Tag Archives: opposites

The Use of Opposites in “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare

We all know the story about the “pair of star-crossed lovers.” It has almost become cliché, which was why I’ve been putting off reading it again. But since one of my goals is to cover all of Shakespeare’s work on this blog, I figured I might as well reread and write about this play.

As I was going through it and taking notes, a motif became apparent to me that seemed like an interesting topic to write about, and that is the use of opposites within the text.

Throughout the play, Shakespeare employs opposites to create tension in the language. These opposites also serve as metaphors symbolizing the contrary forces that are pulling at the characters in the play. And while these opposites are constantly at odds with each other, they are both necessary for maintaining a balance. Essentially, we need to learn how to deal with opposites in a constructive way if we want to maintain healthy relationships and a stable society.

So let’s look at some examples from the text.

During the first scene of the play, Romeo expresses the inner turmoil caused by his unrequited love for Rosaline by using a string of opposites.

Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O anything, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! serious vanity!
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.

(Act I: scene i)

In Act II, Friar Laurence delivers a soliloquy regarding opposites in nature. One gets that sense that opposing forces are part of the divine order of things in the world, that you cannot have the glory of a sunrise without the darkness of night, or life without death, or growth without decay.

The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night,
Chequering the eastern clouds with streaks of light,
And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels
From forth day’s path and Titan’s fiery wheels:
Now, ere the sun advance his burning eye,
The day to cheer and night’s dank dew to dry,
I must up-fill this osier cage of ours
With baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers.
The earth that’s nature’s mother is her tomb;
What is her burying grave that is her womb,
And from her womb children of divers kind
We sucking on her natural bosom find,
Many for many virtues excellent,
None but for some and yet all different.
O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities:
For nought so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give,
Nor aught so good but strain’d from that fair use
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse:
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;
And vice sometimes by action dignified.
Within the infant rind of this small flower
Poison hath residence and medicine power:
For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part;
Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart.
Two such opposed kings encamp them still
In man as well as herbs, grace and rude will;
And where the worser is predominant,
Full soon the canker death eats up that plant.

(Act II: scene iii)

Finally, we see Juliet using opposites to describe her struggle with conflicting emotions regarding Romeo. On the one hand, she loves him as a husband and soul mate, but at the same time she has feelings of hate and anger at the fact that Romeo killed Tybalt.

O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
Beautiful tyrant! fiend angelical!
Dove-feather’d raven! wolvish-ravening lamb!
Despised substance of divinest show!
Just opposite to what thou justly seem’st,
A damned saint, an honourable villain!
O nature, what hadst thou to do in hell,
When thou didst bower the spirit of a fiend
In moral paradise of such sweet flesh?
Was ever book containing such vile matter
So fairly bound? O that deceit should dwell
In such a gorgeous palace!

(Act III: scene ii)

Our world seems much divided today. The Montagues and Capulets could symbolize any opposing groups: Democrats and Republicans, pro-life and pro-choice, for vaccines and against vaccines, the list could go on indefinitely. But what we need to learn from this play is that if we fail to reconcile our differences, then we will ultimately destroy ourselves, and people on both sides of the debates will suffer.

Thanks for stopping by, and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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“Death” by Neil Gaiman

I actually finished reading this book a few weeks ago, but I’ve been in the process of moving so the book got packed and I have also been way too busy to sit down and write up a post. But, alas, I’m settled in, so here we go.

This book is an offshoot of Gaiman’s classic Sandman saga. Death is Dream’s sister, depicted as a somewhat hipster woman with a touch of goth. I’d seen this on the shelves, but hadn’t bothered to buy it since I (wrongly) assumed it was nothing more that vignettes from Sandman that featured Death. While there were a few of those, most of what is in the compilation is stuff I had not read before. Anyway, I had donated a nice filing cabinet to the local comic store prior to my move, and as a show of gratitude, the owner offered me a book, so I chose this one.

As always, Gaiman’s writing is brilliant and evocative. And the rich storytelling is augmented by the rich artwork, which makes this book something worthy of a re-read.

One of the areas where Gaiman’s knowledge excels is in mythology, so it’s not surprising that he does a little bit of myth exploration in this book.

Mythologies take longer to die than people believe. They linger on in a kind of dream country that affects all of you.

(p. 55)

This is true. The thing about myths is that they enter into the subconscious, as well as the collective. Once embedded there, they may “die” in the sense that they fade from our ordinary state of consciousness, but it still lies hidden beneath the surface, affecting our thoughts, beliefs, and actions in ways we are not usually aware of.

Possibly my favorite passage in the book is when Death explains life to a person. I found the whole thing symbolic, that it is only through an understanding of a thing’s opposite that you can fully understand the thing itself.

Well. I think some of it is probably contrasts. Light and shadow. If you never had the bad times, how would you know you had the good times? But some of it is just: if you’re going to be human, then there are a whole load of things that come with it. Eyes, a heart, days and life. It’s the moments that illuminate it, though. The times you don’t see when you’re having them… They make the rest of it matter.

(p. 217)

While it would certainly help to have read at least some of the Sandman saga before reading this, it is by no means necessary. I think anyone can pick up this book and get something out of it. Highly recommended, as is everything Gaiman wrote, in my humble opinion.

Cheers!

