Oppositions and Contrasts are Strikingly Common in Romeo and Juliet. Illustrate and Comment upon this Point of View in Relation to the Language, Characterisation and Action of the Play.
Even in the prologue, it is apparent that Romeo and Juliet is a play of clashes and oppositions. The families of the lovers ‘from ancient grudge break to new mutiny’ and the action begins with a violent conflict between the two households. We see the two doomed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, battle against their opposing families to be together. The many examples of opposition seen throughout Romeo and Juliet are constant reminders of the conflict keeping the lovers apart. These are seen in the action of the play, the views and beliefs of the characters as well as in the language itself. I am going to explore these oppositions, explain their relevance in the play and how they influence key events.
Throughout Romeo and Juliet there is an echo of the plays oppositions in the language of the characters, especially that of Romeo and Juliet, who frequently use oxymorons to describe their feelings. An oxymoron is the use of two contradictory words, used together in the same sentence, describing something to create a dramatic effect on the reader. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, oxymorons are used to intensify the emotions expressed by the two lovers. Romeo tries to describe his love for Rosaline in this way, as ‘O brawling love, O loving hate, O anything of nothing first create, O heavy lightness, serious vanity. This love I feel, that feel no love in this.’ His use of oxymorons in this context shows his confusion about how he feels and how he is being torn apart when such violent affections are not being returned.
Juliet also adopts this language when she finds out that Romeo has killed her cousin, raging, ‘Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave? Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical! Dove-feathered raven, wolfish ravening lamb! Despised substance of divinest show.’ In this way, Juliet is expressing her feelings of betrayal, that she never believed that Romeo could commit such an atrocity. She describes him as being seemingly beautiful and good but disguising an evil, vile person within. Juliet at this point is also in a fierce state of emotion and confusion and the oxymorons reflect this, as in Romeo’s speech about Rosaline. The oxymorons used in the text are an appropriate reminder of the ever-present clash of oppositions seen throughout the play.
The oppositions of love and hate are strikingly vivid in the play and can be described as the most prominent in the eyes of the audience because references to these two subjects are so frequent. The story occurs in the middle of a terrible feud between two families of Verona- the house of Montague and the house of Capulet. As the audience, we are constantly reminded of the bitterness felt by the older generation and the blinding hatred and prejudice seen in Verona’s youths. Examples of this are seen throughout Romeo and Juliet.
When the prince breaks up a fight that has occurred between the two opposing groups he describes them as ‘enemies to the peace’ and orders them to stop their ‘pernicious rage’ for one another. The anger is also referred to in the prologue where it says, ‘where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.’ The word ‘civil’ in this statement is repeated to enforce its significance. It could be interpreted as one of three meanings. It could be referring to civil wars fought between fellow countrymen as well as the usually good and civilised people of Verona. It might also be stressing the fact that the people involved are civilians-not soldiers. Therefore this quote is telling us that the feud has provoked normally just and reasonable people to fight amongst each other, changing them into tyrants.
From the depths of this intense hatred, Romeo and Juliet have fallen in love despite their feuding families. Their love for one another is so intense that it equals the hatred of their relations. Upon their first meeting they fall in love, as Romeo first glimpses Juliet at the feast he says ‘did my heart love till now? Forswear it sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night’. When they discover that they are from opposing backgrounds, the lovers reaction is one of desperation and yet determination to be together.
Romeo, upon realising the situation says ‘my life is my foe’s debt,’ expressing the thought that his life will be devoted to his enemy because he has fallen in love with one of them. Juliet’s reaction is similar; ‘my only love sprung from my only hate’. Her use of opposing words in this statement ‘love’ and ‘hate’ reinforce in the audience’s minds the strength of this opposition in the play. There is a repetition of this when Juliet later says, ‘I must love a loathed enemy’. Here the words ‘love’ and ‘loathed’ remind the audience once again that the oppositions of love and hate play an important role in Romeo and Juliet, shaping the future of the characters.
Most of the hatred seen in the play is associated with the clash between the house of Montague and the house of Capulet. These two families are in strong opposition to each other right up until the closing scene of the play. The heads of the two families are similar to one another in their morals and beliefs- there is no one-family that is more right or good than the other. The prologue too, points this out by saying, ‘two households, both alike in dignity’. This fact however, does not prevent the two families from despising one another.
There seems to be a rigid code of conduct between the family members that causes them to react to one another so violently. When Romeo arrives at the Capulet party, Tybalt recognises him and says he has insulted ‘the honour of my kin’. He then says, ‘this is a Montague, our foe: a villain’. The fact that Tybalt knows little about Romeo but has jumped straight to the conclusion that he is a ‘villain’ and up to no good, souly because he is a Montague shows the total prejudice felt between the two families.
