of his play, Shakespeare begins to boldly portray the prevalent theme of fate in his sonnet of a prologue specifically in the following line; “A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life”. Not only are there literary devices cleverly incorporated to convey fate, but the line also refers to the lives of his Elizabethan audience. The foreshadowing in this extract is evident as although the playwright does not reveal where and due to which circumstances the deaths occur; he does however reveal that the lovers do indeed die through suicide when writing ‘lovers take their life’. Although the prologues of his plays generally intended to reveal the story, they should still be considered as containing heavy foreboding. This specific line surpasses the strength of the other multiple forewarning lines he used in this prologue. This is also thanks to the effective use of an oxymoron that later became one of the most famous phrases of the performance; ‘star-crossed’. The positive word in this combination is star and then the negative is crossed but this is not the only thing that makes this a good oxymoron as the definition of the actual word refers to a person/people that have been ill-fated or unfortunate due to the stars and cosmological aspects and are likely to die. The fact that Romeo and Juliet are called ‘star-crossed’ and then immediately after this the crowd is told that they ‘take their life’, shows that their deaths were predetermined and that they were in fact crossed by the stars and destined to die. The Elizabethan population of the time had quite diverse beliefs compared to the ones people of today’s century have. They believed that their lives and fate were predestined by astronomy; especially by the stars and planets. Many wealthy Englishmen would even visit and pay astrologers for horoscopes to tell them if the stars favored the important decision they were about to make. Since philosophy and astrology impacted them so strongly, a line such as ‘star-crossed’ would most certainly appeal to them, agree with their opinions and give them the opportunity to relate with the characters through this portrayal of fate. The line also actually displays the conflict within the characters related to the storyline that link with their fate. As seen later throughout the story, Romeo and Juliet constantly find themselves being torn apart between pleasing and making their friends, family or their love happy. This is mostly because of their families’ ancient feud and of course fate, but their inner selves and soul is always in turmoil and in conflict. It manages to affect a lot of the decisions they make which end up of course affecting their relationship. The line suggests that as fate has had the lovers star-crossed from the beginning they were never meant to make it as a couple and these major conflicts add to their predestined downfall and to Shakespeare’s credit; a better plot.

Not far from the prologue, William Shakespeare makes another distinct reference to astrology and therefore destiny. This quote located in Act 1 Scene 4 was spoken by Romeo who was trying to persuade his friends that sneaking into the Capulet party was not wise based on a dream he had in which he saw that their actions would subsequently lead to something bad. Mercutio dismisses this and spouts a long speech regarding the fictional ‘Queen Mab’ whilst also making crude and sexual metaphors to mock Romeo. An important thing that Romeo mentions before they go to the party is that in his dream he could recall seeing “Some consequence yet hanging in the stars”. Not only is this another astrological concept, but this is also a very poetic line including personification by stating that the consequence is ‘hanging’. This specific literary device is one often used in poetry and helps to effectively convey the idea of fate throughout the Elizabethan period. The euphonical side to this line allows it to sound well to the ear when spoken by the actors and for this reason makes it more likely for it to stick in their minds, but also for it to appeal to them. It strengthens the playwright’s portrayal of the theme by getting the point across to the audience using this impressive diversity of language to help achieve that. Furthermore, the forewarning in this line is fairly obvious due to several signs pointing to the fact that they should not attend the party as for instance Romeo’s dream. It can also be deduced that as it is a Capulet party – Romeo and Juliet have the likely chance of meeting which is the starting point to their relationship and key to their ultimate deaths. Also seeing as the prologue reveals that Romeo and Juliet both die; going to the party will ultimately lead to his death because he will almost certainly meet her there. That is what the ‘consequence’ that he saw in his dream represents: his death. As mentioned previously, the Elizabethans had close beliefs in predetermined fate. The author quite clearly utilizes allusion to make a reference towards their everyday lives and faiths when saying ‘hanging in the stars’. Since the phrase hits exactly what the people thought, it along with ‘star-crossed’ become the starting row of bricks that build the relationship between the text in the performance and the audience’s life commitments. It continues to build up throughout the play as Shakespeare skillfully continues to add more indications to the public life. All of the details concerning whether the three friends attend the party and their hesitations heavily enrich his representation of fate.

