Saturday, May 4, 2013

Oppositions in Romeo and Juliet

In his first scene, upon seeing the aftermath of a street brawl between Capulet men and Montague men, Romeo says
Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing, 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!
Contradictions like these fill Romeo and Juliet; I doubt if any other play of Shakespeare’s contains so many oxymorons. Many of the main characters contribute to the cause; Mercutio tells Romeo, “Thy wit is a very bitter sweeting.” Benvolio offers not a contradiction but simply a stark opposition when, in working to convince Romeo to crash the Capulets’ party and try to forget Rosaline, he promises his friend:
Compare her face with some that I shall show,
And I will make thee think thy swan a crow.
Sometimes the opposing terms come with a little extra wordplay, as in this line from Romeo:
Being but heavy, I will bear the light.
And several times the contrasts are presented as the beginning and end of a process of change; Tybalt, for instance, seeing Romeo’s unauthorized but quiet presence at the Capulet ball, says,
This intrusion shall
Now seeming sweet convert to bitter gall.
I don’t think Shakespeare just found himself in the mood to express extreme contrasts over and over; the bringing together of opposites is thematic in a play about two kids from feuding families who fall in love. But in addition to mirroring the plot, the motif seems to convey a more general message, as well. Friar Laurence explains:
O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities:
For nought so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give,
Nor aught so good but strain'd from that fair use
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse:
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;
And vice sometimes by action dignified.
And at the end of the two hours’ traffic of the stage, this is exactly what we’re left thinking. Romeo and Juliet’s mutual love leads to death; their parents’ attempts to nurture the teens completely backfire; and on and on. There is nought so good it cannot be abused. On the other hand, the death of two thirteen-year-olds effects the return of peace to the streets of Verona. Nought so vile that cannot yield some good.

After being told that everything on earth is ambiguous, we’re left without a crystal clear moral. Is death for love’s sake a noble thing? Is Juliet brave or just immature? Is Capulet overbearing or is he simply trying to look out for Juliet’s lifelong happiness the best he knows how? Is Laurence’s plan brilliant or insane? O disturbing resolution! O comforting frustration! One thing’s for sure. We couldn’t possibly have more beautiful language to lead us to these dilemmas.

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