4 Examples of Oxymora in Romeo and Juliet – a study guide
The main theme of Romeo and Juliet is of course love – but there are so many levels of depth in the play that it would be near impossible to go through all of them without embarking on a journey to madness of sorts. Just like Macbeth that I discussed previously, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet too is filled with contradictory and paradoxical statements. Given my interest in paradoxes, I will focus only on this particular theme, though any thorough study of the play should take into account at least the following aspect: language of different classes, characters as ‘foils’ (opposites), explicit and implicit sexual undertones in dialogues, recklessness and care, life and death, beauty and ugliness, etc. In explaining the paradoxes below, I will touch on some of these themes, but it should be borne in mind what my primary interest is, and therefore that these themes are not treated exhaustively here.
Definitions of paradox and oxymoron
In case you are unfamiliar with what precisely a paradox is, here is a brief explanation. A paradox is a seemingly contradictory statement that is contrary to established opinions and beliefs. Particularly in literature, it is used as a rhetorical device to emphasise the impossibility of a particular emotion or feeling that nevertheless captures the audience. You can find a more detailed explanation, including etymology, in one of my previous posts.
An #oxymoron is #Greek for 'sharp fool', which is itself an oxymoron. Click To TweetIn case of Romeo and Juliet it is more appropriate to speak of oxymora rather than paradoxes. An oxymoron also has its roots in the Ancient Greek language and is typically considered to be a contradictory notion. It is a derivative of ὀξύς (oxys) – which means ‘sharp’ or ‘pointed’; and μωρός (moros) – which means ‘stupid’ or ‘foolish’. An oxymoron is a rhetorical device that joins contradictory terms in order to emphasise a particular expression or feeling. As you would note, a ‘sharp fool’ is itself an oxymoron.1
A framework for analysis of oxymora in Romeo and Juliet
Back to Romeo and Juliet: the play is filled with all kinds of contradictions. It is possible that Shakespeare’s intent was precisely to show us how life itself is full of contradictory tendencies, and indeed how individuals act following contradictory drives. In a way, the play can be seen as the less theoretical and philosophical explication of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. I do not mean to diminish Shakespeare’s endeavour in any way, theoretical and philosophical are meant to be taken quite strictly – Shakespeare was neither a theoretician nor a philosopher, though of course the philosophical undertone is present in his plays. For Nietzsche, both Apollo and Dionysus that are discussed in The Birth of Tragedy are not absolute moral positions,2 but precisely embodiments of two contradictory drives. Both drives are present in any expression of art, and they are both necessary. Nevertheless, there is a conflict between them which lead to contradictory sentiments. As Nietzsche writes in Daybreak II.109:
What is clearly the case is that in this entire procedure our intellect is only the blind instrument of another drive which is a rival of the drive whose vehemence is tormenting us . . . While ‘we’ believe we are complaining about the vehemence of a drive, at bottom it is one drive which is complaining about another; that is to say: for us to become aware that we are suffering from the vehemence of a drive presupposes the existence of another equally vehement or even more vehement drive, and that a struggle is in prospect in which our intellect is going to have to take sides.
Shakespeare’s characters more often than not express this kind of ‘struggle’. Take this particular passage in Act 3.2, when Juliet hears that Romeo has killed her cousin Tybalt:
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!
So what we encounter in the play is precisely the contradictory drives that result to internal struggles of Romeo and Juliet. My main claim is that the struggle is not only one of loyalty towards family ties, but a psychological struggle where the intellect of each character takes sides (and often shifts back). This, I hope, sets the framework of analysis of the paradoxes in Romeo and Juliet, both the play as well as its characters.
1. “My only love sprung from my only hate”
This statement by Juliet (in Act 1.5) is somewhat mocking. Note in particular the way Shakespeare utilises the term ‘only’ – where in this one sentence it is used in two different meanings: the ‘only’ love sprung up in the sense of eventuality, or perhaps even finality; while it also sprung from the ‘only’ hate in the sense of the sole and exclusive origin. There is, of course, a paradoxical relation between love and hate; but what is more, Shakespeare seems to say that the sole/only possibility of love is through rejection of a tradition as a norm. It is only by rejecting the tradition of hatred of the other, that love can manifest itself; and in that sense it could be the only/final love. This is to say that Juliet’s love for Romeo is not a simple rebellion towards the family, in the form of childish adolescence. Quite the opposite, the rejection of the tradition of family feud makes love, even true love, possible.
- This is in fact quite a common way of denoting contradictory expressions in antiquity. You have a similar background in Chinese folklore on the term contradiction 矛盾 (máo dùn), where 矛 (máo) means a spear and 盾 (dùn) means shield. The folklore is that a merchant was selling spears and shields, and he claimed that his spears could pierce through anything in the world and his shields could not be broken by anything in the world. The obvious question is, of course, what would happen if someone were to use the spear on the shield. Hence the contradictory claims of the merchant.
- And indeed, later in Nietzsche’s life both slave and master morality are not to be viewed as absolute moral positions either.