Language of Romeo and Juliet #
Shakespeare is renowned for the poetic imagery of his language and for the word pictures he creates. His reputation is well founded because while he was writing English was not the dominant language – it was Latin. Shakespeare culminated what Chaucer had begun; to make English a respectable language for expressing complex, personal and imaginative ideas.
There is only one reason why Shakespeare’s plays are still alive and read 400 years after they were written; his mastery of clear, powerful visual language. As we have seen most of his plots are not original, but it is his ability to revitalise old stories and histories, shape them into compelling dramas with syncopated plots and revitalise them with resonant forceful language that still appeals to us today.
It is interesting to note that in most transformations or adaptations to contemporary productions, directors may update everything except Shakespeare’s Language. Al Pacino admits that it is the appeal of Shakespeare’s language that convinced him to attempt to attract more people to his plays.
Some outstanding features of Shakespeare’s Language are:
- His powerful imagery which allows us to visualise his scenes without props or concrete backdrops.
- The use of nuances, the power of suggestion, implied meanings.
- His varied vocabulary, including the fact that he coined many new words and hundreds of new sayings that have become part of our argot.
- The lyricism of his verse and sometimes even his prose has a lightness and resonance or lingering effect on us.
- The wide range of his allusions to classical, religious and historical icons, stories and people.
- The play on words; he likes to use puns, oxymorons, s-xual innuendo, assonance, alliteration, ambiguity and any other tactics to engage and entertain his audiences.
Shakespeare was fascinated by language. He couldn’t resist playing with words, rhythms and styles. He loved to invent words, and to give existing words new meanings by fresh uses and unexpected twists.
Shakespeare’s language is still very much in use, but we just don’t notice it because it’s so familiar it appears clichéd. Here are just some expressions coined by Shakespeare in Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet.
Many people quote these to send them up or as a spoof.
if love be blind
on a wild goose chase
we were born to die
on pain of death
as gentle as a lamb
the weakest go to the wall
go like lightning
a plague on both your houses
what must be, shall be
where the devil?
what’s in a name?
as true as steel
cock-a-hoop past help
parting is such sweet sorrow
light of heart
in a fool’s paradise
I will not budge
where have you been gadding?
let me alone
a rose by any other word would smell as sweet
stiff and stark
Shakespeare gives expression to moments of strong emotion in the play.
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
This is a spoiler alert. Shakespeare’s tale does not depend on suspense, as he tells us what is going to happen, rather on how he dramatises and expresses the conflicts he is about to demonstrate. We can sit back and enjoy the present, rather than anticipate the future.
The Prince uses strong imperious, authoritative language in rebuking the two families engaged in a feud to attempt to control events: The Prince appears to speak with well earned, legitimate and unquestioned authority.
I am so bold as to assert that it is the most authoritative speech in Shakespeare’s plays, but willing to be called wrong.
Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace,
Profaners of this neighbour-stained steel,–
Will they not hear? What, ho! you men, you beasts,
That quench the fire of your pernicious rage
With purple fountains issuing from your veins,
On pain of torture, from those bloody hands
Throw your mistemper’d weapons to the ground,
And hear the sentence of your moved prince.
Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word,
By thee, old Capulet, and Montague,
Have thrice disturb’d the quiet of our streets,
And made Verona’s ancient citizens
Cast by their grave beseeming ornaments,
To wield old partisans, in hands as old,
Canker’d with peace, to part your canker’d hate:
If ever you disturb our streets again,
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.
This speech imbues unquestioned authority. Unapologetically threatening, firm, decisive and resolute. He does not mince his words demonstrating an uncompromising stance that will not brook defiance.
Shakespeare is also the most intellectual of playful fantasists and the most playfully fantastic of intellectuals. The Queen Mab speech by MERCUTIO illustrates medieval fascination with the powers of the supernatural. She has obviously visited Romeo in his dreams providing him with sexual fantasies.
O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Over men’s noses as they lie asleep:
Her waggon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs;
The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers;
Her traces, of the smallest spider’s web;
The collars, of the moonshine’s watery beams;
Her whip of cricket’s bone; the lash, of film;
Her waggoner, a small grey-coated gnat,
Not half so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid:
Her chariot is an empty hazelnut,
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on curtsies straight;
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees;
O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are:
Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail,
Tickling a parson’s nose as a lies asleep,
Then dreams he of another benefice:
Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscados, Spanish blades,
Of healths five fathom deep; and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes;
And, being thus frighted, swears a prayer or two,
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plats the manes of horses in the night;
And bakes the elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which, once untangled, much misfortune bodes:
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them, and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage:
This is she,—
The playfulness of the language provides comic relief. Though a hag, she teaches young maidens how to carry the weight of men to become women of good carriage – standing.
The dreams occur in the dark, stem from the unconscious, are inconstant, full of sexual innuendo - grubs, - worms of love which ultimately destroy us.
Figure of speech referencing a place, person, or something that happened. This can be real or imaginary and may refer to anything, including paintings, opera, folk lore, mythical figures, or religious manuscripts. The reference can be direct or may be inferred, and can broaden the reader’s understanding.
