Onomatopoeia in Romeo and Juliet

Instructor: Monica Sedore

Monica holds a master's degree and teaches 11th grade English. Previously, she has taught first-year writing at the collegiate level and worked extensively in writing centers.

One might not expect to see words such as ''Bam'' and ''Pow'' in William Shakespeare's iconic tragedy, 'Romeo and Juliet,' but even Shakespeare used onomatopoeia to convey meaning and shape his work.

Introduction

'Bam!' and 'Pow!' are common onomatopoeias--words that sound like their meaning. The pronunciation of these words mimics the sounds they represent. Comic books are among the most recognized texts using onomatopoeias. In a play, actions exist as stage commands such as 'Enter Juliet' or 'Stabs herself.' The movements of the actors and delivery of the lines are open for interpretation. One Juliet may stab herself with a dramatic sigh, while another may grunt. Consistency from one performance of Romeo and Juliet to the next often depends on a script's dialogue and by extension, onomatopoeia.

Bringing the Play to Life

A Violent Beginning

Romeo and Juliet opens with an explosive fight between the Montagues and the Capulets--a fitting beginning for a story about 'a pair of star-cross'd lovers' (I.Prologue.6). As the dust settles, Romeo's cousin, Benvolio is asked to explain what happened to his aunt and uncle. He describes his enemy, Tybalt, as a foe who 'swung about his head and cut the winds,/Who nothing hurt withal hiss'd him in scorn' (I.i.113-4). In the play, Romeo's friend Mercutio calls Tybalt the 'Prince of Cats,' (II.iv.20) an insulting reference to Reynard Fox's fable featuring a feline character of the same name. The hiss Benvolio earlier describes is an appropriately cat-like noise. Both Mercutio's nickname and Benvolio's description evoke an image in the mind of the audience. This is the purpose of onomatopoeia.

Romeo

After the Montagues' discussion of Tybalt, they turn their attention to the notably absent Romeo. His father laments that his son has 'Many a morning hath he there been seen,/With tears augmenting the fresh morning's dew,/Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs' (I.i.134-6). Unlike Tybalt, Romeo is a thoughtful, sensitive young man. Romeo's father paints an image of Romeo's melancholic sighs adding to the clouds in the sky.

Juliet

The image ascribed to Juliet is one of a child, as she is only fourteen. As her mother and her nurse discuss her maturity and potential for a marriage to Paris, Juliet says that such an event would be 'an honor that I dream not of,' (I.iii.71) much to her mother's chagrin. Nurse says, 'An honor? Were not I thine only nurse,/I would say thou hadst suck'd wisdom from thy/Teat' (I.iii.72-4). The image here is perhaps that of Juliet as a newborn calf drinking from its mother. Nurse implies that Juliet received wisdom in addition to the milk. At the end of the play, when Romeo sees Juliet's body laid out for viewing, he perceives 'death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath,/Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty' (V.iii.91-2). The image turns to death sucking that life and wisdom back out of Juliet. 'Suck' is an onomatopoeic word in both cases.

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