Could there be an alternate ending to "Romeo and Juliet"?Could there be an alternate ending to "Romeo and Juliet"?
I actually think part of the scariness and brilliance of "Romeo and Juliet" is that there absolutely could be an alternative ending where it all ends happily. It's certainly true that in the two prologues (one at the start of Act 1, one at the start of Act 2) we're pointed toward fate as a factor which might mark the lovers with death. Yet that goes against the happy-go-lucky tone of the first half of the play: until Mercutio dies, "Romeo and Juliet" feels just like an Italian rustic version of "As You Like It" or any of the other of Shakespeare's comedies.
It's actually a completely different set up to any of Shakespeare's other tragedies. In "Macbeth", "Othello" and "King Lear", the protagonists all do something which brings about the tragic events and eventually their own tragedy - and it's something bad. Macbeth kills Duncan, Othello believes Iago and smothers Desdemona, and Lear rashly banishes Cordelia from his kingdom, weakening his own power. In "Julius Caesar", the tragedy is again about something Brutus and Cassius do.
Romeo and Juliet fall in love. And they end up dead? Is it because of their parents feud? No. It's because of a series of accidents: Mercutio's death, Friar John's letter not being delivered, and finally, Romeo arriving at the tomb about 5 minutes too late - otherwise he'd have foudn her alive and they could have escaped together. There is no reason why it all happens. It just happens to happen. That's life. That's tragedy.
It depends on what you believe in. The prologue is very clear that these to kids are going to die--it's written in the stars. So, according to that, no, there is no alternate ending. It has to happen this way.
Shakespeare like to experiment with signs, dreams, omens and the theme of fate versus free will in his plays. A lot of credence is given to signs, omens, dreams, foreboding feelings, and it often foreshadows a future event for characters (often negative: Julius Caesar, Cassius, Macbeth, to name a very few). So, if you go with the idea that there is something beyond us that controls us (let's call it Fate) and that there is no changing it--then, no, "Romeo and Juliet" had to end with them dying, because it's written in the stars that they should lose their lives. Shakespeare obviously believed in it, because he based a lot of the action in his plays around information like that.
If you don't believe in Fate, and that we control our own destinies, then, yes, the play could have ended any number of ways based on the decisions Romeo, Juliet or many other characters could have made. The friar could have not given Juliet the potion; the letter could have reached Romeo in time, Juliet could have woken up before Romeo killed himself. But, I don't think the play would have as strong of a message then.