Friday, January 20, 2012

Fate v. Free Will in Romeo + Juliet (Plus, Changing The Ending?)

While cruising through Yahoo! Answers today I saw that somebody had asked about the theme of destiny in Romeo and Juliet.  Then something hit me.  It's easy to point to the "star-crossed lovers" right in the prologue, and later Romeo, who is Fortune's fool, defies to stars, etc etc etc.

But here's the thing, I've also always thought of the play as a lesson to the parents about not being so stubborn in your ancient grudges and your own problems that you don't realize what you're about to lose. 

At the end of the play, the prince gives his great "All are punished" speech and the two families shake hands and build statues.  I don't know about you, but I'm definitely left with a feeling of, "See how stupid you've been? If only you'd changed your ways and seen what was happening, this all could have been prevented."

And there's the problem.  Which is it?  Is Shakespeare giving us a story where we're supposed to come away thinking that this tragedy could have been prevented?  Or that it was Fate, and that these kids were going to end up dead no matter what happened?

I'd never really thought of this before, but has anybody ever done an ending to this play where the Prince still gets to give his speech, but rather than the statue building stuff, the two families turn their backs on each other and the grudge continues?  I think that would be genius.  Depressing, but genius.  Then you've got the more helpless feeling that no, these kids never had a chance, the feud is never going to end even in the face of such overwhelming tragedy.


Cass said...

I did precisely that in the version I directed in undergrad! I thought the reconciliation felt disingenuine and tremendously unlikely. We went straight from "all are punish'd" to "A glooming peace". I think in part it suited our production well in particular because I'd chosen to up the ante on the violence throughout. There were a few times where, to cover a costume change, I'd inserted short dialogue-free fight scenes between Capulets and Montagues. (I also had Lady Capulet execute Benvolio to explain that character's post-3.1 disappearance). It really reinforced the idea of a cycle of retribution and blood feuding -- So capping it off with a handshake would've felt really strange. Leaving it as utter destruction worked. I would certainly never argue that's the "right" choice or one Shakespeare intended, and I don't know if it's a choice I'd make post-grad-school or not, but it was an interesting exploration.

Sarah said...

I've always seen it as Shakespeare being almost sarcastic.

In the beginning, "Oooh, it's Fate, it's Destiny..."

In the end, "We all saw what happened and can see plainly that it didn't have to happen. Everyone is distraught so let's try to make one decent thing come of the pointless tragedies that have hit both sides so hard."

CGriff said...

My eyes were opened once to the statues lines - that even though they're making these grand promises and shaking hands they're STILL trying to outdo each other. (I'll raise a statue in his honor. Oh yeah? I'll make one of her out of PURE GOLD! OH YEAH?! MINE WILL BE JUST AS GOOD IF NOT BETTER!!) So there's no peace - just a handshake in front of a Prince and a return to hating each other, just more quietly.

At least it's one way to read it.

As far as fate, I don't know. There were a LOT of things that COULD have happened to change the outcome - forgiveness, communication, kindness, etc - but NONE of them happened, so these kids ended up dead. If that much goes wrong, wasn't it fate in some way that it would have ended that way no matter what?

JM said...

I don't think changing the ending is a necessary step for the audience to recognize the ultimate message; a message which bleeds through no matter what we might think about its ultimate efficacy concerning the attitude of Montagues and Capulets. They didn't learn anything in time enough to avert tragedy, and may *never* learn; but we might.
--I think Shakespeare's message is directed toward *us* more than it is toward them.

As far as Fate--therein lies the tragedy. Two "star-crossed" lovers who happened to find their brief, but bright, stellar flames extinguished by tragic circumstance, no matter the particulars of that circumstance. Yes, I think it was destined to happen under the circumstances Fate dictated to them. The answer to the mystery of *why* also lies in the stars. And that is also a message for us to ponder and possibly learn from, though the ultimate *answer* is always fleeting and out of reach.