Jean de La Fontaine once said “A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” This quote captures the essence of free will versus fate: voluntary choices that a person thinks they are making versus a predetermined outcome that is outside anyone’s control. This conflict is best exemplified in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy about two star-crossed lovers who died despite their best efforts to be together. Shakespeare shows how fate and destiny are inescapable and outcomes, including death, are predetermined irrespective of the choices and decisions that people make.
Fate casts its net by controlling the timing of the various events in the play which in turn setup the predetermined outcomes. A good example of this, is the letter that Friar Lawrence tries to send to Romeo. Because of the timing of the outbreak of plague, Friar John becomes quarantined, and the letter informing Romeo of Friar Lawrence’s plan cannot be delivered. When Friar Lawrence hears that the letter never got to Romeo, he says “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” (5.3.17). Friar Lawrence refers to “fortune”, or fate, as the reason that Romeo did not get the letter which resulted in the tragedy. Of all the timing issues in Romeo and Juliet, the cruelest one is when Romeo drinks poison just before Juliet wakes up. Friar Lawrence captures the situation succinctly by saying “A greater power that we can contradict hat thwarted our intents.” (Act 5/Scene3: 281; 135-156). Friar Laurence is stating that a greater power, fate, has ruined their plans, and had made Juliet wake up after Romeo kills himself. As we can see many events and coincidences were guided by fate. Fate wanted to bring the Capulet families together but with the loss of two lives, as stated in the prologue “Doth with their death bury their parents strife.” (Prologue: 9; 8)
From the outset of the play, fate had decided a tragic ending for the star-crossed lovers and used dreams, omens, visions and premonitions to foreshadow the future to the characters and the audience. An example of fate foreshadowing the future is when Romeo says that he “dreamt a dream tonight” while heading to Caplet’s feast.
I fear too early, for my 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 despisèd life closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But he that hath the steerage of my course
The dream is a manifestation of fate, and forewarns Romeo about his eventual untimely death at the end of the play. Another example is when Juliet dreams about Romeo’s death. She says “O God, I have an ill-divining soul! Methinks I see thee, now thou art below, As one dead in the bottom of a tomb: Either my eyesight fails, or thou look’st pale (3.5.56). Fate is foreshadowing Romeo’s death by sending sub-conscious messages in Juliet’s dream about its intentions.
Fate makes one do things that they did not want to do or even know they were doing. Once instance of this is when Tybalt is killed by Romeo even though he didn’t want to. When Tybalt insults Romeo, he responds saying “I do protest I never injured thee But love thee better than thou canst devise Till thou shalt know the reason of my love.” (3.1.69). Romeo does not accept Tybalt’s insult and asks him to calm down. Even though Romeo wants to have peace and not fight, fate creates circumstances where Tybalt kills Mercutio and Romeo kills Tybalt in anger. Immediately after, Romeo says “O, I am Fortune’s fool! (3.1.142). Romeo blames Mercutio’s death on “Fortune” or fate as he did not want to kill him. Fate also makes Peter run into Romeo and Benvolio and not anyone else on the streets of Verona. If it wasn’t for this chance meeting, Romeo wouldn’t know about the Capulet party or go there to meet Rosaline, his unrequited love. Benvolio tells Romeo to “Go thither and with untainned eye compare her (Rosaline’s) face with some that I shall show. Fate once again created the circumstances for Romeo and Juliet to meet at the party, even though it wasn’t Romeo’s intention. Both these examples show how fate creates circumstances that the protagonists cannot control.
Shakespeare shows how fate is an unstoppable power beyond anyone’s control and how the characters in the play are ineffective and helpless against its cruel ploy. Shakespeare shows that fate can manifest itself in the form of dreams, creating circumstances and controlling the timing of events. Shakespeare demonstrates that fate is predestined, and that everything is controlled by something outside our control. As in Romeo and Juliet, there are times in our lives when the outcomes are predetermined and the best thing that people can do is to not fight it but enjoy the moment. Fate plays a role in everyone’s lives; no matter how hard one tries, they will never escape the clenching hands of fate.
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