''Romeo and Juliet,'' by William Shakespeare, is filled with motifs and symbols that serve to provide understanding of the inner thoughts of the characters. We'll look at the imagery of light and dark and opposing points of view, as well as the symbols of poison and thumb-biting.
Light and Dark
In Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, the play is moved forward using elements to engage us and keep us wanting more. This is done through the use of motifs, which are recurring things that serve symbolic purposes within stories, and symbols, which are simply things in a story that signify other things, usually ideas. For example, the use of light and dark is meant to provide sensory contrast rather than an explanation of good versus evil. This imagery is most often referred to by comparing day to night.
We see the importance of light and dark in the opening scene of the play. After a street brawl, Montague and Lady Montague stay behind to speak with Benvolio. Lady Montague is happy that her son did not take part in the brawl, but she questions whether Benvolio has seen him. He says,
Madam, an hour before the worshipp'd sun
Peer'd forth the golden window of the east,
A troubled mind drave me to walk abroad . . .
Montague and Lady Montague worry that he is avoiding the sunlight because he is depressed, because Romeo has been seen walking deep in the woods.
Later, Romeo and Benvolio are at the Montague feast, and Romeo is pining over Rosaline. Benvolio tells Romeo that he will show him ladies that will shine brighter than Romeo has ever seen. Benvolio says:
Compare her face with some that I shall show,
And I will make thee think thy swan a crow.
The all-seeing sun
Ne'er saw her match since first the world begun.
Benvolio will not be dissuaded from his attempt to lift Romeo's spirits. He says that at the Capulet feast he will show Romeo maids that will shine so brightly that Romeo will forget all about Rosaline.
When Romeo first spies Juliet, he is dumbfounded. He can't believe his eyes. He tells us that she shines brighter than any light he has ever seen:
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night.
He offers the contrast to the light in these lines:
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
His use of light and dark in describing his fair maiden helps us see her as he does. The use of dark in his language makes her light shine even brighter. There are many examples of the juxtaposition between light and dark, which is fitting considering the movement between comedy and tragedy, and the fated love of Romeo and Juliet.
Opposing Points of View
In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio is a voice that provides the audience with an alternate point of view on a variety of subjects. When Romeo is blind with love, he feels as though Romeo is unable to see the reality of the situation. When we are witness to Tybalt's sense of honor, it is Mercutio who reminds us that such single-minded devotion renders a person both blind and stupid.
Mercutio is equally critical of the servants. He is vocal about his disdain when the musicians care about their lost wages. We are shown the gulf between the nobility who thrive on duels and drama and the servants who worry about realities such as poverty and disease.
The poison plays a larger role than just that of a tool used to bring about death. It's the embodiment of Romeo's love for Juliet. When Romeo awakens to find Juliet apparently dead, he realizes he will not, cannot live without her. He says as he prepares to drink the poison and join his beloved Juliet:
Here's to my love! O true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.
Juliet awakens from her sleep to find her Romeo dead in the tomb. She does not want to live without her love, so she decides to try to take the poison from his lips. We hear her say:
O churl! drunk all, and left no friendly drop
To help me after? I will kiss thy lips.
Thumb-biting is a childish way to insult. The thumb is placed behind the front teeth and then flicked in the direction of the person to be insulted. It is usually seen as annoying rather than a direct affront. The Capulet and the Montague feud is silly and ridiculous. The violence that has ensued as a result of the feud is equally unnecessary. Thumb-biting is intended to help us see that the feud and the violence are foolish and without merit.
All right, let's take a couple of moments to review what we've learned. The motifs and symbols prevalent in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet help the audience understand the players and the issues of the time. We learned that motifs are recurring things that serve symbolic purposes within stories and that symbols are simply things in a story that signify other things, usually ideas. We see themes such as the use of light and dark, and opposing points of view. Symbols like the use of poison and thumb-biting, or a childish way to insult someone else, add information that fill in the gaps of understanding.
The use of light and dark is intended to provide sensory contrast rather than a statement on the concept of good and evil. The comparison of night to day is seen throughout the play.
We are aware of a number of opposing viewpoints. Mercutio is quite vocal when he tells Romeo that he has been blinded by his love for Juliet, and as a result, is not able to see the situation clearly. He also shows differing thoughts when looking a life from the servants' points of view and the noble's viewpoint.
The use of poison is intended to amplify the intensity of Romeo's love for Juliet. He uses poison to kill himself when he believes she is dead, and she, in turn, uses poison from his lips to kill herself when she awakes and finds him dead. It represents the power of their love.
Thumb-biting is an annoying insult as opposed to calling someone out for a duel. The main idea behind the use of this tool is to help the reader understand that the feud between the two families is silly and ridiculous.