The standard takeaway of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is the tragic story of two helpless pawns playing a game they want no part of. Star-crossed lovers fated to meet, and doomed to die. Romeo and Juliet’s love embodies a tale that has been retold countless times in literature. Our lives are ruled, ultimately, by our fates; it’s a captivating cliche. The romantic concepts of love and fate in the story distract the reader from a veiled reality: life is guided by the decisions we make. Our protagonists chose to push the boundaries of their circumstances with no regard for the consequences. It’s not destiny in the driver’s seat, but a series of bad choices spurred by youth and the lack of someone keeping them in check.
Destiny is a looming influence on all of our lives; one cannot dictate where to be born, into what social class, or to whom. Nonetheless, while it’s grip on our lives can be stifling, it is but a fraction of the infinite factors that designate our life’s direction. Romeo and Juliet weren’t allowed the privilege of electing most aspects of their life: their alignments were forced upon them by a conflict borne generations before their own conception. What they were able to decide actually affected much more than their destinies ever could. Fate did not compel Romeo to court Juliet upon their meeting with “O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do.” (line 114) nor did it implore him to kiss her at all. The stars did not forge the two lover’s marriage, but, in Romeo’s own words, love did: “Do thou but close our hands with holy words, then love-devouring death do what he dare, it is enough I may but call her mine.” (lines 6-8) These decisions were entirely of his own free will. Irresponsible or youthfully foolish as they may be, destiny had not a single hand in them. The positions of their birth, although wretched, are the only instances in which Romeo and Juliet are “star-crossed.” Their autonomy as people grants them the power to spin their lives into much more than the enemies destiny would have them be.
It’s easy to think that fate or crossed stars were the architects of Romeo and Juliet’s demise, but they were more victims of their foolish youth than circumstance. While the polarity of their lives made the notion of love a recipe for disaster, their tragedy could have easily been diverted if not for some witless decisions. In a more modern context, one might only carry out a quick YouTube search to find countless 21st century Romeos and Juliets: immature, impulsive, and lacking the ability to temper their emotions or behavior. Exhibit A, the lovers betroth each other after less than a day of infatuation: “If that thy bent of love be honorable, thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow [...] And all my fortunes at thy foot I’ll lay, and follow thee my lord throughout the world.” (lines 150-151 + 154-155) Romeo and Juliet were almost complete strangers when they pledged themselves to each other. In their haste, they didn’t see value in weighing the consequences of their actions. If they hadn’t plunged head first into the deep end of the ‘marital pool’ so early in their relationship, they might have avoided drowning in their own stupidity. Moreover, in marrying Romeo, Juliet decided to turn her back on the traditional doctrine of arranged marriage, which was requisite for a girl of her station in society. Lady Capulet and the Nurse took great care in choosing a suitable man for Juliet to marry: Paris, in their opinion, was considered “ a man of wax,” (line 82) and an honor to be betrothed to. Juliet, in her significantly inexperienced perspective, didn’t possess the optics to see that one rebellious act could lead to a string of others, finally culminating in her ultimate demise. Destiny is what “happens” to people. Decisions, on the other hand, are an individual's expression of free will. Romeo and Juliet didn’t die because it was their “destiny”, they died because their choices had consequences.
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We must also consider the role adults played in this tragic tale. Romeo and Juliet were the equivalent of a runaway train, surrounded by adults who had the ability to pull the brakes, but didn’t. The nurse, a motherly figure to Juliet, did not warn her against the dangers of an ill planned affair; In fact, she assisted in perpetuating it, acting as a messenger between the lovers: “The clock struck nine when I did send the Nurse. In half an hour she promised to return.” (lines 1-2) As an adult, she should have known better than to allow Juliet to marry a man who was almost a complete stranger to her. Then, there’s the Friar, with delusions that marrying two ill-matched teenagers could somehow unite a deeply divided community: “For this alliance may so happy prove to turn your households’ rancor to pure love.” (lines 99-100) He put his own agenda before the safety and welfare of a couple hapless kids. In a sense, the senseless death of Romeo and Juliet weren’t the only tragedy of this story. The adults tasked to help these impressionable youths navigate the pitfalls of adolescence tragically failed them, too.
Romeo and Juliet is a textbook example of youth being wasted on the young. Two vibrant individuals unaware or unconcerned of their misguided, self-possessed nature. They met, and fell into what they thought was love, choosing to ignore all conventional wisdom in the process. The only role destiny played in their story was creating the backdrop for their foolish choices. Romeo and Juliet's actions went beyond the typical rebellious teen pathology. During the course of the play, you’re experiencing a tragedy unfolding, and feel a profound sense of helplessness to alter the outcome. Decisions have consequences that all the characters must own, regardless of their true intentions. Essentially, we are captain of our own ship, and that has nothing to do with destiny- and everything to do with the choices we make.
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