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 41” by Lao Tzu

When a wise scholar hears the Tao,
He practises it diligently.
When a mediocre scholar hears the Tao,
He wavers between belief and unbelief.
When a worthless scholar hears the Tao,
He laughs boisterously at it.
But if such a one does not laugh at it,
The Tao would not be the Tao!

The wise men of old have truly said:

The bright Way looks dim.
The progressive Way looks retrograde.
The smooth Way looks rugged.
High Virtue looks like an abyss.
Great whiteness looks spotted.
Abundant Virtue looks deficient.
Established Virtue looks shabby.
Solid Virtue looks as though melted.
Great squareness has no corners.
Great talents ripen late.
Great sound is silent.
Great Form is shapeless.

The Tao is hidden and nameless;
Yet it alone knows how to render help and to fulfill.

This passage can be summed up in a single line from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: “All that glisters is not gold—.” Things are never all they appear. But Lao Tzu is also incorporating the yin and yang into his metaphors. Everything by natures also contains its opposite. Great squareness has no corners. Great sound is silent. In other words, nothing can exist without the opposite to balance it. The wise scholar cannot exist without the worthless one. There can be no life without death, and no death without life. There can be no peace without war, and no war without peace. There can be no light without darkness.

I feel like this is all I need to say about this passage. It is simple and yet profound, which is the genius of Lao Tzu. Thanks for stopping by.

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“A Dream” by Edgar Allan Poe: The Contrast of Light and Dark

Rembrandt

In visions of the dark night
I have dreamed of joy departed—
But a waking dream of life and light
Hath left me broken-hearted.

Ah! what is not a dream by day
To him whose eyes are cast
On things around him with a ray
Turned back upon the past?

That holy dream—that holy dream,
While all the world were chiding,
Hath cheered me as a lovely beam
A lonely spirit guiding.

What though that light, thro’ storm and night,
So trembled from afar—
What could there be more purely bright
In Truth’s day-star?

This is a poem of contrasts and opposites, most prominently the contrast of light and dark. But there are also contrasts between sleep and awakening, past and future, and happiness and sorrow. And while there is contrast, there is also balance. Even the fact that the poem is divided into four stanzas of four lines each generates a sense of balance, harmony, and stability. So this balance of opposites is the key to this poem, in my opinion.

In the final line of the poem, Poe mentions Truth—the big Truth with a capital T. This is the proverbial Holy Grail that philosophers, poets, and artists have sought after for millennia. Poe is asserting that the Truth lies somewhere in that nebulous space between the two opposites, between the darkness and the light. And the only way that one can glimpse that space where Truth hides is to embrace both the light and the dark and bring them into balance. Think of the Yin/Yang symbol. It is a balance of light and dark, of positive and negative. Both are needed in equal parts to achieve wholeness.

As we move into the dark period of the yearly cycle, we must be sure we maintain a balance of light.

Thanks for stopping by, and have a blessed day.

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“The Human Abstract” by William Blake

HumanAbstract

 Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we;

And mutual fear brings peace;
Till the selfish loves increase.
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears:
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.

Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Catterpillar and Fly,
Feed on the Mystery.

And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.

The Gods of the earth and sea
Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain

This is definitely one of the more mystical poems in the Songs of Experience. In Blake’s illustration for this poem, we see Urizen, the supreme god in Blake’s mythological pantheon, struggling to free himself from the bonds that hold him to the earth. I see this as symbolic for the personal struggle that we all face, trying to free ourselves from worldly trappings so we can elevate our consciousness and actualize the divine spirit within us all.

In the first two stanzas, Blake asserts that nothing can exist without its opposite. There can be no good without evil. There must always be a balance in order for things to exist in this universe.

In the third stanza, we see Urizen shedding tears which become the seeds from which grows the Tree of Mystery. Urizen, being the creator of all existence, understands that everything must have its opposite and mourns the lot of humanity, which will eternally grapple with fear, cruelty, and hatred. From Urizen’s tears the roots of the Tree of Mystery grow. The Tree of Mystery is Blake’s equivalent to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The tree bears fruits which are both good and evil, and as we see in the fifth stanza, the fruits of evil are certainly the most tempting.

In the fourth and fifth stanzas, Blake mentions three creatures: catterpillar, fly, and raven. These are symbols for the church and its priests, who feed on the leaves of the Tree of Mystery, who nest and hide within its branches, but have no understanding of the roots, or the hidden aspects. Blake is asserting that following church dogma will ultimately prevent you from discovering the secret to the divinity within you and the mystery of all creation.

I personally find the final stanza in the poem to be the most fascinating. Just like the biblical Tree of Knowledge, Blake’s Tree of Mystery is also hidden. “The Gods of the earth and sea” which he mentions I interpret to be humans, who have dominion over the earth. We have a tendency to seek outside ourselves for the truth, believing that the answers to the ultimate mystery must exist somewhere else. But this is not the case. The Tree of Mystery grows and is hidden within the human subconscious. It is the one place where too many of us fail to look, and hence the search for truth is often in vain.

This poem is a great introduction to Blake’s more complex metaphysical poetry. I encourage you to read it a few times and contemplate it. I’ll definitely be covering Blake’s deeper metaphysical poems once I complete all of the Songs of Experience.

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