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The tragic play "Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakespeare, is a love story between Romeo, the young heir of the Montagues, and Juliet, the only surviving child of the house of Capulet. This story of the young "star-crossed" lovers is an extraordinary work in which Shakespeare uses a variety of verbal imagery including; contrasts between sex and love with hate, conflict, and death, comparisons between romantic and unromantic views of love, the correlative use of light and dark polarity, and the correlation of fate and fortune. Using this type of imagery, T. J. Spencer suggests, "at the greatest moment of the play Shakespeare subjects even the ambiguities of words to the sublimity and pathos of the situation" (43).
As the play begins, Shakespeare immediately introduces one of the main themes of the play, the paradoxical blending of sex and love with hate, conflict, and death. This is first shown in the bawdy quarrel between the servants' of the two houses as they use references such as "tool" and "naked weapon," together with repeated images of striking and thrusting. Though Romeo and Juliet try to separate themselves from the "ancient grudge" and foolish fighting between their families, the couple cannot escape the repercussions of the feud, which ultimately deals their love a fatal wound. Shakespeare repeatedly illustrates how closely the images of love and sex are intertwined with violence and death such as when Romeo first explains his ideas of love to Mercutio. He describes love as a battlefield using military terms to illustrate the ways in which he has used his eyes and words of love in a combined attack to win Rosaline's affection: "She will not stay the siege of loving terms, / Nor bide th' encounter of assailing eyes" (1.1.212-13). Juliet concisely expresses the connection between love and hate and marriage and death: "My only love, sprung from my only hate!" (1.5.138). She also declares immediately that if she cannot marry Romeo, she would rather die: "If he be marrièd, / My grave is like to be my wedding bed" (1.5.134-35). The image of death as a bridegroom for Juliet is repeated throughout the play to maintain an atmosphere of impending tragedy. The conflicting images of love and violence ominously anticipate the play's conclusion where the deaths of Romeo and Juliet ultimately bring an end to the feud between the two families.
In addition to the contrast between love and violence, Shakespeare uses "constant and deliberate collisions between romantic and unromantic views of love" (Spenser 11). As the play begins, Romeo's concept of love is very naïve and artificial "creating poetical and pitiful phrases in honour of the chaste and unattainable Rosaline" (Spenser 11). Romeo is only able to describe his feelings for Rosaline with figurative language that he has learned from poetry books. However, upon first sight of Juliet, all thoughts of Rosaline disappear from his mind. Romeo discovers that his feelings for Rosaline were artificial and that his love had been blind; "Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! / For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night" (1.5.52-3). Romeo moves away from the inflated, overacted descriptions of his love for Rosaline and begins to indicate a move towards a more spiritual consideration of love. He begins to use religious imagery to describe his feelings of love, which emphasizes the wonder and spiritual purity of his newfound love. This is opposite from the way that Mercutio or the Nurse describe love. Mercutio is an anti-romantic, for him, love is a physical pursuit, which he emphasizes through his bawdy wordplay: "If love be rough with you, be rough with love. / Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down" (1.4.27-8). The Nurse shares Mercutio's bawdy sense of humor about love and sees love purely as a physical relationship, almost a burden women simply must bear. As the Nurse returns with news from Romeo pertaining to his and Juliet's upcoming wedding, the Nurse comments on the pleasures that await Juliet on her wedding night with the pregnancy that will likely follow: "But you shall bear the burden soon at night" (2.5.76). This comment reflects the inverted life/death theme that runs throughout the play. Although Juliet will die before she is able to give life by having a child, her death unifies her and Romeo in spirit and mends the feud between their families, which are both a form of giving life.
