Interpreting Figurative Language in Historical & Cultural Contexts

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Figurative language makes our writing more vivid and lively, but can also be really confusing. A lot of figurative language is based on the historical and cultural context in which it is used, so understanding those contexts is important to understanding the figurative language.

Figurative Language

'I'm so hungry I could eat a horse.'

'My heart is broken.'

'My head is spinning.'

All of these common phrases are examples of figurative language, language that goes beyond the literal meaning of words to make writing and speech more lively and expressive. It is used in everyday expressions like these and is the backbone of most great literature, like these famous lines from Romeo and Juliet:

'But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.'

When we use figurative language, we assume that the person reading or listening is going to understand not to take us literally. We assume they know we're not going to actually eat a horse, that the muscle in our chest that pumps blood is functioning properly, and that our head isn't spinning around like something out of The Exorcist.

But we assume that because those expressions are common to the historical and culture context we live in. Reading figurative language from other historical and cultural contexts can be difficult because we don't understand the assumptions underlying the figurative language.

Beautiful Sun?

Let's go back and look at a little more from the famous balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet to get a sense of what it can be like to interpret figurative language from a different cultural and historical context than our own. Let's look at those first two lines:

'But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.'

In these lines, Romeo is comparing his beloved Juliet to the sun when he sees the light coming from her window and then sees her on the balcony. This is a metaphor that we can still understand today; her beauty shines bright like the sun. But the association with the sun and beauty was much more common in Shakespeare's time.

It was a standard metaphor used by poets so much that Shakespeare actually made fun of it in his Sonnet 130, which starts with 'My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun.' Throughout the rest of this sonnet, Shakespeare describes his beloved woman as the opposite of every poetic cliche because she has dark hair and dark skin. Metaphors for beauty in his time, including the sun, emphasized brightness because light skin and light hair were considered to be the most beautiful.

Say What, Willie?

The figurative language gets even more complicated as we go further into Romeo's speech about Juliet:

'Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,

Who is already sick and pale with grief,

That thou her maid art far more fair than she:

Be not her maid, since she is envious;

Her vestal livery is but sick and green

And none but fools do wear it; cast it off'!

Now Romeo says the moon is jealous because Juliet, who is her 'maid', is more beautiful than she is. This is where it gets a little complicated. He mean's Juliet is the moon's handmaiden, a female servant who served female nobility. And why is Juliet handmaiden to the moon? Because the Moon is associated with the Roman goddess Diana, who also happens to be the goddess of virginity. And all virginal young women, like Juliet, were thought to be her handmaidens. Romeo alludes to this a few lines later when he tells Juliet to cast off her 'vestal livery', the uniform worn by the actual vestal virgins who used to serve Diana.

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