Most romantic relationships are fraught with compromise and difficulty; in the general, we must intuitively agree with that great sage who sang that “Love is a Battlefield.”
There are some cases, however (in literature if nowhere else) where the little squabbles of love do not appear, as the love is too perfect and too consuming. But all is not typically well for such lovers; if too pure and too intense, such passion has difficulty in coexisting with a wider, colder world that demands more reason and less emotion from its citizens.
In expressing this second type of love, therefore, none of all Shakespeare’s famous coinages are more immediately identifiable with their source than the idea of “star-crossed lovers” – as embodied in the adolescent inamoratas that give their name to Romeo and Juliet – that largely defines how we conceive of tragic romance in the English-speaking world. It certainly dictates how we’ve written about it since the play was first published in 1597.
Shakespeare himself wastes no time in identifying the phrase with his play’s central tragic arc. Evidently never having been warned against plot spoilers, the tragedy begins with this eternal go-to classical audition piece for actors in a panic:
“Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.”
(Romeo and Juliet, Prologue 1-14)
Besides demonstrating to our twist-obsessed age that any story worth watching is hard to spoil with an up-front summary, this explanation of the romance as ‘star-crossed’ seems at first glance a little odd. The Montagues and Capulets are ‘crossed’ by unspecified hatred; Verona is crossed by the chaotic feuding of its nobles and the iron law of its Prince; Romeo and Juliet are crossed by their hastiness and selective honesty regarding their relationship. As far as we can see, the stars never seem to enter the fray either for or against our young lovers.
That is, ultimately, the joy of the expression: the very illogical nature of blaming the stars for the failings of human beings, much like how in that first incandescent flare-up of love the relationship seems like a force of nature and one’s feelings for one’s lover seem to take on a magical, superhuman power. Passionate love makes one feel so important and central to the world around oneself that it is easy to imagine the celestial order itself taking an interest in whom one is dating, whether or not that actually makes any kind of sense.
When we describe fictional lovers as ‘star-crossed’, the impression is of a love so pure and impossible that all the world seems determined to fight it; as with Romeo and Juliet, however, united in death as they could never be in life, the world seems destined to lose. The phrase has easily been applied to cultural icons from before the play’s writing (Lancelot/Guinevere, Layla/Manjun or Heloise/Abelard) and long after its enshrinement in the canon (Jack/Rose, Ennis del Mar/Jack Twist…or <sigh> Bella/Edward/Jacob/etc.) As long as the love is clearly meant to be and ludicrously complicated by outside interference – she hates his race! he killed her father! they’re living on opposite sides of a time portal! – the pairing is star-crossed, whenever it occurs.
As a final note, the impediments and delays and frustrations are, in almost every case of star-crossed love in fiction, read positively – they’re part of the intensity, part of the fun, part of what proves it’s all ultimately worthwhile when the lovers finally unite (or, perhaps more commonly, die horrid and avoidable deaths.) The Canadian playwright Anne-Marie MacDonald wrote a charming play called Good Night Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet in which all is explained and the pair’s death averted; the next morning, aware that they’re allowed to openly enjoy their marriage, the thrill is gone and the couple immediately start looking for new sources of love that’s nicely forbidden, instantly bored with each other.
It’s worth considering – the sense of ‘star-crossed’, as a central romantic myth in our culture, not only encompasses the tragedy of love that’s denied, but also the excitement of the unusual and daring, but creates our shared social idea of ideal love as an adrenaline rush. Much in the furthering of romantic language has been accomplished by our empathic relation to the plight of the star-crossed; arguably, however, it sets impossible expectations which can make our own affairs of the heart, typically crossed by nothing more serious than time or distance or little arguments, seem bland in comparison.
If one is arguing, however, one could as easily ask what works of Shakespeare don’t do that to the common experiences he transfigures through the magic of his pen? We should just be glad that a genius spent part of the 1590s explaining to us how to speak impossible feelings to each other – after all, as de Rochefoucauld infamously argued in his Maxims, “Very few people would fall in love if they had never read about it.” Luckily for us, Sweet William put that book into the public domain.