The quite positively most famous scene - found in Act 2 Scene 2 - known as the ‘Balcony scene’ occurs shortly after the Capulet party in which Romeo and Juliet first meet. This is where the two of them express their love and intimate feelings towards each other and in the end also decide to marry despite their family’s feud. Romeo and Juliet both state a number of fateful lines with immense meaning and the occasional formation of a sonnet, with one however that specifically stood out in relevance with the theme spoken by Romeo; “What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!” The line is one of the many poetic complimenting phrases the two suitors exchange managing to beautifully combine a metaphor and a fateful meaning at the same time. The metaphor occurs when Romeo refers to Juliet as ‘the sun’. This line has a large link to fate because it discusses a planet to be specific the sun - that is not only the center and largest star of our solar system but is important symbolically in astronomy. The public back then relied on astronomical views, and the belief that the stars and planets especially were involved in the predetermination of their destinies. By calling Juliet his sun, Romeo is conveying just how important she is to him, like theological determinism to the Elizabethans, and that she is part of or is his fate and that they are meant to be together. The section of the sentence stating ‘what light through yonder window breaks’ specifically the breaking of the window in the quote means that things such as the death of Tybalt are happening throughout the course of their love and ever since they fell for each other things started falling apart and going downhill for both families – especially Romeo and Juliet themselves. Although calling Juliet his sun is a positive metaphor a deeper meaning can be interpreted nowadays; that the galaxy including the sun could be gone in a matter of hours or a matter of millenniums therefore it will never be there for eternity just like their love could last for a while or crumble quite fast. This also hints at their love being short-lasting which does in the end in fact happen to be their fortune. However, the people of the 16th century were not aware of this and had different views then we have now on the matter therefore Shakespeare did in fact metaphorically mean to say that their love is eternal. In relevance to this; the following statement Romeo speaks to Juliet “Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon” displays a firm bond with the previous line. It demonstrates use of personification when Romeo calls the moon ‘envious’. He is telling her to (since he called her the sun) to rise and with her beauty and blazing light to ‘kill’ and therefore outshine the moon that can only be jealous of her intense radiance. He is complimenting her appearance and conveying her importance to him. The sun and moon can be perceived as symbols of light and darkness both of which are two very contrasting notions that represent antithesis as Romeo is asking for Juliet to bring herself, his light, and block out the darkness around and to be the light in his life. It is a likely and possible implication that he does not want to be separated from her and wants her there with him for the rest of his journey through life to continue being his sun and light. He is showing that he wants to see her before him above anything else he wants to view so therefore telling her to ‘kill the envious moon’ with her perfections and rays of light and - referring to the scene asking her to finally come before him. Shakespeare creates a lovely contrasting set of lines that refer to the solar opposites of the sun and moon and light and dark, all undeniably significant cosmological concepts, that both include a metaphor personification, and antithesis. These set of heavily meaningful yet poetic lines blend the literary devices, and astrological antithesis together to produce magnificent language and in depth interpretations all to do with destiny.

After the iconic balcony scene Romeo does not meet another Capulet other than Juliet until Act 3, Scene 1 when Romeo refuses to fight Tybalt and so Mercutio takes his place falling to his death. Romeo seeks revenge for his fallen friend and proceeds to kill Tybalt after which he exasperatedly states: “O, I am fortune’s fool.” When saying this Romeo is basically calling himself a lucky fool and through this conveys that fate has decided that he shall survive and Mercutio won’t. Romeo’s thought process blames fate for choosing Mercutio to volunteer himself instead of Romeo and to therefore die in his place. Romeo is quite clearly extremely upset over the loss of his dear friend and his subsequent murderous actions, and is feeling waves of survivor’s guilt. Also, Romeo does not want to believe that his feelings have brought him to commit a murder and on top of it all kill a relative of his precious Juliet. This mixture of feelings and emotions he finds himself in after his actions, make him attempt to rid himself of the blame and reassure himself that the actions were not his. The issue with this is that he is not reassuring himself that it was not him that did it and that it was fate; he is downright fooling himself and just trying to throw this massive consequential load off his back. Shakespeare knew that if he made Romeo blame the situation on fate, that it would not only be a natural step and easy rid of the blame for the upset Romeo to do, but his Elizabethan audience would agree that it indeed was fate and everything that happened was preordained and meant to be. They would agree due to their beliefs in theological determinism and their immense dependence on fate and destiny. Due to their beliefs in fatalism many would agree with Romeo and his thoughts would appeal to them. This was a key goal of Shakespeare’s: to pull in his crowd’s interest and make them approve and like his work as well as of course when it comes to ‘Romeo and Juliet’, successfully display the theme of fate. Another helping hand in conveying fate in this situation was the oxymoron created where the author juxtaposes ‘fortune’ and ‘fool, to create one phrase that contributes to effectively demonstrate the emotional turmoil that Romeo is feeling. This at the same time links to fate because that emotional turmoil is (as mentioned previously) blamed on theological determinism. The clever choice to make this symbolic dialogue an illustration of alliteration was indeed a good one because it adds some euphony therefore gives it a ring when said aloud. There were and still are plenty of word alternatives that the author could have selected to use; but he chose to make this crucial scene and moment in the plot truly special. The combination of alliteration and oxymoron stand out amongst several others in sound, but also in the buildup and effective impact Shakespeare was aiming at his audience to try and make the story seem arranged and ruled by exactly the same as what their lives are; fortune. These techniques are used to increase this effect as they are a more perceptible and poetically appealing way to link his talents and the ongoing relevant theme.

