In the play Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, what is meant by the phrase "then I defy you stars"?

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This quote is actually set up in the Prologue, when the Chorus tells the audience that this play will focus on "A pair of star-crossed lovers" (Prologue, 6). Describing the lovers as "star-crossed" is another way of saying that an inescapable fate brings them together and, therefore, brings them to their tragic ends.

In act 5, scene 1, the readers hear this "star-crossed" idea come up again in Romeo's line,

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

Romeo has learned of Juliet's "death" just before this line, and he believes himself to be defying destiny as he quickly decides to join his beloved in death:

Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight.
Let’s see for means. O mischief, thou art swift
To enter in the thoughts of desperate men!

The dramatic irony is that, in making this choice, Romeo runs straight toward the destiny which the Chorus predicts in the Prologue—his own death—which then also prompts Juliet to kill herself as well.

Romeo's actual defiance of the "stars" would have been to live, but it seems that, in the end, he is incapable of escaping his destiny.

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In literature, fate is often said to be “written in the stars,” implying that one cannot escape destiny. In Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo declares he will defy the stars, he is saying that he will defy fate and act on his own free will.

When Romeo is told that Juliet has died, he believes his fate includes living a life without her. He rejects that notion and maintains that he will not allow his life to be ruled by fate, or “the stars.” For him, a life without Juliet was nothing less than a cruel fate. His decision to drink poison and take his own life is a defiant rejection of a destiny without Juliet.

The phrase also refers to the beginning of the play, where Romeo and Juliet are described as "star-crossed lovers," which suggests that the stars were against them, and they would never be together. While the two worked tirelessly to thwart fate, in the end, they had no control over it.

Ironically, Romeo’s bold decision to defy fate and “shake the yoke of inauspicious stars" is heartbreaking because it leads to the death of both of the young lovers.

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The full quotation from Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is:

 
Is it e'en so? Then I defy you, stars!
Thou know’st my lodging. Get me ink and paper,
And hire post horses. I will hence tonight.
 
 
Romeo has had a dream that Juliet finds him dead and brings him back to life with a kiss. Dreams, in Shakespeare's period, were considered omens, much like astrology. Thus Romeo is metaphorical associating the predictive power of dreams with the predictive power of stars. Since the stars were connected to what they predicted by laws of sympathy, and expressed divine will, to act against omens was a form of defiance. When he hears of the death of Juliet, he decided to break divine law (the law against suicide) as well as go against the prophetic dream. Had he obeyed the dream rather than defied it by poisoning himself, the play would have ended happily.

 

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