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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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