This prejudice is also seen in several scenes of the play when a group of one house will be particularly difficult and provocative toward members of the other family in a deliberate attempt to cause a violent outbreak.
An example of the behaviour comes as early as the first scene where two Capulet servants, Gregory and Sampson are in a public place. As they see a pair of Montagues approach, they devise a plan of action to provoke a quarrel. Gregory says ‘I will frown as I pass by’, but Sampson wishes to take it further and replies, ‘Nay… I will bit my thumb at them, which is disgrace to them as they bear it’. The biting of one’s thumb in Shakespearean times was seen as a highly offensive gesture. This scene reflects the typical attitudes felt by the Capulets towards the Montagues and is a demonstration of the oppositions of the two households. This fact is introduced to the audience very early on in the Romeo and Juliet and is instilled upon them throughout the play.
The play also illustrates, quite subtly, the division within the households of young and old. This division is seen through the attitudes and behaviour of the characters. Both old Montague and Capulet, although they hate each other, have mellowed with age and are reluctant to cause unnecessary uproar.
However, there are instances where this general rule is broken and the older generation intervenes. This is seen in Act 1 when Capulet and Montague arrive in the middle of a brawl. Montague cries, ‘give me my long sword’ to his wife as he prepares to fight his enemy. Despite this, when the fight is broken up, he is interested to know who started the fight, saying ‘who set this ancient quarrel new abroach?’ The tone of this statement suggests Montague does not approve of the person responsible for starting the brawl.
The reluctance for the older generation to cause trouble is also brought to our attention in Act 1 scene 5 at Capulet’s party. When Tybalt discovers that Romeo has attended, he complains to Capulet who replies, ‘Content thee gentle coz, let him alone, ‘A bears him like a portly gentleman; and to say truth, Verona brags of him to be a virtuous and well-governed youth’. Here, Capulet has shown that he no longer posseses the blinding hatred for Montagues of his younger relatives. He has heard Romeo to be a pleasant and good person and therefore is unwilling to make a scene by forcefully removing him from his house.
The attitudes of the youths of Verona are best illustrated in Act 2 scene 1 when Mercutio refuses to move else where to escape a brawl in the likely event that the Capulets will appear. When they do, Tybalt says to the Montague group ‘good den, a word with one of you’. To this polite request, Mercutio replies with a provocative remark; ‘And but one word with one of us? Couple it with something, make it a word and a blow’. Mercutio, in referring to the ‘blow’ of a sword, is challenging Tybalt to a fight without appropriate reason.
Another factor which sets the two generations apart is the speed at which they live their lifes. Romeo reflects the typical youthful view that all action must be taken immediately and one must live for the moment. He demonstrates this with his intense love for Rosaline which is totally turned around upon his meeting of Juliet. Within a night of knowing her, Romeo is requesting that Friar Lawrence marry them.
The Friar’s reaction shows us how the older generation views life at a much slower and steadier pace, being careful not to make wrong decsisions. Friar Lawrence is surprised at Romeo’s sudden change of heart, saying ‘What a change is here! Is Rosaline, that thou didst love so dear, so soon forsaken?’ Romeo begs him that ‘sudden haste’ is the only way to go about such proceedings and the Friar agrees to marry the lovers, but warns Romeo ‘Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast!’ By this Friar Lawrence means that decisions of such a permanent nature as marriage should not be entered into at such a rapid rate. He warns Romeo that his impulsive behaviour could cause things to go wrong. Romeo, however, being a giddy youth, has no time for careful and slow actions. His intense and sudden love for Juliet reflects the rapid speed at which he sees it necisary to live his life.
Throughout the play, there is a great feeling of togetherness versus separation between Romeo and Juliet. These two conditions are exaggerated by the opposing atmospheres and attitudes they create within the lovers. When Romeo and Juliet are together, as in the balcony scene and the bedroom scene, they are full of positive emotions and this is reflected in their speech. For instance, When Juliet says to Romeo, ‘Sweet, goodnight. This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath, may prove a beauteous flower when next we meet’, she is comparing their love to a budding flower that will blossom as they get to know each other. She sees that even though she is totally happy, there are better moments still to come.
When the two are together they are full of joyful emotions and despite the many oppositions, believe they can be happy. They view all their problems as simple feats that can all be overcome if the lovers remain together. Juliet also says that she will ‘deny thy father and refuse thy name’ and no longer be a Capulet so she can be with Romeo. To stand up to ones father is a daunting task and it is very difficult to detach oneself from their family but Juliet sees this as a simple feat.
