By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘A pair of star-cross’d lovers’ is a well-known phrase from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The Prologue’s description of Romeo and Juliet as ‘star-cross’d lovers’ has become one of the most emblematic phrases from the whole play, neatly encapsulating the doomed nature of their love affair from the outset.
But what exactly does the Prologue mean when he describes the two title characters as ‘star-cross’d lovers’?
Let’s take a closer look at the words to the Prologue:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
In other words, two doomed children from these feuding families, the Montagues and Capulets, fall in love with each other and take their own lives (spoiler alert).
By the way, the first reference to Montagues and Capulets is in the poetry of Dante, not Shakespeare: in his early fourteenth-century masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) makes reference to two warring Italian families, the Montagues and Capulets. This is in Canto VI of Purgatorio, the middle of the three ‘books’ of Dante’s poem. So the families appear to have actually existed in medieval Italy.
But why are Romeo and Juliet ‘star-cross’d’ and why does ‘star-cross’d’ mean ‘doomed’?
In short, it is because it is written in the stars that Romeo and Juliet’s love for each other will be thwarted. Their romance is doomed from the outset. The phrase ‘star-cross’d’ is a reference to astrology: a belief system in which the movements and relative positions of stars and planets are viewed as having an influence on human affairs. Indeed, the word ‘astrology’ is from the ancient Greek for star, aster.
Astrology is discredited as a science – it was largely superseded by astronomy, involving the empirical observation of the stars and planets, but without linking this to human affairs – but many people still check their horoscopes every day or take an interest in what star sign somebody is. A good deal of people view this as a bit of harmless fun, but Elizabethans tended to take it very seriously, as did the ancient Romans and ancient Greeks before them.
Indeed, the word ‘disaster’ is from the prefix dis- and the Greek word for ‘star’, aster: a ‘disaster’ was originally the unfortunate alignment of certain stars (or planets).
There are many astrological references in Romeo and Juliet: references to the idea that the stars govern human fate. This was a common belief in the Elizabethan era, and Shakespeare is drawing on this belief. In Act 1 Scene 4, for example, Romeo refers to the stars and relates them to his current situation:
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 despised life closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
In Act 5 Scene 1, Romeo will defy the stars, but the misgiving he had earlier turns out to be right: he and Juliet really are doomed, thanks to the accident of birth which saw them born into warring, rival families.
Shakespeare’s celebrated dramatising of the story of a ‘pair of star-cross’d lovers’ is, of course, the definitive version of a tragic love story which is much older. The Italian story ‘Mariotto and Gianozza’, first printed in 1476, contains many of the plot elements which found their way into Shakespeare’s play. However, Shakespeare’s source for the play’s story was Arthur Brooke’s The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562), an English verse translation of the tale.
The moral of Brooke’s tale is that young love ends in disaster for their elders, and is best reined in. But Shakespeare added to this moralising tale, celebrating the headlong passion and excitement of young love (even if Juliet, at thirteen, is very young by modern standards). But through their deaths, and the example their love set for their parents, the two families vow to be reconciled to each other. Those stars were not crossed in vain.