William Shakespeare’s play, “The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet,” is the story of two “star crossed” lovers who both meet a tragic end. Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy; however, the poetic and vivid manner in which Shakespeare engages the viewer or reader make this a beautiful play. The story of Romeo and Juliet is timeless, and it has provided a model for many other stories. The story line or plot in Romeo and Juliet is well loved by many around the world, but that is not what gives the play its special quality.
Just as in most of Shakespeare’s plays, words and phrases with double meanings, imagery and poetry are all used to create a play that is not only a pleasure for the eyes, but one for the ears and mind as well. The following statement by Romeo in act one scene one provides a good example of this:
Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs,
Being purg’d, a fire sparkling in lover’s eyes,
Being vex’d, a sea nourish’d with loving tears.
What is it else? A madness most discreet,
A choking gall, and a preserving sweet (Riverside, 1.1.190-193).
Shakespeare’s use of these components is exquisite and allows for much deeper involvement by the reader or viewer. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare uses imagery in the forms of lightness and darkness, animals, and plants or herbs to provide the reader or viewer with a more vivid and enjoyable experience.
Lightness and Darkness
Imagery of lightness and darkness is used extensively throughout Romeo and Juliet to symbolize and/or describe events that take place. Capulet describes the party he is planning with lightness and darkness, “Earth-treading stars that make dark heaven light”(1.2.25). Stars continue to have a role in the play as Juliet mentions her own death she claims,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with the night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun(3.2.22-25).
It seems that Juliet, unknowingly, is describing the future in a symbolic sense.
Later in the play, after Romeo is banished from Verona for the slaying of Tybalt, he and Juliet exchange lines that are full of light imagery. As the dawn is approaching, Romeo describes the view, “Look, love, what envious streaks / Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east / Night’s candles are burnt out . . . ”(3.5.7-9). Romeo is telling Juliet with this line that the sun is coming up, which could be dangerous for him since he has been banished. However, Juliet seems to disclaim Romeo’s claim with her own saying,
Yond light is not day-light, I know it, I;
It is some meteor that the sun [exhaled]
To be to thee this night a torch-bearer
And light thee on thy way to Mantua(3.5.13-15).
However, Juliet realizes that Romeo is right, so she sends him off.
In the same scene Romeo uses more light and dark imagery when he says, “More light and light, more dark and dark / our woes!(3.5.36-37). Apparently, Romeo is saying that their love, light, will bring about their death, dark. Furthermore, Romeo’s words seem to indicate the “two” lovers by repeating the words light and dark two times each. Nevertheless, events are not the only aspect of the play that lightness and darkness seem to have significance.
Feelings or emotions are described several times in the play through images of lightness and darkness. Upon Romeo’s first sight of his future wife he states, “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright”(1.5.44). Romeo’s feelings about Juliet’s beauty are very well known by the reader or viewer. Later in the play, Romeo speaks some of the most well known words from the play, “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks / It is the east and Juliet is the sun”(2.2.2-3). During this scene, Romeo describes Juliet as being so radiant that her light does to the sunlight what the sunlight does to a lamp. This is very powerful imagery, which seems to indicate that Juliet has much control over Romeo.
Animal imagery, especially in the form of birds, seems to be a recurring theme in the play. In act two, scene two, Juliet summons Romeo, “Hist, Romeo, hist! O, for a falc’ner’s voice / To lure this tassel-gentle back again(2.2.158-59). This is falconry terminology from that time period. Furthermore, in an article from Notes and Queries, titled, “Romeo’s Niece: A Note on ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ”author Horst Breuer, referring to the usage of the word “niesse” in act two scene two, maintains, “An ‘eyas’ is a hawk or falcon fledgling, a young inexperienced bird which may be tamed and trained easily”(54).
It would seem that Juliet is the hawk, and Romeo is the falconer. Nevertheless, references to other animal forms is a common theme throughout the play.
Some of the references to animal imagery are romantic, while others are not so romantic. Romeo is awestricken by Juliet’s beauty as he compares her to the other women at the party, “So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows”(1.5.48). After Juliet learns of Tybalt’s death at the hands of her beloved, Romeo, She uses a series of oxymorons that use images of animals. Juliet says, “Dove-feather’d raven! wolvish ravening lamb”(3.2.76). Juliet is expressing her mixed emotions about the terrible thing that has happened. This type of imagery is common in the play, but it is not the most common or the most important.
Herbs and Plants
Probably, the most important and the most common type of imagery in this tragedy are the references to herbs and plants. In act one scene three, the nurse and Lady Capulet are discussing Paris, Lady Capulet says, “Verona’s summer hath not such a flower”(1.3.77). In the article, “Verona’s Summer Flower: the “Virtues” of Herb Paris in ’Romeo and Juliet,” in the journal, ANQ, Susanna Greer Fein describes the symbolic importance of Paris:
Count Paris is a character in Shakespeare’s ’Romeo and Juliet’ whose name is an allusion to the herb paris. Otherwise known as ’four-leaved grass,’ ’true love’s knot,’ ’true lover’s knot’ and ’truelove,’ herb paris, which is a flower that blooms only in summer, is a fitting symbolism because Count Paris’ love for Juliet fades with time. In contrast, Romeo, whose name is a connotation for the herb rosemary or remembrance, offers a more lasting love for Juliet(5).
It is fitting that herbs be symbolically portrayed in the play.
The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is a masterpiece that withstands the test of time. According to some of his sonnets, Shakespeare hoped that his work would live on, and it has. His wonderful ability to use such vivid and symbolic imagery as he does in this play amazes this writer.
Breuer, Horst. “Romeo’s niece: a note on ’Romeo and Juliet.”
Notes and Queries March 1997: 44.1. Gale Group. Cameron University Library., Lawton, OK.14 July. 2000