Most Elizabethans believed their self-identity was wrapped up in a cosmic paradigm of fate and destiny, and were somehow controlled by the stars and planets and had a power over the baser side of man -- tools of God, but with certain amounts of free will. Thus, a very central idea in Shakespeare is this central view that an individual's identity is set by God, the Planets, the Universe, the Gods, and Nature. But in contrast, the idea of free will for the individual -- or even a single utterance or decision, can change forever the destiny of the individual. A superb example of this is in Romeo and Juliet.
Fate and chance surround the identities of the major and minor characters in RJ almost from the opening scene. Because the audience already believed that their destiny was predetermined, they saw the characters as having very little choice in their situation. It was popular during the time to believe in the Biblical saying from Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you…"
Shakespeare sets the stage by letting the audience know that destiny and fate have already taken their toll for young Romeo and Juliet when the Chorus comments: "From forth the fatal -- of these two foes / a pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life / Whole misadventur'd...
It seems ironic that within the first few second of the play, the audience already knows that the lovers are doomed, and that fate has willed them together even though their families are fated to war.
However, the idea that fate ruled this, despite being set so strongly by Shakespeare, moves the drama forward in knowing that there are numerous forks in the road and alternative pathways that could have completely changed the outcome of the tragedy, and allowed them to wed. Several examples abound in this game of what ifs, but that show that the hand of fate was charged to complete this disunion. Romeo felt uneasy about going to the ball because he senses something bad might happen, but he goes because he believes it is his fate: "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 reveals and expire the term / of a despidsed life closed in my breast / by some vile forfeit of untimely death / but He, that hath the steerage of my course / Direct my sail! on, lusty gentlemen!" (I. iv.106-113) Note the explicit use of the words "hanging in the stars," and "steerage of my course," Romeo is acquiescing that someone will "Direct [his] sail" and that truly, he has little choice in the matter.
For Shakespeare, then, both Fate and Destiny play important roles when defining the individual. In many ways, his use of the terms (as characters) is similar to that of the plays of Ancient Greece. However, in the Greek plays, the ever spinning wheel of the Fates themselves cannot be changed, but in Shakespeare we are torn between the idea that destiny is upon our characters and the notion that certain actions have a sense of greater causality.
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