My child has been asked this at school, and I suspect the teachers want the students to answer that it's a metaphor.

However, I don't think it's a metaphor: surely Shakespeare, or at least the people in his plays, literally believed that the stars controlled one's destiny—and therefore describing them star-crossed was a simple, if poetic, statement of a fact or belief?

  • I would tend to agree with you: astrology, other forms of divination, alchemy, the four element model of the world and the humours of the body were all mainstream beliefs in the 16th and 17th centuries. Fifty years and more after Shakespeare died Isaac Newton was still heavily influenced by his alchemical and astrological background. There is a suggestion that he divided the spectrum into seven colours rather any other number because seven is a mystic number. (Not a magic number but a powerful mystic concept).
    – BoldBen
    Nov 18, 2020 at 20:20
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    You have a strong argument. But the whole of astrology could be seen as an extended metaphor (connections between elements of ostensibly disparate groups). And by many as an invalid metaphor. This will surely boil down to opinion (and as such, off-topic on ELU). Nov 18, 2020 at 20:34
  • Was the problem astrology? Or was the reason they were not destined for each other their petty feuding families? If the feud, then angry stars create an image of ill-fated longings, and there's your metaphor. As a compromise, let's label it imagery. Also, are you doing your kid's homework? So are the other parents, and the teacher never finds out that the day's lesson was not absorbed. Nov 18, 2020 at 23:10
  • Star-crossed alludes to a higher power of fate (a star being that which has done the crossing) and so could be said to be metaphorical (for God) or not (for a literal interpretation of popular astrology of the age). You'd have to ask old William which he intended, and I suspect by the nature of it and his other writings that he wouldn't let you off so easy.
    – R Mac
    Nov 18, 2020 at 23:26
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    Was this a written question? Can you give the full text? It makes a difference if it is just the phrase, or the whole sentence, or the whole prologue. Maybe it's foreshadowing - telling the audience in advance what's going to happen. Maybe précis - a summary of the whole plot. Maybe iambic pentameter. Maybe sonnet. Maybe prologue.
    – Pete
    Nov 19, 2020 at 9:01

3 Answers 3


From "Transactions - Volume 20" - Page 60 "Homoeopathic Medical Society of the State of New York" • 1885 (books.google.co.uk › books)

An examination of astrology, apart from astronomy, as the art of judging of the influences of the stars, and of foretelling future events by their position and aspects, would be a postmortem. Yet the decease of the art occurred not long ago, for as late as the middle of the seventeenth century belief in astrology was almost universal.

Other readily available sources confirm this.

What type of literary technique is the phrase 'star-crossed lovers' in 'Romeo and Juliet'?

"star-crossed" is a straightforward adjectival phrase, and a statement of, what was then, accepted. It would be seen as no different from "a pair of young lovers"

There is no "metaphor".

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    It's not literal at all. What stars are crossed? So then it is a figure of speech and the OP is wondering out of all the labeled figurative strategies, is there a good label for it?
    – Mitch
    Nov 18, 2020 at 21:12
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    @Mitch The stars aren't crossed, it's the lovers whose natal charts are 'crossed', 'star-crossed' is a technical term in astrology. If we write "star-crossed lovers" in most contexts in the 21st century then the phrase is metaphorical in the same way that calling someone 'phlegmatic' is metaphorical, but in the late 16th and early 17th centuries when Shakespeare was writing all educated people accepted the validity of astrology and the existence of the 'humours of the body' so 'star-crossed' and 'phlegmatic' were literal uses of technical terms for them.
    – BoldBen
    Nov 18, 2020 at 22:59
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    “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” So the Bard himself has questioned astrology enough to write a character who rejects it.
    – Xanne
    Nov 19, 2020 at 0:32
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    Isn't the point of that quote that Cassius and Brutus were arrogant to think that they could beat Fate? And then Fate got them right back. Also Caesar ignores the Soothsayer's warnings, which turn out to be true. The message is that astrology works whether you believe in it or not.
    – Pete
    Nov 19, 2020 at 8:26
  • @Mitch Hmm... seen from today's beliefs it may be, but at the time, the literal understanding was that, when read, their star charts clashed. To say that "star-crossed" is metaphorical is rather like saying that any 16th century use of "ethereal" was metaphorical as we now know that there is no "ether".
    – Greybeard
    Nov 19, 2020 at 10:07

'Star-crossed lovers' are two people who, although in love, have natal charts which are 'crossed'. 'Star-crossed' is, effectively, a technical term in astrology indicating that there are aspects of the charts of the two lovers which, when compared, show that the forces of fate will tear them apart or, at least, prevent them from being happy together.

In detail there will be aspects of the planets (wandering stars) and other parts of the charts which have powerful ninety degree angles between them (a ninety degree angle is a 'square aspect' in astrology and is usually considered to be an indicator of negative forces operating on the subject of the chart. Four planets with square aspects to each other can form a "Grand Cross" which is considered to be a very negative element of a chart). A true believer in astrology would, of course, say that there are also aspects of the combined charts which led them to fall in love in the first place.

You don't have to believe in astrology, and certainly not in the fixed fate interpretation of it, to consider that Renaissance people would have taken the term literally. From our perspective it is metaphorical but from Shakespeare's perspective it was not.

If we write "star-crossed lovers" in most contexts in the 21st century then the phrase is metaphorical in the same way that calling someone 'phlegmatic' is metaphorical, but in the late 16th and early 17th centuries when Shakespeare was writing all educated people accepted the validity of astrology and the existence of the 'four humours of the body' so 'star-crossed' and 'phlegmatic' were literal uses of technical terms for them.



In English, I would say that 'star-crossed lovers' is an 'epithet', which is an alternate, usually descriptive, sometimes complimentary or it can be disparaging, name, ascribed to somebody. Or in this case, to somebodies - to a couple.

An epithet is, according to Cambridge Dictionary online: 'An adjective added to a person's name or a phrase used instead of it, usually to criticize or praise them: The singer's 600-pound frame earned him the epithet of "Man Mountain" in the press. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/epithet

Other examples might be:

Fagin, the 'light-fingered' character from Oliver Twist, slid his hand into the rich man's pocket. - Meaning, he is a thief

Elidor, 'the light bringer', landed on the grass, his nostrils flaring, neighing, tossing his horn at the moon Meaning, the unicorn brings light

The epithets are in quotes.

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    Interesting point, slightly undermined by the fact that you've confused Scrooge and Fagin. Nov 20, 2020 at 6:35
  • Yes true but anyway, you get my drift! @ambrosechapel
    – Jelila
    Nov 21, 2020 at 3:34
  • And actually Fagin was more the organiser, it was the kids who were doing the actual stealing
    – Jelila
    Nov 21, 2020 at 3:36

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