It has often been assumed that happiness is ‘the good’ and suffering its opposite. Hidden in this assumption is the belief that pain and suffering are loathsome, evil things. This is a belief that, coupled with the realities of the world, has troubled humans from the very beginning. The realization that the world is full of evil is a troubling one. It becomes truly terrifying for a given individual, though, when the suffering is seen as purposeless and the forces, whatever they may be, which determine ultimate reality are either indifferent toward, or else actively fighting against, said individual’s well-being and desires. This terrifying reality violently confronts the characters in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In this tragedy, Shakespeare depicts a world in which the agencies of Fate and Fortune dwarf that of the protagonists. The result: a play whose tragic outcome is primarily caused by the forces beyond human control which appear to be indifferent to the suffering of Romeo and Juliet. Using his characters as case studies, Shakespeare explores different responses, and their respective merits, to the bleak reality of indifferent cosmic forces and, ultimately, hints at the possible benevolence of said cosmic force(s).
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare describes a world in which Fate and Fortune, rather than human agency, are ultimately responsible for the events that transpire during the play. To be sure, neither Romeo nor Juliet is depicted as completely virtuous or wholly innocent. This has led some critics to argue that Romeo and Juliet, being “in the throes of young love,” have “come to ruin because of their intemperance” (Kottman 1). This reading is not completely without merit, nor is it without textual support. Romeo is essentially characterized as an embodiment of the passion of young love. The first time the audience is introduced to Romeo, he is sulking over unrequited love. This passionate engagement with love, and the female characters who inspire the sentiment in him, is a constant for Romeo throughout the play, though his passion is redirected in the midst of the tragedy. This personality trait leads Cosmic Indifference in Romeo and Juliet
Romeo’s well-informed, close friend Mercutio to describe Romeo quite simply as “a lover” (1.4.17). His passion is evidenced more clearly, though more indirectly, in his bold, romantic claims such as: “I am no pilot; yet, wert thou as far / As that vast shore washed with the farthest sea, / I should adventure for such merchandise” (2.2.87-89). This passion is by no means one-sided, however. Juliet’s passion, if not equal to that of Romeo, certainly rivals it. One of the clearest indications of this is her description of Romeo as the god of her idolatry (2.2.120). Friar Lawrence, who is well acquainted with the young lovers, sees their passion and warns them that “These violent delights have violent ends…” (2.6.9). While not completely unsupported by the text, viewing the tragic outcome of this play as being primarily caused by the intemperate passion of two young lovers requires ignoring a good deal of textual evidence that points toward Fate and Fortune as the real culprits. Moreover, it absolves the cosmic forces of their responsibility and entails missing out on the real tragedy of the play: “The tragedy is that fate as cosmic and social circumstance works against them [Romeo and Juliet] and does not allow them to prosper” (Waters 11).
With this bold claim made, that Fate and Fortune are the primary agents responsible for the demise of Romeo and Juliet, it is now necessary to defend it. First off, ‘negative’ arguments can be made. This type of argument requires demonstrating that the hypothesis which claims Romeo and Juliet’s downfall is caused by their own intemperance is an insufficient explanation. For example, the question arises: Is Romeo responsible for his sensitivity and near, if not full-on, obsession with love? If not, it appears unreasonable to blame him for his own demise. In other words, if Romeo acts passionately as a result of Fate, rather than his own free will, the blame appears to rest squarely on Fate rather than on Romeo. It seems plausible that Fate, or even Fortune (chance), manipulates Romeo’s personality, from the outset of his existence, so as to bring about its own ends. However, this argument would essentially be a dismissal of human free will and a subsequent adoption of hard determinism. While hard determinism is a philosophical stance that is taken, it does not seem to be Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare certainly emphasizes the role of Fate as well as chance, but he does not do so to such an extent that he completely excludes human free will and moral responsibility. Consequently, this argument fails since the goal of this essay is to determine Shakespeare’s intent in the play.
There remains another, more plausible, ‘negative’ argument. Juliet’s actions, including her passion, seem to be influenced by concrete external circumstance in the form of an oppressive social reality. As such, insofar as social circumstance can be considered the result of Fate, her passion toward Romeo is significantly formed by Fate. It would be unfair, based on the text, to claim that Juliet is not genuinely interested in Romeo. However, it cannot be ignored that her relationship with Romeo offers the promise of an additional benefit: partial freedom from Veronese patriarchy and an escape from the oppression and unhappiness she fears will accompany an unwanted arranged marriage. Despite Capulet’s claim, early on in the play, that he will not force Juliet to marry someone without her consent (1.2.16-17), he later acts in opposition to this promise by insisting that she marry Paris. With this in mind, it becomes difficult to blame Juliet for her passionate pursuit of Romeo. It would appear that external circumstance has offered her two undesirable fates: she can choose unhappiness and forfeit her autonomy in an arranged marriage or she can cling to the happiness she finds with Romeo, though this will eventually result in her suicide.
