The chorus introduces the play by the prologue where it stakes: ‘A pair of star crossed lovers take their lives.’ It is revealed straight away that fate and destiny are against Romeo and Juliet. This was Shakespeare’s idea of tragedy. Through no fault of their own, circumstances are repeatedly arranged against them.
In Romeo and Juliet chance is paramount. Romeo’s impetuosity may contribute something to the tragedy, but the marriage is not a wrong decision. It may have been an unwise decision to get married, but the price they pay far exceeds what they should incur. It is fate which determines that the lovers should be born of enemy families.
This is certainly how Romeo and Juliet speak of themselves. When Juliet learns she must marry Paris, Juliet exclaims in despair that she is the weak victim of fates schemes: ‘Alack, alack, that the heaven should practice Stratagems/ Upon so soft a subject as myself!’ Shakespeare’s presentation thus invites sympathy, and is quite unlike the moral indignation of his source, the poem by Brooke.
Fate and Destiny were more important to the Elizabethans as they thought that different moons and stars directly affected human behaviour. They believed fate was fixed and could not be changed.
Today we do not take the idea of fate so seriously and we believe we are largely responsible for our own ‘destiny’. A contemporary audience would think the feud between the two households would be more of a problem to overcome that the notion that they were ‘star crossed lovers’. A contemporary audience would also examine the theme of ‘timing’ – in particular bad timing – as an area responsible for turning a love story into a tragedy.