Shakespeare;Imagery in Romeo and Juliet

Both commit suicide rather than be separated by their families’ feud. The play has survived for centuries because of not only its captivating storyline but also its stirring phraseology. Shakespeare infuses Romeo and Juliet with various types of imagery – for example, celestial, religious, avian, and light and dark references – that provide metaphoric meaning, influence the spectators’ (or readers’) moods, and foreshadow the lamentable end.

Heavenly imagery illuminates the brilliance of Romeo and Juliet’s relationship in the play. For example, Romeo says Juliet is like the sun, and that her eyes are “two of the fairest stars in all the heaven… her eye in heaven/Would through the airy region stream so bright/That birds would sing and think it were not night” (2. 2. 15-23). Juliet states that Romeo should be “cut… out in little stars” (3. 2. 24), and that daylight is “some meteor that the sun exhaled” (3. 5. 13). Humans have long been in awe of bright, dazzling astronomical objects like the meteors, stars, and sun that the lovers mention.

With frequent celestial imagery, Shakespeare shows how beautiful and out-of-this-world Romeo and Juliet’s love is. Spiritual language, while emphasizing the purity of Romeo and Juliet’s love, also foreshadows their tragic fate. Romeo’s first discussion with Juliet is about Christian pilgrimage that illustrates how divine, almost flawlessly sacred, his devotion to her is, like the pious connection between a worshipper and God. To him, her hand is a “holy shrine” and his lips are “two blushing pilgrims” (1. 5. 105-106). He calls her a “dear saint” (1. 5. 114) and a “bright angel… winged messenger of heaven” (2. 2. 29-31). His “pilgrim speech,” in which he convinces Juliet to let him kiss her, is written in sonnet form. The sonnet is the typical form of love poetry, and Shakespeare makes Romeo’s Christian language even more lyrical and beautiful. Later, their affection edges into blasphemy when Juliet names Romeo the “god of my idolatry” (2. 2. 119). Romeo and Juliet was written by Shakespeare in England, in Victorian times. His audience would have belonged to the Anglican Church, and surely would have noticed that Juliet’s statement is irreverent.

Though her adulation is touching, Juliet seems to be replacing God with Romeo, with passion supplanting faith. The audience would have thought that the lovers’ unfortunate suicides could have been influenced by heavenly retribution. The religious undertones throughout the play serve both to highlight Romeo and Juliet’s love, and to warn of the disastrous consequences. Avian imagery influences the atmosphere of scenarios in Romeo and Juliet. At the balcony scene, when the sweethearts exchange their vows of love, they employ descriptions of birds to express the simple cuteness of their fondness. O, for a falc’ner’s voice/To lure this tassel-gentle back again! ” (2. 2. 169-170) sighs Juliet, to which Romeo responds, “My nyas” (2. 2. 179, in some editions). Juliet also wishes that Romeo were “no farther than a wanton’s bird,/That lets it hop a little from his hand… And with a silken thread plucks it back again” (2. 2. 191-194). The birds they speak of, tamed falcons and pets, are benign, even loved; speaking of them makes their declarations of love prettier. After their marriage, when Romeo has killed Tybalt and has been exiled permanently from Verona, Juliet’s references to birds grows bleaker.

She starts off by pleading with Romeo to stay; “Nightly she sings on yond pomegranate. /Believe me, love, it was the nightingale” (3. 5. 4-5). Her language is still reminiscent of mellifluous sweetness, as is the scene: they have just spent the night together, and Romeo is only now leaving. But as daylight, and danger, approaches, the euphonious nightingale transforms into the cacophonous lark “that sings so out of tune,/Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps… she divideth us” (3. 5. 27-30). Her remark about how unpleasing the lark is mirrors the bitter situation that she and Romeo are in.

After Lord Capulet demands that Juliet marry Paris, even after she has married Romeo, the Nurse says that “An eagle, madam,/Hath not so green, so quick, so fair an eye/As Paris hath” (3. 5. 232-234). Though she means to compliment Paris, Nurse creates a contrast between Romeo and Paris. Unlike the tamed falcons mentioned by Romeo and Juliet, eagles are wild, and quick and eager to kill; while Romeo and Juliet’s relationship is gentle and fond, Juliet’s view of Paris is not nearly as loving. Shakespeare invokes moods fitting to particular scenes through avian imagery.

Light and dark imagery in Romeo and Juliet is not particularly metaphoric; light does not always stand for good, just as dark does not invariably represent evil. Rather, Shakespeare utilizes light and dark imagery to induce sharp contrasts. For example, Benvolio tells Romeo that, at the Capulet party, he “will make thee think thy swan a crow” (1. 2. 94), as though the difference between the white feathers of the swan and the black of the crow was like the distinctiveness between Rosaline and other beauties. “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night/As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear… a snowy dove trooping with crows” (1. 5. 51-55); “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? ” (2. 2. 2); “The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars/As daylight doth a lamp” (2. 2. 1-3); and “her beauty makes/This vault a feasting presence full of light” (5. 2. 85-86) are all praises that Romeo sings of Juliet. To him, she is as brilliant as light, and as different from all other people as white is from black and light is from dark.

Juliet says likewise: Romeo “wilt lie upon the wings of night/Whiter than new snow upon a raven’s back” (3. 2. 19-20). She, too, believes that Romeo is one-of-a-kind and dazzling. Light and dark imagery applies to situations as well. Their love is “like the lightning” (2. 2. 126), standing out against the background of the hate and violence in the feud. After Romeo and Juliet have consummated their marriage, the daytime and the sadness is brings is the opposite of the happiness of the past night: “More light and light, more dark and dark our woes” (3. 5. 36).

The light and dark imagery of Romeo and Juliet is used for sensory contrasts. Imagery, by sparking the audience’s and readers’ imaginations, is one of the most important literary devices in Romeo and Juliet. The imagery – particularly celestial, religious, avian, and light and dark – enhances the play by swaying the viewers’ moods, taking over as metaphors, and hinting at the plot. Romeo and Juliet’s storyline and language contribute equal impressions on readers and spectators. With language as beautiful as Shakespeare’s, it’s little wonder that Romeo and Juliet is one of the most popular love stories in the world.