The last ‘negative’ argument which attempts to undermine the strength of the hypothesis that the unchecked passion of the young lovers is the true cause of their tragic end, and, thus, to indirectly argue for Fate and Fortune as the true cause of their demise, is a rather simple one. The argument is as follows: many individuals have been seduced by the promises of passion. Despite this, most young lovers do not end their lives in suicide. This is either because their passion is not as intense as that of Romeo and Juliet, or else because external circumstance has functioned in conjunction with their passion to bring about their demise. In the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, the latter situation appears to be an accurate description of Shakespeare’s plot.
While these ‘negative’ arguments certainly have weight, the more compelling arguments which support the view that Fate and Fortune are the true causes of Romeo and Juliet’s tragic end are ‘positive’ in nature. ‘Positive’ arguments, in this context, are those that point toward specific passages in the play which claim, either explicitly or implicitly, that Fate and Fortune (forces outside human control) are ultimately responsible for Romeo and Juliet’s ruin. Passages which point to this conclusion are numerous and are found consistently throughout the play. In the prologue, the Chorus claims that Romeo and Juliet are “A pair of star-crossed lovers” who will end up taking their own lives (1.Prologue.6). The Chorus presents the suicides of both Romeo and Juliet as inevitable and attributes their ruin to the workings of the stars, not their own free will or intemperance. This is also seen in Romeo’s fear that, “Some consequence yet hanging in the stars / Shall bitterly begin his fearful date / With this night’s revels…” (1.4.114-16). Again, it is the stars, which “symbolize fate as external circumstances both cosmic and social” that determine the course of events (Waters 7). Toward the end of the play, in Romeo’s final monologue, he declares that his suicide is an attempt to “shake the yoke of inauspicious stars” (5.3.111). The imagery of a yoke makes it seem as if Romeo is little more than a helpless creature forced to do the bidding of his master, in this case Fate. For Romeo to arrive at this conclusion seems fairly convenient, however. His actions have contributed to the suffering, and in some cases death, of himself, his lover, his lover’s cousin, his lover’s nurse, his lover’s parents, his own parents, his good friends, and the Prince of Verona. As such, it is psychologically soothing for Romeo to be able to blame this suffering on forces beyond his control. With such a vested interest in the answer, how can the reader trust Romeo to answer this question in an objective and trustworthy manner? The answer: she cannot. Still, it would appear that Shakespeare has provided the reader with enough evidence, independent of Romeo’s testimony, which points to the conclusion that the combined agency of Fate and Fortune is much greater than that of impotent humans. First off, the impartial chorus claims that Romeo and Juliet are star-crossed and death-marked. This is a more objective, and seemingly more trustworthy, testimony. Moreover, even when the characters act in accordance with their good intentions, such as when Friar Lawrence weds the young lovers in an attempt to reconcile the Montagues and Capulets and when Romeo attempts to break up the duel between Mercutio and Tybalt, their good intentions result in tragic outcomes. In two lines, Friar Lawrence sums up the play as well as the respective agencies of cosmic forces and humans quite nicely: “A greater power than we can contradict / Hath thwarted our intents” (5.3.158-59).
Fate is not the only cosmic force working to bring about the tragic end of Romeo and Juliet. Chance, often described as Fortune or the doings of the goddess Fortuna, also plays an integral role in their demise. Ruth Nevo, for example, argues that “The plot of Romeo and Juliet stresses the accidental” (1). She goes on to substantiate this claim with evidence from the play. She cites, “The fortuitous meeting of Romeo and Benvolio with Capulet’s illiterate messenger bearing the invitations he cannot decipher, the chance encounter between Romeo and Tybalt at a most unpropitious moment,” and “the outbreak of the plague which quarantines Friar John” as prime examples of this (Nevo 1). It must be noted that Chance, if it can be personified, is not concerned with the well-being of the play’s characters despite initially appearing to be. The chance encounter between Romeo/Benvolio and Capulet’s illiterate messenger results in Romeo attending the Capulet party which results in him falling in love with Juliet and being lifted of the melancholy that resulted from Rosaline’s unrequited love. Ultimately, though, the combination of chance instances contributes to the demise of Romeo and Juliet and the suffering of those they come in contact with.
