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Shakespeare's Oxymorons

Updated on April 4, 2018
kerbev profile image

I love everything weird and colorful in this world and I try to live a life that will make the world a little better once I'm gone.


Oxymora in Shakespeare's Works

Shakespeare used the oxymoron quite often to express mixed emotions both in his plays and his sonnets. "Fair is foul, and foul is fair", "Parting is such sweet sorrow", "O brawling love! O loving hate!" - these are a few of his famous oxymora. Let's take a look at his use of the oxymoron, and we'll throw in a few paradoxes just for the fun of it.

The oxymora are underlined, the paradoxes italicized. To view the quote within the context around it, click on the chapter reference.

(Technically the plural of oxymoron is oxymora, but since so many people use oxymorons and language is always evolving, I'll use both.)

Romeo and Juliet

Oxymorons in Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet is a love story that is just filled with oxymora, but that's sort of how love is. It's wonderful and it's painful.


Act 1, Scene 1

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.

* (As pointed out by tandemonimom, "serious vanity" used here is an oxymoron because "vanity" here means not being vain or proud, but (in context with the oxymorons around it) the older sense of emptiness, or "something worthless, trivial, or pointless" as the dictionary defines it.)

Act 2, Scene 2

Parting is such sweet sorrow.

Struggling between her love for Romeo, and the criticizing him for killing Tybalt, Juliet whips out these few lines with a whopping six oxymorons and four paradoxes:

Act 3, Scene 2
O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
Beautiful tyrant! fiond 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 mortal 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.

Macbeth - Oxymorons in Macbeth

Illustration for a Scene from "Macbeth"
Illustration for a Scene from "Macbeth" | Source

Paradoxes in Macbeth

Act 1, Scene 1
Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Act 1, Scene 3
So foul and fair a day I have not seen!

Act 1, Scene 3
My dull brain was wrought
With things forgotten

Act 3, Scene 4

I must be cruel only to be kind: Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind.

You are the queen, your husband's brother's wife.

More on Shakespeare's Use of Oxymora

These articles go into further detail about Shakespeare's use of oxymora.

Julius Caesar

Oxymorons in Julius Caesar

Act 5, Scene 1

Tut, I am in their bosoms, and I know
Wherefore they do it: they could be content
To visit other places; and come down
With fearful bravery, thinking by this face
To fasten in our thoughts that they have courage;
But 'tis not so.

The Tempest

An Oxymoron in The Tempest

Act 4, Scene 1

Do that good mischief which may make this island thine own forever...

Twelth Night

Oxymorons in Twelth Night

Act 2, Scene 4
Come hither, boy: if ever thou shalt love,
In the sweet pangs of it remember me;

Act 2, Scene 4
Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.

Act 2, Scene 5
She that would alter services with thee,

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Oxymorons in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Act 5, Scene 1

A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisby; very tragical mirth.'
Merry and tragical! tedious and brief!
That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow."

The Sonnets

Oxymorons in Shakespeare's Sonnets

Sonnet 1

And, tender churl, mak'st waste in niggarding:

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,

To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.

Sonnet 40
I do forgive thy robbery, gentle thief

Sonnet 72
Unless you would devise some virtuous lie

Sonnet 144
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.

Sonnet 151
Then, gentle cheater, urge not my amiss,

Guestbook - Tell us what's on your mind... (you don't have to do it in Shakespeare's english)

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    • EdwardLane profile image

      Edward Lane 

      6 months ago from Wichita Falls, Texas

      Okay, I won’t do this in Old English! It would be such sorrowful sweetness to do so. And such easy difficulty. I love this article. So original. So well written. This oxymora analysis is the best I’ve read. Hope the author writes many more!

    • profile image

      sierradawn lm 

      6 years ago

      I had never noticed before how many oxymora are found in Shakespeare's work. This is such a fascinating lens and a wonderful tribute to Shakespeare.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I read everyone of Shakespeare's plays in college. He is a master of language. There hasn't been another writer who even comes close to his genius.