A large leap from the lethal clash between the families to when the play begins to come to an end - the disasters predicted earlier start happening, and the following line declared by Friar Lawrence to Juliet in Act 5 Scene 3 is the one he states before revealing to her that Romeo and Paris have died: “A greater power than we can contradict hath thwarted our intents”. The friar means by this, that something bigger and more powerful than they can imagine had foiled their plans. The friar had come up with a smart but risky plan to get Romeo and Juliet together but he had never intended for the messenger to not reach Romeo – or in this unlikely case for Romeo to return and commit suicide! Matters got out of hand very quickly and went down one of the darkest paths possible which is why the friar referred to what caused it all as bigger and more powerful that can be imagined because of the catastrophe the situation turned out to be! Furthermore, the line is fateful for it answers and fulfills several of the predictions from earlier in the storyline and proves that Romeo and Juliet’s lives were indeed predetermined. Since throughout the entire play there were countless scenarios in which a fatal end to the lovers was predicted shows just how big of a role fate played in the lives of the Elizabethan people, and that this really was Romeo and Juliet’s destiny from the start. The playwright was obviously aware of his audience’s faith, and how much astrology and even religion meant to them which is why he used so many forewarning phrases in the play because he knew that when at the end they become true, the Elizabethans would adore the fact that Romeo and Juliet’s lives were destined to end this way from the beginning. To increase the intensity, seriousness, and sorrow in this line the author includes advanced and stronger diction such as ‘contradict’ and ‘thwarted’ to achieve the right effect and create a sense of tension along with the dramatic irony. The people watching already know about everything that has happened whilst Juliet was unconscious and so as she is about to discover this herself, Shakespeare has to build the suspense using the dramatic irony and the right terminology that leads to how Juliet reacts when she discovers her losses. Tone has a very strong influence in this matter which he must aim to create perfectly, because to all the people reading this piece of the Friar’s dialogue or have heard it in a live performance (that includes nowadays and back then) can really feel the sense of grave urgency and remorse in the way that it has been worded. The choice of diction allows this specific line to have this effect on people and encourages people to notice this constant motif throughout the play hinting at a disaster to occur. After several scenes of repeated forewarnings it is finally brought together after the dramatic build up into one major calamity of events and consequences. It further supports the preordainment of the characters’ lives and links in with the dictatorship of destiny.

The fateful story of two lovers who were never meant to fall for each other, and thus shared a world-famous forbidden love written by the well-known William Shakespeare displays the constant theme of fate, that helped bring it to its current fame. A wide diversity of language, and the inclusion of the very popular belief in theological determinism of the era helped the playwright to portray fate far more effectively and easily, but also allowed him to write with the style in which he truly excelled – poetry. For instance the metaphors and personification of the balcony scene, or the forewarnings in the prologue all effectively contribute to the exquisite poetry and ongoing theme of destiny. He was well aware of the Elizabethan population’s close feelings and dependence on astrological meanings and signs – especially those of which associated with the stars and planets. For this reason, he made sure to make fate one of his most prevalent themes in the story as he saw each day just how much the notion managed to control his fellow citizens. Themes of free will or determinism he knew would not be favored over fate as a result of this control it had over the people’s lives assuring him that he should not have the slightest doubts in whether the theme would be approved of or liked. Not only was he choosing a dominant theme that was so relevant, but it also gave the public an opportunity to relate with the characters; especially Romeo and Juliet themselves as they struggle to maintain their relationship amongst the surrounding family feud, and at the same time deal with their conflicting inner selves. The Elizabethan commoners could see themselves in their shoes, being ruled over by their predetermined fate as they watched the lives of the couple play out in front of them only increasing their liking in the performance, but also personal feelings and interest. Although they might have found it hard to imagine themselves committing suicide due to a large-scale misunderstanding they still understood how that misunderstanding and crescendo downfall occurred and though odd, Romeo and Juliet were meant to end this way. Their ends managed to impact their families and brought their multiple decade long strife to an end and realize their foolishness. The Elizabethan audience could only wonder, if all of what happened would have been different if astrology or religion had no impact on their lives? If the couple's fate had not been predetermined and if they had not been getting constantly torn apart between pleasing their friends and family- their doleful ends may not have been so fatal after all.



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