Two households, both alike in dignity,
… From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
… From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life.
(Romeo and Juliet, Prologue)
"Star-cross'd," coined by Shakespeare (1564–1616) to describe the young lovers in Romeo and Juliet (1595), has come to describe two people whose tragic destinies are intertwined. Cross'd carries the triple meaning of (1) brought into each other's path; (2) thwarted (or at least fraught with adversity or affliction); and (3) burdened (as in a cross to bear). Although Shakespeare gave a name to this kind of love, such love stories existed in world literature long before Shakespeare's time.
There are examples of star-crossed lovers in most literary traditions of the world. In Asian literature, Jia Bao-Yu and Lin Dai-Yu, two characters in Hsueh-Chin Tsao's early-eighteenth-century Chinese classic The Dream of the Red Chamber, are excellent examples of star-crossed lovers. When his family makes Jia Bao-Yu marry another girl, Lin Dai-Yu dies of grief. In Japan's famous eleventh-century literary work by Lady Shikibu Murasaki (c. 976–c. 1031), The Tale of Genji, the love between Genji and Fujitsubo, the emperor's concubine, is similarly doomed. Each of these examples fit the criteria set forth below for star-crossed love. However, this entry focuses on paradigmatic cases from the European and North American tradition.
CAN THIS LOVE SURVIVE?
Six elements define the state of being star-crossed: transgression, destiny, secrecy, heightened passion, tragedy, and sacrifice. Not all six need be present for a love relationship to be considered star-crossed, but to differentiate the paradigm from Aristotelian tragedy and other forms of love stories, several of the elements must be involved, often with one dominant element.
Transgression and Star-Crossed Love
Star-crossed love is transgressive: It is nearly always forbidden by society and/or made dangerous by circumstance. Romeo and Juliet are the only children of two feuding families. In Shakespeare's source, Arthur Brook's narrative Pyramus and Thisbe (1562), the lovers were forbidden to marry by their parents.
The love story of Peter Abelard (1079–1142), the French philosopher and theologian, and Heloise, in the early twelfth century, which survives in their famous letters to one another, provides another example. Heloise, the niece of a canon, fell in love with Abelard, who was her tutor, in her uncle's house. The two transgressed by disregarding the boundaries imposed on them by their social roles. After Heloise bore their child, Abelard was castrated and disgraced, then sent to live out his days in St. Denis while Heloise was sent to a convent nearby.
Inevitability and Star-Crossed Love
Star-crossed love is inevitable, preordained by destiny or fortune. Tristan and Isolde, lovers in a twelfth-century myth, illustrate this inevitability. In the Celtic version of the myth, Isolde was the daughter of Angwish, King of Ireland, and betrothed to King Mark of Cornwall. Mark sent his nephew Tristan to escort Isolde back to Cornwall. Through an accident of fate, Isolde and Tristan take a love potion intended for Isolde's wedding night. They fall into desperate, hopeless love. Sir Thomas Malory (c. 1410–1471) links the story of Tristan with another star-crossed pair, Guinevere and Lancelot, in his Le Morte d'Arthur (1485).
Secrecy and Star-Crossed Love
Star-crossed lovers' relationships are conducted in secret. The lovers dream of creating a passionate universe for themselves apart from everyday reality. Romeo and Juliet meet at the Capulet ball and fall instantly in lovè yet during the four-day course of the play, they never see each other in daylight. Tristan and Isolde maintain their passionate relationship secretly after Isolde's marriage to King Mark; Pyramus and Thisbe communicate in secret through a chink in the wall of their parents' adjoining houses and arrange secret meetings at the Tomb of Ninus, in the fields outside the city. The latter two would gladly have married, but their parents forbade it. Instead they conversed through signs and glances, and the love grew more intense in its secrecy.
The world of star-crossed lovers is self-enclosed and passionate. The same kind of romantic and erotic isolation characterizes the nontraditional star-crossed pairing of two Wyoming ranch-hands, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, in Annie Proulx's short story "Brokeback Mountain" (1997):
They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night…. There were only the two of them on the mountain flying in the euphoric, bitter air, looking down on the hawk's back and the crawling lights of vehicles on the plain below, suspended above ordinary affairs and distant from tame ranch dogs barking in the dark hours. They believed themselves invisible.
