William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is a tragedy rife with contrasting pairs.
William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy rife with contrasting pairs: light and dark, day and night, young and old, and love and hate. The love that the young, beautiful Romeo and Juliet have for each other stands in stark opposition to the age-old feud of the Capulets and the Montagues, and in this way, the lovers challenge the power of love and the banality of the rivalry. The poetry that the lovers use in addressing each other, which is often rooted in metaphors having to do with light, enact this contrast. Though the language of the fighting and the feud does not use darkness so distinctly, it is often implied, and death, which this feud inevitably leads to, can be seen as an interchangeable symbol for darkness. This is especially clear at the end of the play as Romeo and Juliet die together in a tomb, which is an inherently dark place. Romeo and Juliet alike often use darkness in their love poetry to show what their love is not, and to further amplify the significance of the light that they use to describe their love for each other. The contrast between light and dark, between love and hate do not just simply arise from the themes interwoven throughout the play, as the contrasts find themselves most deeply rooted in the language of the poetry.
More than making the claim that beauty, lightness, and love are intertwined, it is necessary to distinguish that the characters themselves believe these concepts are related. When Montague is complaining of Romeo’s melancholic state, he says that Romeo hides himself from the “all-cheering sun” and that he “Shuts up his windows, locks fair daylight out,/ And makes himself an artificial night.”1 From this we can see that there is a clear connection between the sun and daylight, thus lightness, and happiness. Since, in moping, Romeo creates an “artificial night,” it is implied that he is purposely matching his depressive state with a dark atmosphere.
In the very first instance that Romeo catches sight of Juliet at the Capulets’ party, he cannot help but speak aloud of the beauty that she radiates, before even knowing who she is. Romeo says of her, “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!/ It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night.”2 To Romeo, Juliet burns even brighter than the very definition of light itself—fire, signaled in “the torch”—and in one of many instances, is using the contrast of darkness—“night”—to further elucidate how bright Juliet truly is. When Romeo is talking of Juliet’s brightness, it is clearly tied to her beauty as in the same passage of speech he claims, “For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night,” which also speaks to the initial, and lasting, intensity that Romeo feels for Juliet’s beauty.3
Later on, in act 2, when Romeo is speaking to Juliet from her balcony, in order to express how extravagant he finds her beauty to be, he again draws a comparison to light. He begins by saying,
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief.”4
Juliet shines so brilliantly to Romeo that he calls her the sun. This metaphor is more beautiful beyond this simple statement because of the way the image is set up. Romeo first looks up at her perched at the balcony and ponders what light is breaking through, and then moves to say that, as the sun rises in the east, it is Juliet, who is just as bright as the brightest star we can see in the sky. And to say that the antithesis of the sun, the moon—which shines not but is sickly and hangs in the night not in the day—is jealous of Juliet, the sun, is a wonderful personification, one that strikes so bold partly because of the universality that the sun and the moon have. The moon and the sun are wonders that every person can look up in the sky to see and marvel at.
Romeo continues on with this grand comparison, claiming that
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
that birds would sing and think it were not night5
To Romeo, Juliet is so radiant that she shames the brightness of the stars, which is such an extravagant claim given that stars are the brightest and most other worldly thing that the human eye can see. He compares Juliet’s outshining the stars to how much brighter the sun shines than a mere lamp, which is again an analogy of grandeur. Romeo is so overtaken by Juliet’s beauty that he draws out the metaphor in proclaiming that if Juliet’s eyes were in the night sky, they would shine so bright that the birds would be tricked into thinking that it was daylight. Not only are the metaphors that Romeo’s use so stately, as he is drawing comparisons between Juliet and the grandest possible things we can witness—the sun and the stars—but he is also evoking such delicate and alluring images: singing birds, twinkling stars, the rising sun. How could one not be taken aback by the magnificence and exquisiteness of his speech? And again he is drawing comparison to night, to darkness; it is daytime when we hear the beautiful song of the bird, not night, but it is Juliet that can illuminate this darkness.
Though Romeo has no shortage of speeches wherein he illustrates the luminous and beautiful qualities of Juliet, Juliet also expresses her love for Romeo in words. In parting after they romance to each other at Juliet’s balcony, Juliet tells Romeo, “This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath,/ May prove a beauteous flow’r when next we meet.”6 Though this text does not make direct reference to lightness, as a lot of Romeo’s expressions do, the images of summer and flowers are still very evocative of light. The sun shines brighter and longer in the summer, and sunlight is necessary for flowers to bloom and grow. Likening the beginning of their love to a flower bud that flourishes not just with the simple sunlight but with the eloquent “summer’s ripening breath” is very striking.
Later in the play, in act 3, Juliet longs for Romeo and for him to come to her at night, and she says of this, “For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night/ Whiter than new snow upon a raven’s back.”7 In their love language, Romeo and Juliet are establishing the connection between beauty and lightness, and the effect that contrasting it to night, and therefore darkness, has. Juliet conjures the purity and untouched beauty of new snow, to which she likens Romeo. Juliet threads a connection to birds in the different lines of her poetry, saying that the night has “wings,” and then going on to compare the blackness of night to the blackness of a raven. Juliet continues on in this passage to say of Romeo that she wishes she could “Take him and cut him out in little stars . . ./ That all the world will be in love with night/ And pay no worship to the garish sun.”8 It is interesting that Juliet calls the sun, which has previously been seen as a good thing, garish. But this is only in the context that if Romeo were to be stars in the sky, it would finally make the night so beautiful and so appreciated that the sun would pale in comparison.
