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Tropping The Riff: Star-Crossed Lovers

“From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life” (Romeo and Juliet, Prologue 5-6). It’s not the best line Shakespeare ever wrote, but it’s definitely in the running for the most influential. The tale of two lovers destined for disappointment and tragedy is a story as old as civilization itself. And while the old cliche in Hollywood might be that audiences love a happy ending, often it is the stories that end in heartbreak that stay with us the longest. In this edition of Troping the Riff we take a look at one of the oldest tropes in the world: the Star-Crossed Lovers.
While the trope may have been made popular by Shakespeare both the phrase and the trope it describes predate the Bard by almost two thousand years. A staple of the tragedies of the ancient Greeks (from whom Shakespeare borrowed a great many ideas), the phrase Star-Crossed lovers is used specifically for lovers who are fated for an unhappy ending. Fated is the key word here. The ancient Greeks believed that our destinies were controlled by the movement of the stars, so to be star-crossed was to have the very arbiters of fate against you. Not every relationship that is tumultuous or fails in the end is star-crossed. Personality clashes or bad decisions that lead to the relationship falling apart are a result of human agency and have nothing do with fate. For lovers to be truly star-crossed it must feel like no matter what they do the universe (or at least the writer) is against them.
It is a testament to just how powerful a storytelling tool this trope is that it endures to this day and is a central plot thread in many of the largest franchises around. The Marvel Cinematic Universe alone gives us three perfect example of this trope Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter, Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanov, as well as Agents Fitz and Simmons from the spin-off TV Series Agents of Shield. In Doctor Who the relationship between The Doctor and River Song could be said to be time-crossed as the two time-travelers keep meeting each other out of order. While happy at times their entire relationship has an air of tragedy about it based on the fact the first time the Doctor meets River she dies. Meaning the entire times he knows her, he knows that she is going to die and there is nothing he can do to save her (not in any way that lets them be together at least). But there may be no franchise that better encapsulates the narrative possibilities of the Star-Crossed lovers’ trope than the Buffyverse. There almost every major relationship that develops over the course of Buffy and her spin-off Angel ends in death and disappointment. With the best example being the one between the two titular characters. As if a forbidden romance between a cursed vampire and a vampire-slayer wasn’t enough any moment of true happiness reverts Angel back to his demonic, mass murdering personality Angelus. That is definitely the universe conspiring against you.
There are many other examples to be found of this trope to be found throughout history. From the mythic tales of Tristan and Isolde and Troilus and Cressida to the science fiction yarns Farscape and Deep Space Nine. Why is a plot device that is so sad so universal in the tales we tell ourselves? Who knows? Maybe its the feeling we all have that the world is unfair. Maybe we enjoy watching others fail to get their happy ending. Or maybe there we just want to believe in a love so powerful that it is worth finding even knowing the price it will extol from us. Or maybe it’s for another reason entirely. But its certainly worth thinking about the next time you encounter it in your fictional readings or viewings.

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