These emotions are completely reversed when Romeo and Juliet are forced to be apart from one another. Without hopeful prospect of their next encounter, both Romeo and Juliet transform into desperate characters. When Romeo discovers he is banished, he threatens to kill himself rather than face a life without Juliet, ‘Sayest thou yet that exile is not death? Hast thou no poison mixed, no sharp ground knife, no sudden mean of death?’ All of the words Romeo uses have a morbid componant to them: ‘poison…knife…death’ , this is in contrast to all the words associated with life used when the lovers are together- the bud turning into a flower. This explain the view of both Romeo and Juliet, that their lives revolve around each other and that death would be a better option than separation.
This is demonstrated at the end of Romeo and Juliet, when upon discovering Romeo’s dead body, Juliet describes the knife she finds beside her as a ‘happy dagger’. She sees killing herself as the only way in which she can be re-united with Romeo and therefor is not afraid or hesitant of death and looks upon it positively, using the word ‘happy’.
A factor which is made apparent in the speech of Romeo and Juliet, especially when they are together is their perception of reality and their tendency to daydream rather than facing the truth. This demonstrates the opposition in Romeo and Juliet of dream and reality. An example of this is when Juliet says that she will deny her father and refuse her name, when in reality she has not the courage to stand up to her overpowering father. Romeo also says to Juliet In Act 2 scene 2 that he fears that he will discover it all to be a dream, ‘I am afeard, being in night, all this is but a dream, too flattering-sweet to be substantial’. Romeo and Juliet continue to ignore the reality of their family’s feud because it would mean admitting to the impossibility of them being together.
There is a great feeling throughout Romeo and Juliet that fate plays a vital and influential role in the future of the lovers. It almost seems as if Romeo and Juliet are destined to die and their fate has already been predetermined. In the prologue, Romeo and Juliet are described as ‘star-crossed lovers’ and when Romeo finds out Juliet is dead in her tomb, he says he will lie to rest with her and ‘shake the yolk of inauspicious stars’. By this he is saying that he will withstand what fate has in store for him and be with Juliet despite everything. A repeat of this comes when Romeo says ‘then I defy you stars’. Romeo sees the injustice that he is doomed to be without his love and therefor is unwilling to comply with fate and ‘defies’ the stars by taking his own life also so he can be with Juliet in death.
However, it is not only fate that determines consequences, but the actions of people. Romeo kills Tybalt in a wild fury, that he could have controlled, yet he blames his actions yet again on the stars, saying ‘I am fortunes fool’. Romeo believes that the power of fate has tricked him and caused him to ruin his chances of happiness with Juliet, when in fact the fault lay in his uncontrollable anger.
Past, present and future are perhaps the lass obvious of the oppositions in the play but have a strong influence on events and their consequences. The past is seen in Romeo and Juliet through the ‘ancient grudge’, which drives so many good people to desperate actions. It causes the death of Tybalt and Mercutio as well as the banishment and eventual death of Romeo. The quarrel is never referred to in detail, suggesting that the exact reasons for the fall out have been forgotten, leaving the households still bitterly divided for no apparent reason except for cold tradition- it is what the people of Verona are used to.
Many characters in the play have their minds firmly set in the past and refuse to accept any agreement between the two families. Two characters that demonstrate this view most openly are Tybalt and Mercutio- both of who die because of it.
Very few people in the play stop to consider the future and consequences of their actions before putting them into practice. Friar Lawrence is one of the exceptions. He reluctantly agrees to marry the lovers, though he has hidden motives for doing so: ‘for this alliance may so happy prove to turn your households’ rancour to pure love’. Friar Lawrence thought that by joining Romeo and Juliet in marriage, it would help to unite the households of Capulet and Montague, burying their quarrelsome past. However, the people of Verona are not as open-minded as Friar Lawrence and Romeo and Juliet keep their alliance a secret from their families in fear of the consequences so Capulet and Montague do not discover the truth until it is too late and the lovers are dead.
There are other characters, however, who do not take into account the past, like Romeo who refuses to acknowledge the seriousness of the dispute and continues with Juliet, pretending everything will turn out fine. Romeo acts impulsively, not learning from his past actions or considering the future he is creating for himself by acting in the way he does. Like a typical youth his life revolves around the present and the immediate future. He cannot think far ahead and therefore fails to plan carefully or act rationally. Romeo and Juliet die because of their failure and the failure of those around them to look at the consequences of their actions and learn from the mistakes of the past to try and make a better future. In this sense the conflict and oppositions of Past present and future are the most important in the outcome of Romeo and Juliet.