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Symbolism in Romeo and Juliet

Updated on April 22, 2013
Romeo and Juliet by Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893)
Romeo and Juliet by Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893) | Source

Romeo and Juliet: that much adapted tragedy known by everyone, yet, I’m guessing, understood and sincerely enjoyed by a significantly smaller number of the population. Admittedly, Shakespeare can be a bit daunting when first approached, particularly due to the vast amount of matalanguage that is crammed into his work. One important feature that can be difficult to grasp in Shakespearian plays is symbolism, particularly prevalent in the timeless Romeo and Juliet.

  • Light/Dark: Like the weather in general, lightness/darkness is a frequently employed image within literary work, often revealing far more than just aspects of the environment. In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo’s likening of Juliet to a radiant sun who banishes the moon, coupled with Juliet’s desperation after their night together to pretend that it was the ‘nightingale, not the lark’ who sang out its note, signalling night rather than the arrival of morning, merges the contrasting ideas of night and day and dark and light. Furthermore, Juliet is not only the one who teaches the ‘torches to burn bright,’ but also the jewel who hangs in an ‘Ethiope’s ear,’ heightening the opposition of lightness and darkness. This constant, stark contrast emphasises the incongruent clashing of the characters who, despite their opposite backgrounds, endeavour to be together. In doing so, it symbolises the multitude of contrasts within the play, paralleling the opposite notions of love and hate, fate and human action, and death and passion.
  • Queen Mab: Mercutio’s sudden speech is long and utterly ridiculous, but I’m fairly confident that Shakespeare didn’t sit at home rubbing his hands together in joy at finally having discovered the best way to antagonise students for centuries to come. At least … I’m partially sure. It can be of great difficulty to wrap your head around the notion that a tiny fairy flies all over the place causing mischief and havoc, indeed, Romeo expresses this very sentiment, ‘Thou talk’st of nothing.’ It appears that Shakespeare doesn’t want us to be able to comprehend the true depths of the speech, for that would undermine its purpose. After all, Mercutio speaks not of truth, but of dreams, the ‘children of an idle brain,’ apparently rebuking Romeo’s ceaseless pining for Rosaline. Queen Mab, therefore, symbolises the immaturity of dream-like desires, drawing attention to the idiocy and insignificance of Romeo’s yearning, thus highlighting the notion of immaturity and forcing the audience to question the sincerity of Romeo’s love throughout the play.

Poison is an important symbol.
Poison is an important symbol. | Source
  • Poison: Just in case Romeo’s tragic death scene didn’t provide enough evidence, yes, poison is indeed of particular importance to the play. Romeo’s suicide by poison, followed by Juliet’s by stabbing (only after she’s failed to obtain an adequate amount of poison from Romeo’s lips) forces the audience to question whether it was indeed the literal poison that is responsible for the tragedy (including the potion taken by Juliet in order to feign death), or the metaphorical poison generated by the Montague-Capulet feud. After all, it is their utter hatred that forces the young lovers to extremes in the first place. This notion is encapsulated by Friar Lawrence’s insistence that flowers, like men, possess both ‘poison’ and ‘medicine power’. It would seem that the noxious family feud has helped to poison Romeo and Juliet’s love, resulting in a tragedy that is, unsurprisingly, largely orchestrated by concoctions and poison. However, it is also this love that helps to heal the rivalry between the families, resulting in their unification. The literal poison within the play, therefore, seems to symbolise the metaphorical poison that is spread by the family members, leading to death and destruction, yet ultimately revealing an ability, if used correctly, to heal.
  • Thumb biting: If Queen Mab symbolisesfanciful dreams and immaturity, then thumb biting escalates it to a whole new level. Romeo and Juliet opens with a quarrel between Montague and Capulet servants, where the question of, ‘Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?’ is thrown around a bit. Thumb biting, a rude Elizabethan gesture, serves as the epitome of the immature and futile foundations to which the feud between the families has declined. The servants have no cause to be insulting one another, and their actions are therefore pointless and childish. By opening the play with such an exchange, Shakespeare seems to outline from the very beginning the ridiculous nature of the feud, foreshadowing the death and destruction that is to come as a result of such immaturity. Thumb biting, pointless and unnecessary, symbolises the feud itself, conjuring up a sense of its futility and destructive forces from the very outset.

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