In the play Romeo and Juliet, what does Romeo mean when he says, "Then I defy you, stars"?  

When Romeo says "Then I defy you, stars!" after Balthasar tells him that Juliet has died (or appears to have died) in act 5, scene 1 of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Romeo seems to be cursing fate and also deciding to take fate into his own hands.

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When Romeo woke up that morning in act 5 scene 1 of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, he was feeling pretty good. The night before, he had a dream about Juliet.

ROMEO. I dreamt my lady came and found me dead
(Strange dream that gives a dead man leave to think!)
And breath'd such life with kisses in my lips
That I reviv'd and was an emperor. (5.1.6-9)

Romeo remarks that being in love is wonderful, and even his dreams are happy.

ROMEO. Ah me! how sweet is love itself possess'd,
When but love's shadows are so rich in joy! (5.1.10-11)

Romeo's serving man, Balthasar, arrives, and Romeo peppers him with questions for news from Verona.

ROMEO. News from Verona! How now, Balthasar?
Dost thou not bring me letters from the friar?
How doth my lady? Is my father well?
How fares my Juliet? That I ask again,
For nothing can be ill if she be well. (5.1.12-16).

Balthasar tries to delay telling Romeo that Juliet is dead (or appears to be dead), and that she's been laid to rest in the Capulets' tomb.

BALTHASAR. Then she is well, and nothing can be ill. (5.1.17)

Shakespeare did a similar play on words in Macbeth when Ross comes to tell Macduff that his wife and children had been killed on Macbeth's order.

MACDUFF. How does my wife?
ROSS. Why, well.
MACDUFF. And all my children?
ROSS. Well too.
MACDUFF. The tyrant has not batter'd at their peace?
ROSS. No; they were well at peace when I did leave 'em. (Macbeth, 4.3.199-204)

This is a way for Shakespeare to create suspense as to what reaction either Romeo or Macduff will have when they hear the truth.

Macduff is stunned and disbelieving. He repeatedly asks Ross to confirm that his wife and children are dead.

In contrast, Romeo is instantly enraged, and he goes directly into action. He curses his fate, calls for ink and paper (although no further mention of writing a letter appears in the play), and he orders Balthasar to hire horses so he can return to Verona as soon as possible.

ROMEO. Is it e'en so? Then I defy you, stars!
Thou knowest my lodging. Get me ink and paper
And hire posthorses. I will hence to-night. (5.1.24-26)

"Then I defy you, Stars!" can be interpreted as Romeo cursing his fate, or as Romeo intending to take fate into his own hands to resolve the matter of Juliet's death.

It's hard to know if, at that moment, Romeo has already decided to kill himself, although there are just a few more lines of conversation with Balthasar before Romeo makes his intentions clear.

ROMEO. Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee to-night.
Let's see for means. O mischief, thou art swift
To enter in the thoughts of desperate men!
I do remember an apothecary... (5.1.36-39)

It's interesting that Romeo never asks Balthasar how Juliet died, or asks him anything about the circumstances of her death.

At first it seems as though Romeo wants to hurry back to Verona to find out what happened to Juliet, or perhaps to avenge her death. It appears, however, that Romeo doesn't really care how Juliet died, only that she's dead. Immediately upon hearing the news, he's decided to die by her side.

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It means he is defying fate—or attempting to, at any rate, because unfortunately fate will ultimately defeat both Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo has just been wrongly informed of Juliet's death. His immediate reaction to this tragic situation, as well as intense sorrow, is one of angry defiance. Romeo recognizes himself as the plaything of fortune and subject to the whims of fate. But he's not going to take this lying down; he's determined to take his fate into his own hands by heading back to Verona and killing himself in Juliet's tomb.

The irony here is that in his attempts to defy fate, Romeo is actually making it happen. For when Juliet wakes from her drug-induced slumbers and sees Romeo's dead body lying next to her, she stabs herself to death, thus fulfilling the sad fate of the star-cross'd lovers.

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Before Romeo and his friends depart for the Capulets' party, Mercutio and Benvolio do their best to get him to go.  Romeo resists for a long time but finally gives in, saying,

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. (1.4.107-112)

In other words, Romeo seems to have a premonition that the party that night will initiate a series of events that will end with his own early death. It's not a pleasant thought.  However, he still feels somewhat compelled to go by whoever "hath the steerage of [his] course" (1.4.113).  Thus, Romeo has a sense—even before he ever meets Juliet, let alone falls in love with her—that the party will begin the events that lead to his death, like a line of dominoes that cannot help falling down once the first one has been toppled.

Thus, when Balthasar tells Romeo that Juliet is dead, Romeo cries, "Is it e'en so? Then I defy you, stars!" He can hardly believe it, and his first instinct is to curse fate. I imagine him sort of shaking his fist at the sky. It's not that he is somehow going to move against fate, because he is about to go and enact what he imagined just a few nights ago.  Instead, the expression indicates his anger with fate and his curse of it.

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"Is it e'en so? Then I defy you, stars!

In Act V scene I Romeo has just found out that Juliet is dead. He is beside himself with grief and he curses "I defy you, stars," which means he denies fate.  He denies fate's hold on him and he then plans to kill himself. He goes to buy poison and goes to Juliet's tomb. Later in Act V scene III Romeo again refers to the stars when he talks about the "inauspicious stars," referring again to fate, or as in this case, unlucky stars.  This is of course the beginning of the end for the "star crossed lovers."

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The quote, “Then I defy you, stars,” was made after Romeo learned that Juliet was dead. By stars, he meant fate. There are multiple references to fate throughout the play. Earlier, Romeo and Juliet are referred to as “star-crossed lovers” and it is foreshadowed that they will take their own lives. After Romeo kills Tybalt in a fight he never wanted to have, he cries out, “O, I am fortune’s fool!” The quote about defying the stars is the third such obvious reference. In addition, there are numerous examples of fate standing between the lovers in Act 5 scene i-ii. There was no real reason that the friars plan should not have worked, and yet a series of missed opportunities causes the end that we know. With this quote, Romeo is declaring himself in opposition to destiny, although his resulting actions actually bring it about. Romeo commits suicide, prompting Juliet to do the same, which fulfills the tragic destiny of the star-crossed lovers.

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