    • compugraphd profile image


      8 years ago


      I love oxymora (we had the word "oxymora" in a double crosstix puzzle -- I realized it was the plural of oxymoron when oxymoron didn't fit, but most of the letters worked and then I realized it needed to be plural based on the clue). I should have known Shakespeare would have them in his work. Great lens!

    • Thrinsdream profile image


      8 years ago

      Yesterday we were thinking of as many oxymorons as possible and today TAH DAH your article. Just to raise a smile we came up with working lunch, politically correct, army intelligence and student teacher . . well it made me smile. Loved this article. With thanks and appreciation. Cathi x

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Wow fascinating. My girlfriend thought these were interesting. She said "You can read Shakespeare more to me, if you want". LOL!

    • Celticep profile image


      8 years ago from North Wales, UK

      Fascinating lens! I'm going to Facebook share this so that my daughter, who is a Shakespeare addict, can enjoy it too! :)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      @spanish121: awfully Pretty

    • siobhanryan profile image


      8 years ago

      (Parting is such sweet sorrow) is my favorite. Nice lens

    • kindoak profile image


      8 years ago

      Ah, words.. the soothing splendor of language which makes me terribly peaceful :)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Horribly Lovely - Thankyou

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      @kerbev: ha-ha, you overestimate me, I'm not that talented )

    • kerbev profile imageAUTHOR

      Kerri Bee 

      8 years ago from Upstate, NY

      @anonymous: haha - I thought it was a Shakespearean Insult with a lisp. :-)

    • flycatcherrr profile image


      8 years ago

      Delightful. Language play like this is just one of the many reasons why Shakespeare is still, always, worth reading!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      @kerbev: not wench, went (th) lol

      And pardon me, since English is my seventh language ;)

    • kerbev profile imageAUTHOR

      Kerri Bee 

      8 years ago from Upstate, NY

      @anonymous: Who you callin' a clapping wench?!?!?

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Oh, humble genius! Femida lens! To thee my silent clapping wentth

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Great lens! I read this in school, and this has brought my to a whole new understanding of his writing. Nice work!

    • profile image

      Auntie-M LM 

      8 years ago

      What a fun lens! Did you know that in Shakespeare's time people had a working vocabulary roughly 18 times more than ours today? That is likely why his poetry is so exquisite.

    • esvoytko lm profile image

      esvoytko lm 

      8 years ago

      Keynes would later adapt the "foul is fair" quote to describe the historical necessity of capitalism. I think most people don't realize he took the phrase from Shakespeare. Great lens!

    • profile image

      Nimsrules LM 

      8 years ago

      I've always been a huge fan of this great poet. You vocabulary automatically developed while reading Shakespeare's works.

    • Einar A profile image

      Einar A 

      8 years ago

      Shakespeare contributed so much to the English language as we know it today. This is a fun and informative lens!

    • Barb McCoy profile image

      Barb McCoy 

      8 years ago

      Gold mine! I am a homeschooling mom of a teen who loves Shakespeare. I am going to share this lens with him as part of our literature study. Thanks and blessed.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Shakespeare was certainly a joker:-)

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I really like this lens. Romeo and Juliet was riddled with oxymorons I seem to remember. That's the nature of love, though, I suppose.

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 

      9 years ago from UK

      I didn't know Shakespeare was such a fan of using oxymorons... but this is certainly proof of that!

    • ArtByLinda profile image

      Linda Hoxie 

      11 years ago from Idaho

      Very nice lens, I love Shakespeare, and never really thought about the oxymorons! Found you on the ransom lens viewer, and I am happy I did!

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      i thought there was supposed to be only seven oxymorons in act one scene two of romeo and juliet? i counted ten!

    • MargoPArrowsmith profile image


      11 years ago

      Do you teach this stuff? If not, it would make nice small seminar material on college campuses. ***** And I think you have a new career!

    • jimmielanley profile image

      Jimmie Quick 

      11 years ago from Memphis, TN, USA

      Lensrolled to my Shakespeare for Children lens. Thanks for the fun oxymorons. Shakespeare was a master with words.


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