Motifs and Symbols in Romeo and Juliet

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

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 will look at the imagery of light and dark and opposing points of view as well as the symbols of poison and thumb-biting.

Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet

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. The use of light and dark is meant to provide sensory contrast rather than an explanation of good vs. 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'

Romeo replies:

'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.

Poison

The poison plays a larger role than just that of a tool used to bring about death. It is 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

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