It is well established that Romeo and Juliet find intense love in each other as especially inspired by beauty, and this is expressed in bewitching poetry. This poetry makes their love stand out so strongly, and also in such opposition to the darkness and malice of the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues. The negative qualities associated with darkness in their language also parallels the metaphorical darkness of their families’ rivalry. The play opens up with a petty battle on the street between the men of Capulet and Montague, forcing the Prince to break it up. The Prince speaks to the crowd saying,
Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word
By thee, old Capulet, and Montague,
Have thrice disturbed the quiet of our streets.9
In saying this, the Prince is showing how banal and absurd their fighting is. Their fighting, based in ancient history, emerged because of mere “airy words,” thus disturbing everyone else for no particular reason. Unfortunately, the death and disruption that the feud causes in the beginning is minor compared to the rest of the play, and appears even more somber when compared to the love poetry of Romeo and Juliet.
Romeo and Juliet, as evidenced in the language that they use, have a beautiful love for each other, which is dramatized by the fact that it is forbidden and itself kept in the dark. Their forbidden love also highlights the immaturity and the darkness of the feud; as the reason their love has to be kept secret, the feud pales when compared to their passion for each other, and so seems like not a very good reason for keeping the two apart. When Romeo and Juliet are talking to each other in the balcony scene in act 2, Juliet warns Romeo, “And the place death, considering who thou art, / If any of my kinsmen find thee here.”10 How drastic and how grim is it that if two young lovers were found talking to each other, with no connection to the age-old feud except in name, that Romeo would be put to death by the Capulets? Juliet also says this after they had just gone on professing their passion for each other using many light-based metaphors, which is put in perfect contrast with the darkness of death that could come their way if they were discovered.
In a way, Romeo and Juliet’s love acts as a rebellion against their families’ feud. The feud is rooted in ancient history between old men, while Romeo and Juliet’s relationship arose from new history between young teenagers. Their rebellion against the feud, and their attempt to soften the hatred does not quite work until they are both dead. Before the two lovers reach their end, there is an instance in which Romeo tries to avoid the conflict in peace and in lightness. In the beginning of act 3, Mercutio and Tybalt are engaging in a heated banter when Romeo enters the scene, and Tybalt says to him, “Romeo, the love I bear thee can afford/ No better term than this: thou art a villain.”11 This in itself shows how far reaching the feud has become: Romeo is called a villain, an evil person, only for the reason that he belongs to the rival family, to the dark side. Romeo, knowing that he loves a Capulet, tries to restore harmony in telling Tybalt, “Villain am I none./ Therefore farewell. I see thou knowest me not.”12 Unfortunately, this good intentioned notion founded in Romeo’s love for Juliet fails as Tybalt kills Mercutio, and after saying that Juliet has softened his manhood and his courage, Romeo ends up killing Tybalt.13 As much as their love has tried to alleviate the darkness and break the endurance of the feud, it just has not worked at this point and fruitless murder and hostility continues to prevail.
Unfortunately, as much as they tried, the two lovers are not free agents. Romeo and Juliet tried to subvert the destiny that their families laid out for them, but this only ended in their joint death. As Romeo approaches Juliet at the tomb, thinking she is dead even though she is not yet, he is still struck by her beauty and the light that it emits, “For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes/ This vault a feasting presence full of light.”14 The themes of light and dark are seen at the very initial moment that Romeo sees Juliet, and thus also at the very last moment he lays his eyes on her. Her beauty is still so illuminating and powerful that it lights up the darkness of the tomb, a place of death. Romeo kills himself with poison right after he speaks of Juliet’s beauty one last time, and when Juliet wakes up and sees him dead, she plunges his dagger into her chest thus joining him in his departed state. In this way, Romeo and Juliet ultimately transcend the feud. If they could not be alive and in love with each other in peace and in the open, the only other way for them to escape the fate that their families imposed on them, was death. Though, Romeo kills himself because he falsely believes Juliet is dead, it was as if killing themselves was the only moment where the two lovers were able to take control of their fate, even if this fate was ultimately precipitated by the feud.
The youth, beauty, love, and illumination that Romeo and Juliet shared could not save themselves nor end the feud when they were alive. Their relationship could only mend the discord between the Capulets and the Montagues after they killed themselves. When everyone arrives at the scene of the death, including Capulat, Lady Capulet, and Montague, the Prince once again acts as the voice of reason against the feud saying,
See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love. 15
Realizing that their feud has led pure love between their two children to lead to two tragic deaths, the families finally make up. Capulet says to Montague, “O brother Montague, give me thy hand,” and in response, Montague says, “But I can give thee more.”16 Unfortunately, life is a tragedy, and sometimes coming to understand the power of love over hate, of light over dark can only be realized in the wake of catastrophe.While tragic, Romeo and Juliet’s youthful rebellion did work in the end to lighten the dark feud.
- William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (The Pelican Shakespeare, Penguin Books, 2016) 1.1.133; 1.1.138-139.
- Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 1.5.45-46.
- Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 1.5.54.
- Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 2.1.2-5.
- Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 2.1.19-22.
- Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.121-122.
- Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 3.2.18-19.
- Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 3.2.22-25.
- Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 1.1.88-90.
- Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.64-65.
- Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 3.1.59-60.
- Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 3.1.63-64.
- Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 3.1.112-14
- Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 5.3.85-86.
- Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 5.3.291-293.
- Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 5.3.296; 5.3.298.