Destiny or Free Will?
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.
Examples of Fate vs. Free Will in “Romeo and Juliet”
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, but he also believes that his destiny is to die.
Romeo’s belief in fate also affects his interpretation of events. When Romeo kills Tybalt in Act III, scene i, he claims that he is “fortune’s fool” by having contributed to his own downfall. In Act V, scene i, Romeo demonstrates his belief in the power of dreams to foretell the future once again when he believes that he will be reunited with Juliet on the basis of another dream. However, when Balthasar informs him that Juliet is dead, Romeo once again rails against the power of fate: “Is it e’en so? Then I defy you, stars! Thou knowest my lodging” (1. 24). Romeo finally tries to escape from his destiny at the end of the play by committing suicide to “shake the yoke of inauspicious stars,” ironically fulfilling the destiny declared by the Chorus in the opening prologue. Other characters in the play believe in the power of fate as well. Juliet appeals to fortune when Romeo escapes to Mantua in Act III, scene v: “O Fortune, Fortune! All men call thee fickle. If thou art fickle, what dost thou with him That is renowned for faith? Be fickle, Fortune,
For then I hope thou wilt not keep him long But send him back” (11. 60-64). Juliet demonstrates here that she not only believes in the power of luck and fate over her own situation, but that Romeo himself has faith in those concepts. Friar Laurence also shows his belief in the power of destiny over people. When Romeo runs to his cell after killing Tybalt, Friar Laurence acknowledges that Romeo does indeed have bad luck: “Affliction is enamored of thy parts,/And thou art wedded to calamity” (Act III, scene iii, ll. 2-3).
As a priest, Friar Laurence naturally believes that destiny exists, as God has planned out all events. However, the friar will also become a victim of fate by the end of the play. His letter to Romeo, which details Friar Laurence’s plan for Romeo to pick up Juliet at the Capulet tomb after she has awakened from the effects of the potion, could not be delivered because of the “unfortunate” quarantine of Friar John. Friar Laurence then has the misfortune of accidentally tripping over gravestones while running to meet Juliet, which delays his arrival until after Romeo has committed suicide.
Friar Laurence recognizes the power of fate to overrule his good intentions when Juliet awakens: “A greater power than we can contradict/Hath thwarted our intents” (Act V, scene iii, ll. 153-154). The fact that Friar Laurence, Juliet, Romeo, and the other characters in the play believe so strongly in fate and fortune is not surprising, given the time period. Faith in destiny and luck was typical in the Renaissance, and Shakespearean audiences would not have questioned the dominance of these concepts in the lives of the characters.
Indeed, it would have seemed odd if the characters did not believe in the power of fate or in the ability of the stars to dictate lives. Not only does Shakespeare make the case for the power of fate in terms of the characters’ beliefs in the play, but he also strengthens it by including a multitude of ironic statements that predict events in the play. Romeo and Mercutio both predict their own deaths through their statements in Act I, scene iv, and Act III, scene 1, respectively, and Juliet foresees Romeo’s death in Act III, scene v.
Friar Laurence makes several prophetic statements throughout the play, including the infamous “Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast,” from the end of Act II, scene iii, which predicts the mistake that he himself will make at the play’s climax. Even Lady Capulet, in her anger over her daughter’s defiance, wishes that Juliet “were married to her grave,” in Act III, scene v, which will indeed become the case. Through these statements and the opinions of the characters themselves, Shakespeare would seem to indicate that the power of fate over humanity is unbreakable, and even the power of love cannot overcome it.
The power of fate to control our lives seems insurmountable in light of what the characters say in Romeo and Juliet, but when we consider what they actually do, the issue becomes much more problematic. Although Romeo professes a great belief in the power of the stars over his life, he constantly acts against what he believes his destiny to be. When he has the dream that he will die if he goes to the Capulet ball, he still goes, even though Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech has not impressed him.
Romeo knows that he should not engage Tybalt in Act III, scene i, and even notes that the consequences of fighting Tybalt will be dire: “This day’s black fate on moe days doth depend;/This but begins the woe others must end” (ll. 117-118). Romeo realizes that his actions and those of Mercutio and Tybalt will have repercussions, but he ignores them in order to exact his revenge for his friend’s death. This makes his complaint about being “fortune’s fool” questionable, as he had already perceived the consequences of his actions.
Romeo refuses to follow his fate in Act V, when, despite having a dream that predicted happiness with Juliet, he immediately attempts to procure poison in order to commit suicide without even questioning how Juliet dies or asking Friar Laurence for details. He also kills himself in order to escape fate, which cannot be possible if fate exists. If Romeo’s belief in destiny is as strong as he claims, he should not attempt to contradict it so often. This tendency to profess a belief in fate but act according to one’s own wishes is typical of more characters in this play than just Romeo.
The Capulets and the Montagues, who complain about their bad luck when their children commit suicide at the end of the play, are willing participants in the feud that causes the situation in the first place. Tybalt and Mercutio, who are technically not of either house and should not be involved in the feud, willingly fight each other because of their bad tempers. Friar Laurence, who states that Romeo has bad luck, tries to counteract it by helping Romeo escape to Mantua and by devising the plan to get Juliet there.
Friar Laurence also acts against his own advice when he runs, panicking, to Juliet’s tomb, only to stumble and delay his arrival. If he had followed his own advice, he would have arrived before Romeo commits suicide, and even possibly before Romeo kills Paris. Note that all of these characters choose their actions in these situations—no one has made the Capulets, the Montagues, Tybalt, or Mercutio participate in the feud, and Friar Laurence does exactly what he tells Romeo not to do by hurrying. The choices the characters eventually result in the deaths of Romeo and Juliet.
Juliet also acts according to her own mind, despite her belief in fate. Despite her love for Romeo, Juliet knows that a relationship with him is not the wisest choice: “Although I joy in thee, I have no joy of this contract to-night. It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden; Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be Ere one can say ‘It lightens’” (Act II, scene ii, ll. 116-120). Not only is a relationship with Romeo a bad idea because they have just met, but it is complicated even more by the feud.
Juliet chooses to pursue this relationship despite these problems, knowing that it may result in both of their deaths. When the Capulets demand that Juliet marry Paris so quickly after Tybalt’s death (which under normal circumstances would not have been done), Juliet chooses to allow Friar Laurence to concoct a plan to save her, which involves taking the potion. No one makes Juliet take the potion; she does so of her own free will. She also chooses to kill herself rather than confront her parents once Romeo has committed suicide.
All of the characters in the play have options, and it is their actions, which contradict their belief in fate, that lead to the deaths that occur. The problem of fate and free will in Romeo and Juliet is a difficult one indeed. There are obvious examples of “accidents” in the play: the servant who encounters Romeo and Benvolio and invites them to the Capulet party, the meeting of Romeo and Juliet, the quarantine of Friar John, and the presence of Paris at the tomb when Romeo arrives. These accidents and the beliefs of the characters in the power of fate and fortune suggest that Romeo and Juliet are indeed death marked.
There are, however, obvious circumstances where the characters choose their actions of their own free will: the feud itself, the decision of Romeo and Juliet to marry each other, the fight in Act III, scene i, and the suicides of Romeo and Juliet. The characters choose these actions of their own accord, and nothing has forced them to follow the paths they have chosen for themselves. What, then, is the “greater power” that the characters cannot contradict? The only definitive answer is the same as it is for any story: their author.