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Themes, Motifs and Symbols in Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet explores many themes, motifs and symbols to add meaning and depth to the narrative.

Key Themes in Romeo and Juliet

Love

Romeo and Juliet deeply explores the different perspectives on love, revealing that it isn’t just about romantic passion. Each character brings a unique perspective on love, making it a multi-dimensional theme in the play.

Romeo sees love as a liberating force, empowering him to rise above challenges. He likens it to having “light wings”.

Juliet views love as a bond of commitment and loyalty. Once she discovers true love, she’s willing to give everything, echoing:

“My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have.

Mercutio perceives love primarily as a physical desire, often making crude jokes about it, as seen in this jesting remark to Romeo:

“O Romeo, that she were, O, that she were
An open-arse, thou a poperin pear.

Lady Capulet sees love through the lens of materialism and possession. To her, it’s about acquiring and maintaining:

“So shall you share all that he doth possess
By having him, making yourself no less.

Fate

Romeo and Juliet are introduced as ‘star-crossed’. This means their lives are controlled by a power greater than themselves (fate).

When Romeo believes Juliet is dead, he challenges fate, exclaiming: “Then I defy you, stars.” However, this very act of defiance ironically draws him closer to his inevitable demise.

Many events in the play, including the feud between their families, the misunderstandings that ruin Friar Lawrence’s plans, the timing of Romeo’s death and Juliet’s awakening, are all portrayed as a design of fate. This inescapable power is always leading them towards tragedy, which is a sentiment captured by Friar Lawrence:

“A greater power than we can contradict
Hath thwarted our intents.

Conflict

Shakespeare illustrates the theme of conflict through the unending feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. Their hatred affects their families and wreaks havoc on the streets of Verona.

  • This deep-seated hatred doesn’t spare innocent citizens, it often spirals into violence with fatal consequences.

The theme of conflict extends beyond the feuding families, deeply affecting individual characters and showing their personal struggles. This internal conflict is vividly illustrated in Romeo’s cry:

“O brawling love! O loving hate!”

This captures the conflicting nature of love, showing that it can be a source of both happiness and distress.

The seriousness of the feud is echoed strongly in Mercutio’s final words, which hold deep resentment and a recognition of the tragic outcomes created by the continuous conflict. Tybalt says:

“As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.”

To which, Mercutio responds:

“A plague o’ both your houses!”

Here, Mercutio expresses his profound anger and disappointment with the needless bloodshed, strongly criticising both families for perpetuating a cycle of revenge and hatred.

Youth versus Age

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare vividly portrays the stark contrast between the impulsiveness of youth and the wisdom of age. Romeo and Juliet display youth, passion, impulsivity and a kind of reckless abandon that characterises young love. Their romance blossoms and escalates quickly, showing the overpowering and overwhelming nature of youthful love.

Romeo’s infatuation with Juliet is almost instantaneous, as evidenced by his words:

“For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

In contrast, the older characters in the play, represented by Friar Lawrence and the Nurse, have a more measured and reflective approach to situations. They tend to consider the consequences of their actions, demonstrating the wisdom that often comes with age. Friar Lawrence, in particular, advises Romeo to tread carefully, cautioning:

“Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast,”

Through this counsel, he highlights the contrast between the youthful tendency to rush and the mature preference towards caution. He is reminding Romeo of the consequences that come as a result of rushing headfirst into decisions without consideration.

Motifs in Romeo and Juliet

Light/Dark Imagery

Shakespeare uses light and dark imagery as a poetic tool to illustrate the intense but doomed romance between Romeo and Juliet. This imagery serves as a metaphor, painting their love as a bright light that manages to pierce through the surrounding darkness which represents the conflict between their families.

Romeo often perceives Juliet as a luminous entity, a beacon of hope and beauty that stands in stark contrast to the darkness that surrounds their feuding families. He is completely mesmerised by her, a sentiment captured perfectly in his words:

“But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

Here, Juliet is compared to the sun, an embodiment of light, hope and new beginnings. This is a contrast to the dark, gloomy realities that plague their lives.

Time

The recurring motif of time acts as both a pressure and a witness to the unfolding tragic events. It represents the brief nature of the lovers’ happiness, framing their romance within a ticking clock that seems to be heading towards an inevitable, tragic end.

This motif serves to highlight the urgency, the rush and the almost desperate grasp at moments of joy that the lovers experience. It emphasises that their time together is unfortunately limited.

There is a fast progression of their relationship, from strangers to lovers and then to a married couple in a matter of days. This adds an underlying tension to the narrative. It appears as though time itself is working against them, rushing them towards their fateful end. Juliet voices this anxiety and the rapid progression of their relationship, noting:

“It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden.”

Symbols in Romeo and Juliet

Poison

The use of poison as a symbol in the play represents the harmful effects of the deep-rooted hatred between the Montagues and the Capulets. It surpasses just toxicity and becomes a tool that orchestrates the tragic demise of the young lovers, Romeo and Juliet. For example:

“Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss, I die,

Romeo’s words have a bitter acknowledgement of the destructive powers of their families’ hatred. The poison is not only a physical substance, but also a representation of the lethal influence of their families’ poisonous hatred, which ruins their lives.

Queen Mab

Introduced by Mercutio, Queen Mab is envisioned as a mythical fairy who enters the dreams of the slumbering, revealing their deepest desires, often tainted with greed, violence or lust. As Mercutio describes:

“O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.

This character symbolises how dreams and desires can trick people and lead them to make bad choices.

Mercutio thinks love is like a misleading dream created by Queen Mab, easily ruined and turned bad. But Romeo and Juliet see their love as something beautiful and uplifting, that makes them better people in the midst of all the trouble around them.

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