Because allusions make reference to something other than what is directly being discussed, you may miss an allusion or fail to understand it if you do not know the underlying biblical story, literary tale or other reference point.
Allusions allow the writer to give an example or get a point across without going into a lengthy discourse. Allusions engage the reader and will often help the reader remember the message or theme of the passage. Allusions are contingent on the reader knowing about the story or event that is referenced. Fortunately, today it is easy to look these things up so when someone references something you do not understand, you can easily turn to the Internet to learn enough to grasp the allusion for yourself.
Allusions create the impression that a personal issue has historical comparison; the microcosm is reflected by the macrocosm. It is not a singular problem, but a general one; of universal and historical significance.
Hero and Leander - tragic couple who die due to their love.
Tristan and Isolde - another fated couple who perish
Echo - cursed by Hera, Echo could only call after her lovers, - including Narcissus .
There are also many allusions to biblical references.
The Pun #
It is undeniable that the British are fond of puns. It is usual to sneer at the pun as the lowest form of wit. But the pun may contain a very high form of wit, and may please either for its cleverness, or for its amusing quality, or for the combination of the two.
Naturally, the really excellent pun has always been in favor with the wits of all countries. Johnson’s saying, “that a man who would make a pun would pick a pocket, is not to be taken too seriously.”
It is recorded that when Napier captured Scinde, he notified the government at home of this victory by sending a dispatch of one word:
"_Peccavi_" (Latin for “I have sinned”).
The pun is of the sort that may be appreciated intellectually for its cleverness, while not calculated to cause laughter.
Puns combined with antithesis:
Hie/high, hurry to/ exalted
colliers/choler/collar – coal miners/anger/around your neck.
“Ask for me tomorrow and you will find me a grave man.” Mercutio
The effect of this pun lifts some of the black humour from the situation making is more palatable to us.
Romeo on the way to the Capulet feast:
“Being but heavy, I will carry the light”
Romeo demonstrates that he is capable of ridiculing himself.
At the end they are finally resigned
Our instruments to melancholy bells,
Our wedding cheer to a sad burial feast;
Our solemn hymns to sullen dirges change,
Our bridal flowers serve for a buried corse. (IV. v. 86 -90)
The old families are finally beginning to recognise the error of their ways.
used to indicate internal conflict - ambivalence. Elsewhere linked opposites (oxymorons) are used to convey the clash of opposing emotions:
parting is such sweet sorrow.. (ll.ii)
Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical
Dove-feather’d raven, wolvish-ravening lamb (III.ii)
My only love sprung from my only hate!*
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
Prodigious birth of love it is to me,
That I must love a loathed enemy.
Juliet’s initial response to Tybalt’s death:
If he be slain, say ‘I’; or if not, no:
Brief sounds determine of my weal or woe.
(incongruent words side by side – loving hate, /bitter, sweet)
Consistent with the clash of opposites is the use of oxymorons that reveal inner turmoil and confusion especially in youth. This is evidenced in Romeo’s first travail over the unattainable Rosaline.
Alas, that love, whose view is muffled still,
Should, without eyes, see pathways to his will!
Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O anything, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
Find up to twelve oxymorons in the above passage.
Juliet’s response when she hears that Romeo was the cause of Tybalt’s death is full of oxymorons, reflecting the conflict in her heart. She feels deceived and betrayed by Romeo and yet struggles to overcome the negative effects in her heart due to his actions.
What storm is this that blows so contrary?*
Is Romeo slaughter’d, and is Tybalt dead?
O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face!*
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
Beautiful tyrant! fiend 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 moral 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!
Find at least seven oxymorons in the above
But as soon as the nurse criticises Romeo, Juliet springs to his defence.
Blister’d be thy tongue
For such a wish! he was not born to shame:
Upon his brow shame is ashamed to sit;
For ’tis a throne where honour may be crown’d;’
Sole monarch of the universal earth.
O, what a beast was I to chide at him!
Will you speak well of him that kill’d your cousin?
Juliet struggles with her conflicted loyalties as she comes to terms with Romeo’s killing of her cousin Tybalt.
Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?
Ah, poor my lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name,
When I, thy three-hours wife, have mangled it?
But, wherefore, villain, didst thou kill my cousin?
That villain cousin would have kill’d my husband:
Back, foolish tears, back to your native spring;
Your tributary drops belong to woe,
Which you, mistaking, offer up to joy.
My husband lives, that Tybalt would have slain;
And Tybalt’s dead, that would have slain my husband:
All this is comfort; wherefore weep I then?
The power of Love #
At least three kinds of love are dramatised.
- For Rosalind Platonic,
- Juliet - Romantic and
- for the lower orders - bawdy and carnal as indicated in the Vugar lust in the dialogue of the servants and Benvolio and Mercutio.
*The I defy fortune – Romeo
- Inauspicious stars * To Apothecary: Gold – more poisonous to men’s souls.
Dateless bargain to unsavoury death.
Prince Scourge on your hate
Pure sacrifice of your enmity
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished,
JULIET appears above at a window
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
This is verse, and verbal dexterity of this sort was expected of the dramatist: it was a convention of courtly love.