Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: The Role of Fate and Free Will
The Power of Fate in the Elizabethan Era
During the Elizabethan era, it was a common belief that a person’s fate was predetermined. Many astrologers believed that the placement of the sun, moon, and stars could determine a person’s fate. The prologue of Romeo and Juliet implies that their love is death marked and that their actions are in control of a larger force. Several characters also hold fate accountable for their choices. By no means is the demise of Romeo and Juliet out of their control. It is not the wonders of fate, but it is the impulsive and desperate actions of the characters that bring about the downfall of Romeo and Juliet.
Shakespeare’s Portrayal of Fate and Decision Making
Throughout history, people have depended on fate as an excuse for their misfortune. In fact, during the Elizabethan era, predeterminism was such a common belief that it would have been considered odd for Shakespeare not to have included characters who strongly believed in fate. Romeo, Juliet, and Friar Laurence blame fate for their actions. Shakespeare’s characters are impulsive decision-makers who act on their emotions and feelings. Most of their decisions throughout the play are made in the heat of the moment. As a result, the characters, along with their friends and family, suffer unimaginable consequences.
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Characters’ Justifications: Blaming Fate Over Free Will
Shakespeare’s characters repetitively used fate as an excuse for their poor choices by stating that the situation was simply out of their control. Romeo uses fate to justify his reckless actions instead of taking responsibility. He specifically refers to his unluckiness in being forced to kill his new wife’s cousin when he cries out, “Oh, I am fortune’s fool!” Romeo believed that his fight with Tybalt was unavoidable, that it was his destiny. Juliet also made many thoughtless decisions and blamed them for her unavoidable fate. Upon first seeing Romeo at the party, Juliet tells the nurse to “Go ask his name, if he is married. My grave is like to be my wedding bed.” Here Juliet foreshadows her own death. Juliet understands that marrying Romeo will have terrible consequences, but she willingly chooses to marry him anyway.
Friar Laurence as well contributes greatly to the deaths of the two lovers. Friar Laurence holds fate accountable by exclaiming, “Unhappy fortune! By my brotherhood, the letter was not nice but full of charge, of dear import, and the neglecting it may do much danger.” When Friar John tells him the letter couldn’t be sent, Friar Laurence blames “unhappy fortune” instead of himself. Also, when Friar Laurence finds the two lovers dead, he blames their deaths on “lamentable chance” when he was the one who secretly married them and masterminded the plan in the first place. Again, another character implies that the situation was simply out of their control. By choosing characters who blame fate for their poor choices, Shakespeare insists that people need to take responsibility for their actions.
Conclusion: The Consequences of Rejecting Responsibility
In conclusion, the characters from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet used their free will to make impetuous choices, which ultimately led to their downfall. The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet could easily have been avoided if the characters had thought rationally. Shakespeare relays an important message throughout the story. If you don’t take responsibility for your actions, your poor choices will lead to bad consequences. All in all, free will is to blame for the foolish characters’ reckless decisions and has led to the demise of Romeo and Juliet.
- Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Folger Shakespeare Library, 2004.