The Timeless Appeal of the ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ Trope

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to be ‘star-crossed’ is to be ‘thwarted by bad luck’.

 Star-crossed lovers are two people (normally young) who experience love at first sight, but their relationship is threatened by forces outside of their control.

The most famous ‘star-crossed lovers’ of all time are almost certainly Romeo and Juliet, from William Shakespeare’s play of the same name. In fact, the phrase ‘star-crossed lovers’ was even coined by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet (1597).

However, while Romeo and Juliet might be the most iconic star-crossed lovers, they were actually not the first…

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

This particular type of doomed love actually dates back to the ancient world, if not earlier. The oldest-known version is probably the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, in the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses (first published in the 8th Century AD).

Pyramus and Thisbe are two lovers in the city of Babylon, who occupy connected houses and have to whisper their love through a crack in one of the walls, because their love is forbidden due to family rivalry (sound familiar?). However, an unfortunate misunderstanding causes Pyramus to take his own life, and when Thisbe finds him she kills herself as well (again, sound familiar?)

Thisbe by John William Waterhouse, 1909.

Thisbe by John William Waterhouse, 1909.

So it would seem that Shakespeare wasn’t entirely correct when, about eight hundred years after Pyramus and Thisbe met their tragic fate, he declared, “for never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” In fact, there have been many stories of equal woe ever since; countless variations on the star-crossed lovers theme have captured (and broken) hearts all over the world. Though the nature of the tragedy remains unchanged, it is interesting that these tales have increasingly moved away from familial disputes; focusing instead on social divisions such as class, race and sexuality.

Class is a major obstacle to true love: from ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1847) to ‘Titanic’ (1997); ‘The Notebook’ (1996/2004) to ‘Dirty Dancing’ (1987); even ‘Shakespeare In Love'(1998) – a star-crossed love story about the creation of the most famous star-crossed lovers.

On some level, then, star-crossed love stories encourage us to question superficial social divisions; the aim is not just to make audiences weep but also to make them think. As well as the class system, these stories also effectively challenge prejudices such as homophobia, as seen in ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (1997/2005) and ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ (1985), racial intolerance in tales like ‘Pocahontas’ (1995), ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ (1826/1992), ‘Avatar’ (2009) and even traditional social duties and gender restrictions in classic stories like ‘Anna Karenina’ (1877) and ‘The Age of Innocence’ (1920).

Age of Innocence (1993)

Age of Innocence (1993)

These are just a handful of examples, and their seemingly random selection actually serves to prove just how long, and in how many forms, star-crossed lovers have been captivating our hearts and challenging social norms.

That’s not to say that this kind of love is reserved for only the most militant, thought-provoking, convention-breaking stories: recently star-crossed lovers of the supernatural variety have taken the world by storm. Death (and, with it, an insatiable hunger) is the newest obstacle in the path to happy-ever-after: consider the popularity of vampiric love stories such as ‘Twilight’ (2005) and ‘True Blood’ (2001). Even zombies are having their day; in the novel-turned-film ‘Warm Bodies’ (2013) we see an unlikely, but lovely, romance between a teenage girl and a member of the walking dead.

Warm Bodies (2013)

Warm Bodies (2013)

These stories remind us how dangerous it is to adhere blindly to superficial social divisions – historical star-crossed romances highlight how far we’ve come from the days of such extreme social and racial segregation, while present-day and fantastical stories remind us what issues we still (or might one day!) need to address. But let’s not forget, star-crossed lovers also, quite simply, make for a great story. Human desire and the challenge of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds are inspiring themes that we can all relate to in some way.

Most importantly, though, these stories cause us to become emotionally invested in the characters; we grieve for their suffering and we cheer for their triumphs, and when the story is finished we breathe a sigh of relief – “thank god it wasn’t me!” In the same way as having a good cry can make you feel better, sad stories have a (somewhat incongruous) healing quality to them. This is called ‘catharsis’: a release or ‘cleansing’ of built-up emotions.

Catharsis is inherent in all tragic stories and it is precisely what makes the misery of star-crossed love so compelling. We can be swept away by these incredible love stories, without having to experience any of the pain and anguish ourselves. They allow us to feel, without really feeling; experience without truly experiencing and love without risk of losing. Star-crossed love stories are, essentially, the perfect form of safe escapism.

Titanic (1997)

Titanic (1997)

Originally written for and published on The Huffington Post, to promote the theatrical release of Universal’s ‘Endless Love’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s