In this lesson, we will first define figurative language and discuss why it is used. We will then look at examples of figurative language in the text of William Shakespeare's ''Romeo & Juliet''.
What is Figurative Language?
How boring would it be if people only talked about things in a literal way? What if you went with a friend to the pound to pick out a dog and instead of saying ''This dog's fur is cottony soft,'' your friend just said, ''This dog has a nice coat''? Or how about if your friend simply said ''This is a good looking dog,'' instead of ''This is the cutest dog I've ever seen''? These non-literal sayings are examples of figurative language. Figurative language is used in writing or talking to provide description in terms of something else and not in a literal way. In this lesson, we will explore how Shakespeare used figurative language in Romeo and Juliet and the effect it has on how we understand the play.
Shakespeare makes extensive use of figurative language in his work, and Romeo and Juliet is no different. Romeo frequently uses it to describe Juliet's beauty. His soliloquy is an excellent example of multiple types of figurative language. A soliloquy is a speech to oneself that is used in theatre for the audience to understand the character's inner thoughts.
One literary device he uses is a metaphor. A metaphor is a comparison that is concrete, often using or implying ''is'' to make the comparison. Let's go back to the pound. If your friend said, ''The dog's tail is a whip,'' they're using a metaphor. The dog's tail is not literally a whip, but it might be strong, fast-moving, and maybe even painful if it hits you. In Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo sees the light on in Juliet's room, he says, ''It is the east, and Juliet is the sun'' (II.ii.3). This is an example of metaphor: Romeo is making a direct comparison of Juliet to the sun using ''is'' to show that she is radiant, warm, and drives away the night/darkness.
Another literary device Shakespeare uses here is personification, or giving human attributes or actions to something non-human. An example of this would be if your friend looked at the dog and said, ''The dog is singing!'' when the dog is actually just barking. In the balcony scene, Romeo personifies Juliet's eye by saying, ''Her eye discourses; I will answer it'' (II.ii.13). Her eye is given human action here--it speaks or discourses.
Apostrophe is addressing someone who is not there or an object that cannot respond, such as if your friend said, ''Doggie, why are you so cute?'' The dog cannot respond to your friend, your friend knows this, and just wants to express how cute she thinks the dog is. In the balcony scene, Juliet uses apostrophe when contemplating why Romeo has to be a Montague, crying, ''O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?'' (II.ii.36). This is a use of apostrophe because she doesn't know Romeo is able to hear her.
Another example of apostrophe in this scene is when Juliet goes back inside her room, and Romeo says, ''O blessed, blessed night! I am afeard, / Being in night, all this is but a dream...'' (II.ii.146-47). Romeo is speaking to the night, which cannot answer back.
Two other types of literary devices that Shakespeare uses in the balcony scene are similes and hyperbole. A simile is a comparison less concrete than a metaphor that typically uses like or as. If your friend remarked, ''This dog looks just like a deer,'' she used a simile. She is not saying that the dog is a deer or that it literally looks exactly like a deer, but she is making a comparison between the two, perhaps because of the dog's behavior or coloring. In Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet realizes Romeo is there, she utilizes a simile to explain her love for Romeo, saying, ''My bounty is as boundless as the sea, / My love as deep'' (II.ii.140-41).
This is also an example of hyperbole, or over-exaggeration, with Juliet comparing her love to something incredibly large. Love does not have mass (like water does), so this is an example of an exaggeration to emphasize how much she loves Romeo. When your friend claimed that the dog at the pound is ''The cutest dog I've ever seen,'' she used an example of hyperbole to point out how endearing she finds the dog.
William Shakespeare uses figurative language, or descriptions that are non-literal and in terms of something else, throughout Romeo and Juliet to show the romance between the young lovers. Just as it would seem out of place for your friend to look for a dog at the pound and just say literal things like ''The dog is brown'' or ''The dog is barking'' it would also be out of place for Shakespeare to write only literally. When used effectively, figurative language gives insight into a person's or character's thoughts and feelings and captures the attention of the audience.
Figurative Language: What and Why?
In this exercise, you are going to analyze several instances of figurative language in Romeo and Juliet. For each example below, please answer these three questions:
- What type of figurative language is this? Why do you think so?
- What is the context of the scene? Who is speaking?
- Why is figurative language being used here?
Let's also focus on the type of figurative language identified in the lesson: metaphor, personification, apostrophe, simile, and hyperbole. Briefly explain the context of the scene, and then theorize about why Shakespeare or the character is using the language in question.
If we take an example from the lesson, Juliet's line "My bounty is as boundless as the sea,"(II.ii.140) is a simile because it uses "as" to make a simple comparison, and the context is a scene where Juliet and Romeo are professing their love for each other after falling in love at first sight. Shakespeare and Juliet use this simile to show us how intense Juliet's love for Romeo is: much like the sea, there is no end in sight to it.
"Is love a tender thing? It is too rough/Too rude, too boisterous, and pricks like a thorn" (I.iv.25-26).
"If I profane with my unworthiest hand/This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this/My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand/to smooch that rough touch with a tender kiss" (I.v.92-95).
"The brightness of that cheek would shame those stars/As daylight doth a lamp" (II.ii.19-20).
"Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-browed night/Give me my Romeo" (III.ii.20-21).
"Death is my son-in law. Death is my heir/My daughter he hath wedded" (IV.v.39-40).
Brief Answer Key:
I.iv.2-26: simile, spoken by Romeo about his love for Rosaline.
I.v.92-95: metaphor, spoken by Romeo to Juliet about how he views her (holy) and how he wants to kiss her.
II.ii.19-20: Hyperbole, spoken by Romeo. He exaggerates to describe Juliet's beauty.
III.ii.20-21: Apostrophe, spoken by Juliet. She asks the night (an inhuman thing) to come quickly so that she can consummate her marriage.
IV.v.39-40: Personification, spoken by Lord Capulet. He endows "death" with the traits of a person, saying it has married Juliet because he believes she died on her wedding day.