We’re all familiar with the tragedy of “star-crossed lovers,” those who are doomed by fate yet remain madly in love with each other. Usually these fated pairs are kept apart due to society or their families not approving of their relationship, making it ill-fated from the start. In tales, such stories end in the death of both participants, who, when faced with being apart or death, choose the latter. The trope of star-crossed lovers was popularized by William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, in which two young people from feuding families fall in love and carry out a secret romance despite their families’ hatred of each other. The phrase is used in the opening lines of the play’s prologue to characterize the eponymous characters: “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes / A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life…” From this bleak opening, Romeo and Juliet plays out exactly how the bard warns that it would, with Romeo and Juliet killing themselves at the end of the play when it seems they cannot otherwise be together. While in many ways this is a troubling understanding of love by modern standards, the concept of star-crossed lovers is continually and inexplicably romanticized in popular culture.
While Romeo and Juliet may epitomize the concept of star-crossed lovers in the collective consciousness of the present, they certainly are not its source. Some older examples of doomed romance include the Butterfly Lovers of Chinese folklore, in which one lover is already engaged, causing the other to die of heartbreak, as well as Orpheus and Eurydice of Greek mythology, wherein Orpheus fails miserably at saving Eurydice from Hades. This ancient trope continues to be revisited in some of the most popular romance films of the present. The Notebook, Titanic and Brokeback Mountain all end in a tragic fashion, yet the relationships in each are lauded as paragons of romance by their numerous fans. In each of these examples, lovers find each other despite forces (socioeconomic status, homophobia) that would keep them apart. They experience loving bliss for a time, but then are ripped apart by the end of their story because fate wills it.
Star-crossed lovers permeate culture to the extent that some works endeavor to toy with the concept, as in The Hunger Games books and films. In The Hunger Games, the main character, Katniss Everdeen, plays into the trope of star-crossed love with fellow Hunger Games participant Peeta Mellark in order to manipulate the audience into becoming emotionally attached to them. This culminates at the end of the novel when they threaten to kill themselves rather than fight to the death as they are supposed to do, ultimately resulting in the beginning of a revolution which is further instigated by their continued charade. Their success, while fictionalized, demonstrates society’s fascination with and empathy for the sense of doom that characterizes star-crossed lovers.
It is curious that such a depressing and fatalistic viewpoint of romance is so popular. One would think that in their consumption of media, people would enjoy events ending happily in order to give them hope for their own relationships, especially around Valentine’s Day celebrations. While these sorts of stories certainly exist, the lasting and highly-regarded stories are usually in the star-crossed camp rather than the everything-is-going-so-well camp, and people continually return to the tragedies. Perhaps the reason for our fascination with this trope is its reflection of life. While life might not always reflect the ending of star-crossed lovers’ stories, with each member killing themselves or dying to be together, all romance ends eventually, with the death of one of the partners, if nothing else. In this sense, all relationships are star-crossed.