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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:

  1. His powerful imagery which allows us to visualise his scenes without props or concrete backdrops.
  2. The use of nuances, the power of suggestion, implied meanings.
  3. His varied vocabulary, including the fact that he coined many new words and hundreds of new sayings that have become part of our argot.
  4. The lyricism  of his verse and sometimes even his prose has a lightness and resonance or lingering effect on us.
  5. The wide range of his allusions to classical, religious and historical icons, stories and people.
  6. 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.

star-crossed lovers                                             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                              above compare

light of heart                                                        in a fool’s paradise

I will not budge                                                    where have you been gadding?

let me alone                                                         fortune’s fool

a rose by any other word would smell as sweet

stiff and stark

Shakespeare gives expression to moments of strong emotion in the play.

ACT I

PROLOGUE

         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.

The Prince uses strong imperious, authoritative language in rebuking the two families engaged in a feud to attempt to control events:

PRINCE

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.

He does not mince his words demonstrating an uncompromising stance that will not brook defiance.

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.

Antithesis
is used to indicate internal conflict. 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)

JULIET

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.

Oxymorons:  (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.

ROMEO

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,
sick health!
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.

JULIET

What storm is this that blows so contrary?
Is Romeo slaughter'd, and is Tybalt dead?

JULIET

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.

JULIET

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!

Nurse

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.

JULIET

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

ROMEO

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.


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