With these two realities established: that cosmic forces outside of human control are primarily responsible for the play’s ending and these forces appear, at best, to be indifferent to human suffering, Romeo and Juliet can be seen as a tragedy that explores how to respond to such an unfortunate state of affairs. Shakespeare primarily explores this issue through the characters of Romeo, Juliet, the Nurse, and Friar Lawrence. A few solutions are offered. In general terms, there are two types of solutions: passive and aggressive. There are really only two passive solutions to a tragic, unavoidable fate: stoic acceptance/resignation and lament. None of the characters seem to take the first option, though Romeo and Juliet are certainly fond of the second, at least initially. For example, Juliet invites Friar Lawrence to “Come weep with me, past hope, past care, past help” (4.1.46). As a result of their laments and tears, both are accused of being over-indulgent in their self-pity and of weeping excessively. When it comes to aggressive solutions, there are more options. The most common aggressive solutions in Romeo and Juliet are praying to the cosmic forces, scheming in attempt to thwart Fate, drinking alcohol, cursing the stars, and rebelling against Fate in the act of suicide. However, none of these solutions, save for suicide, allow the sufferer to escape their suffering during the tragedy. The cosmic forces do not answer Romeo when he asks for “he that hath the steerage” of his course to direct his sail (1.4.119-20). The schemes of Friar Lawrence, who desires to bring about the happy marriage of Romeo and Juliet, are frustrated by Fate and Fortune, and Romeo and Juliet end up dead. The Nurse drinks aqua vitae (4.5.19) and Romeo denies the stars (5.1.25). In the end, though, all of these attempts to avoid the tragic ruin brought about by cosmic forces indifferent to human suffering are unsuccessful. These are all attempts to win a losing match, a thing that cannot be done. The only solution that truly remedies the suffering is suicide. Ironically, “the ‘inauspicious stars’… use their deaths for its own ends” (Waters 7). Even the act of rebelling against Fate is used by Fate for its own ends.
At the end of the tragedy, Shakespeare casts doubt on the prevailing assumption that Fate and Fortune are indifferent to the suffering of humans. He does this by ending the tragedy with the reconciliation of the Montagues and the Capulets. This ending was foretold in the Prologue where the Chorus declares that Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers, “bury their parents strife” with their death (1.Prologue.8). Still, the ending is intentionally unsatisfactory for the reader as well as for the remaining emotionally invested characters. As Kottman puts it, “The objective outcome—civic peace—stands removed from the heart of our real dramatic investment. We did not really care whether Capulet and Montague could be reconciled to one another; indeed, for Capulet and Montague the ‘glooming peace this morning with it brings’ is not worth the price” (2). It may be that in the long run, the civic peace will result in the greatest possible happiness for the city. It may be that the cosmic forces truly are concerned with the well-being of humanity. However, save for a brief glimmer of hope at the end of Romeo and Juliet, this is not the case. For the most part the Montagues and Capulets depicted in the tragedy are forced to endure unredeemed suffering.
In Romeo and Juliet, Fate and Fortune have the ultimate say in the outcome of events. In contrast, humans are essentially impotent. This distribution of agency is not necessarily unfortunate for humans. However, Shakespeare describes a world in which the powerful cosmic forces appear indifferent to the suffering of Romeo and Juliet. This leaves the characters in an incredibly tragic situation, a situation in which there is no higher power acting to remedy their suffering and promote their flourishing. Shakespeare explores possible responses to this bleak reality. In the end, suicide is the chosen path for both Romeo and Juliet. While suicide ends the suffering, not even this act of existential rebellion proves successful in thwarting the tragic outcomes determined by Fate and Fortune. As the tragedy comes to a close, Shakespeare ends on an ambiguous note. Civic peace is attained, though the costs are quite high. Are the costs so high that the cosmic forces cannot reasonably be seen as benevolent? Shakespeare does not provide a conclusive answer to this tough question, though the structure of the tragedy hints at cosmic indifference if not malice.
Kottman, Paul A. “Defying the Stars: Tragic Love as the Struggle for Freedom in Romeo and Juliet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 63.1 (Spring 2012) 1-38.
Nevo, Ruth. “Tragic Form in Romeo and Juliet.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 9.2 (Spring 1969): 241-258. Rpt. in Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Michelle Lee. Vol. 87. Detroit: Gale, 2005. Literature Resource Center. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011. Print.
Waters, D. Douglas. “Fate and Fortune in Romeo and Juliet.” Upstart Crow 12 (1992): 74-90. Rpt. in Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Michael L. LaBlanc. Vol. 76. Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.