(Proulx 2005, p. 15)
Intensity and Star-Crossed Love
Star-crossed love is deeper, the passion stronger, than anything either of the lovers has ever experienced. Tristan could not consummate his marriage to another because of his love for Isolde. Heloise describes the intense passion she and Abelard felt and the suffering that would follow: "We shall both be destroyed. All that is left us is suffering as great as our love has been" (Radice 2003, p. 16). Juliet's declaration of this great passion is one of literature's most famous:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.
The youthful passion of Romeo and Juliet destroys them, and hurts, then unites, their families and their city. The passion between another pair of Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers, Antony and Cleopatra, is powerful enough to destroy empires along with the lovers themselves.
Sacrifice and Star-Crossed Love
Star-crossed love is often sacrificed for what is seen as a greater good for the beloved. The world of Italian opera is rich with examples of lovers doomed by their own choices. In Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème (1896), Mimi agrees to abandon Rodolfo for his own good. In Tosca (1900), also by Puccini, the title heroine pretends to sacrifice her body to Scarpia in return for her lover Mario's life. Tosca instead commits murder for Mario, only to see him executed anyway, which causes her to leap to her death from the top of Castel Sant'Angelo. In the classic Italian novel I Promessi Sposi (1840), by Alessandro Manzoni, Lucia makes a holy vow to save Renzo, even though doing so means they can never consummate their marriage.
Tragedy and Star-Crossed Love
The star-crossed love story follows a tragic path. Shakespeare calls it "death-mark'd." Death—or, at least, disaster—is the only possible end for star-crossed love. On the eve of his death, Tosca's Mario expresses the paradox of love and loss in the last line of his famous aria, E' lucevan le stelle: "Time is fleeting and I die in despair, yet never have I loved life more." Romeo too has a sense of imminent tragedy on his way to the Capulet ball where he meets Juliet:
… 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:
But he that hath the steerage of my course
Direct my sail.
Star-crossed lovers are doubly doomed. The stars—or fortune or fate or destiny—point them toward disaster; so does the world they try to escape. It is precisely the impossibility of a self-contained romantic/erotic life that dooms them: They cannot live outside the world of family, society, and politics, nor can they fully escape the rhythms and obligations of everyday life. Valerie Traub, in her book Desire and Anxiety (1992), sums up Romeo and Juliet's predicament:
The two lovers attempt to forge an erotic alliance beyond the physical and ideological constraints of the feuding houses of Capulet and Montague. To the extent that their erotic love is given expression in spheres untouched by the feud—the balcony, the bedroom, the abbey, the tomb—they succeed. But the tragedy of the play is precisely the futility of such a desire…. Romeo and Juliet's love … is ultimately doomed precisely because it attempts to exist outside of the material, political world.
(1992, pp. 2-3)
Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, argues that "Romeo and Juliet is unmatched, in Shakespeare and in the world's literature, as a vision of an uncompromising mutual love that perishes of its own idealism and intensity" (Bloom 1998, p. 89).
Most star-crossed lovers—either one or both—attempt to defy fate. Hearing that Juliet is dead, Romeo—the very Romeo who cried after killing Tybalt "O, I am fortune's fool!" (III.ii.139)—declares "Then I defy you, stars!" (V.i.24) and tries to take charge of his own destiny. Although such action heightens passion and strengthens the lovers' resolve, it also accelerates the journey to tragedy and doom.
Star-crossed love endures as a major theme in literature and film in the early twenty-first century, though sometimes the cause of the lovers' doom shifts from destiny toward psychological as well as social forces. As an expression of the unattainable—or unsustainable—passionate ideal, it reflects an enduring and widespread human need.
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Bullfinch, Thomas. 1914. The Age of Fable. New York: E. P. Dutton.
Fedrick, Alan S., trans. 1970. The Romance of Tristan, and, The Tale of Tristan's Madness. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.
Manzone, Alessandro. 1972. I Promessi Sposi (The betrothed), trans. Bruce Penman. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.
Mews, Constant J. 1999. The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-century France. New York: St. Martins.
Proulx, Annie. 2005. Brokeback Mountain. New York: Scribners.
Radice, Betty, trans. 2003. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Rev. edition. London and New York: Penguin.
Shakespeare, William. 1992. Romeo and Juliet. New York: Washington Square Press.
Shikibu, Murasaki. 2001. The Tale of Genjj, trans. Royall Tyler. New York: Viking.
Traub, Valerie. 1992. Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama. London and New York: Routledge.
Tsao, Hsueh-Chin. 1958. Dream of the Red Chamber, trans. Chi-Chen Wang. New York: Anchor Books.