Shakespeare also uses the contrasting images of light and dark to emphasize the mood and emotional insight into the characters. Light and darkness usually have very definitive meanings in human psychology. Traditionally, light is considered good and dark is usually viewed as evil. Thus day and night, which are distinguished by the amount of light available, have similar connotations. However, while typical notions of light and dark do appear in Romeo and Juliet, day and night are reversed. Night becomes good as it aids Romeo and Juliet, and day becomes evil as it brings death and destruction. Romeo uses the imagery of a source of light to describe Juliet, like a star, against the darkness: "O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! / It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night" (1.5.44-5). As the play continues, a cloak of interwoven light and dark images is cast around the couple. They are repeatedly associated with the dark and night, which points to the secret nature of their love because this is when they can meet in safety. However, at the same time, the light that surrounds the lovers in each other's eyes grows brighter to the very end, when Romeo describes Juliet, whose beauty makes the tomb "a feasting presence full of light" (5.3.86). Light and dark imagery play important roles in creating mood, foreshadowing action, and giving fate a vehicle by which to visit itself upon the characters in the play. Juliet beckons the darkness because it has been a sanctuary for the couple, "if love be blind, / It best agrees with night" (3.2.9-10). She and Romeo met under the cover of night; they agreed to marry as they were shrouded in darkness and were forced to part as dawn broke; they consummated their marriage at night; and ultimately die together under the cover of night. Northrop Frye points out that "the bird of darkness, the nightingale, symbolizes the desire of the lovers to remain with each other, and the bird of dawn, the lark, the need to preserve their safety" (60). Their affinity for the darkness illustrates their separation from the temporal, feuding world. Although external light has become their enemy, the lovers have often provided light for each other. Juliet's eyes were like the stars, and she was Romeo's sun in the balcony scene. Juliet feels that Romeo brings "day in night." She begs fate to "cut him out in little stars" (3.2.22), so that "all the world will be in love with night" (3.2.24). These star images represent both the timeless quality of the couple's love and their fate as "star-crossed lovers" who will only truly be united in death. Caroline Spurgeon suggests that in the play, "the beauty and ardour of young love is seen by Shakespeare as the irradiating glory of sunlight and starlight in a dark world" (73).
Simultaneously, Shakespeare uses the undercurrent of uncertain fortune wrenches the characters into and out of pleasure and pain as fate seemingly preempts each of their hopes with another tragic turn of events. Shakespeare uses dreams, premonitions, fate, fortune, and omens in Romeo and Juliet and all of these agents contribute to the catastrophe. Fate as a dominating force is evident from the very beginning of the play. The Chorus introduces the power of fortune in the opening prologue when we are told that Romeo and Juliet are "star-crossed" and "death-marked," and that their death will end their parents' feud. Mercutio treats the subject of dreams, like the subject of love, with witty skepticism, as he describes them both as "fantasy." His eloquent speech about Queen Mab, touches on a number of the play's opposing themes such as love and hate, fantasy and reality, idealism and cynicism. His dream speech contains all the elements that will conspire to bring down Romeo and Juliet's starry-eyed dream of love to the depths of the tomb. A chance encounter with Capulet's illiterate servant contributes to a sense of inevitability that Romeo and Juliet are destined to meet. As Romeo is ready to enter the Capulet's festivities, he anticipates his meeting with Juliet and creates an atmosphere of impending doom. He senses that he is going on a date with destiny:
I fear, too early. For 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 despisèd life, closed in my breast,
By some vile forfeit of untimely death (1.4.106-11).
The cosmic imagery of this premonition echoes the prologue in which Romeo and Juliet are presented as "star-crossed lovers," whose destinies are tragically interlinked.
In "Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare's use of verbal imagery makes it "more than a love story. Or perhaps it is the greatest of love stories because it is so much more. It is about hate as well as about many kinds of love. It tells of a family and its home as well as a feud and a marriage" (Spencer 35).
Frye, Northrop. "Romeo and Juliet: More Than Conventions of Love." Readings on the Tragedies of William Shakespeare. Ed. Swisher, Clarice. Greenhaven Press, 1996. 55-63
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. London: Penguin, 1996.
Spenser, T. J. B. Introduction. Romeo and Juliet. By William Shakespeare. London: Penguin, 1996. 7 44.
Spurgeon, Caroline F. E. "The Imagery of Romeo and Juliet." Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism. Ed. Leonard Fellows Dean. New York: Oxford U P, 1967. 72-78.
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"Imagery In Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet." 123HelpMe.com. 21 Apr 2015