4 Examples of Oxymora in Romeo and Juliet – a study guide

So we should be very careful in assigning to Juliet that role of conflict that goes on between the families without further analysis. Instead, the conflict could be read as purely internal in the form of the drives according to the framework mentioned above. Juliet’s love for Romeo is, in other words, driven by the opposite ‘equally vehement or even more vehement’ internal drive – hatred. But where does this hatred stem from? The familial loyalty, certainly. But there is more, Juliet points out a little earlier that her “grave is like to be my wedding bed”. This is of course a very sexual reference. But what it primarily signifies is the internal conflict that Juliet feels (i.e. sexual tension) and not the established relations that coordinate the social relations and customs (i.e. family feud). We can safely assume this because Juliet only just now asked of who Romeo was – he only becomes “a loathed enemy” for the reason of internal conflicts between the drives (in this case, not only love and hate, but especially, the sexual tension that a ‘forbidden fruit’ brings with it).

What is more, the paradoxical relation between love and hate intensifies further precisely because Juliet in this instance remains trapped between love and hate. The sexual tension that Juliet experiences – the forbidden fruit that is Romeo – both enriches her desire for him (love) as well as repulsion towards the unanswered call (hate). The pretence that follows “A rhyme I learn’d even now / Of one I danced withal” is thus not only a cover for the nurse to hear that she fell in love with ‘the enemy’, but also a cover for the sexual desire. What teenager – remember that Juliet is but 13 years old: “She hath not seen the change of fourteen years” – admits to their nurse of their sexuality?

2. “Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love. / Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!”

Next to the paradoxical relation between love and hate, the expressions themselves are presented by Shakespeare as ‘Euphuistic contrasts’ – after the main character of John Lyly’s plays: [amazon asin=B009500N1M&text=Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit] and [amazon asin=B009500N1M&text=Euphues and His England]. An Euphuistic contrast is a style that Shakespeare adopted from Lyly, which was, and for some still is, quite fashionable at the time. If you consider the passages quoted above (Act 3.2) and what is to follow below, it should become clear that a series of contradictory notions very much characterise this style. These contradictory notions are an exemplification of the meaning of oxymoron; or to put it differently, Euphuistic contrasts are an extended and continuous depiction of oxymora.

Here's much to do with hate, but more with love. / Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate! #romeoandjuliet Click To TweetWe can observe, next to Juliet’s brief lament in Act 1.5, a series of such oxymora in the way Romeo describes his love for Rosaline in Act 1.1: “Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love. / Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!”. Romeo continues with a series of oxymora: “heavy lightness”, “Feather of lead”, “bright smoke”, “cold fire”, “sick health”.

This declaration of love of Romeo, I propose, could be read in a similar light as that of Juliet towards him later in Act 1.5. This is indeed to say that I am not of the opinion that Rosaline’s role in the play is to emphasise the different kind of love between Romeo and Juliet, and that between Romeo and Rosaline – where the latter is some manifestation of loneliness, as ‘being love-sick’, while the former is some kind of pure/true love, as ‘being in love’.1 Such contrast is wholly unnecessary and to some extent even problematic. It seems more plausible to take the relation between love and hate to be an internal conflict of drives, rather than that of familial loyalty. After all, recall that both Rosaline and Juliet are both Capulets; Romeo’s internal conflict could thus very easily be conformed to that of Juliet’s. Both internal conflicts have as their source the realisation of restrictions on sexual explicitness.

Juliet thus stabs herself with Romeo’s dagger as a symbolic gesture of final copulation. #romeoandjuliet Click To TweetTo put some weight to my proposal, it is noteworthy in particular that both Romeo and Juliet speak of the duality between love and hate; but also that the relation between love and hate is not a contradictory one. Instead, the two coexist; and the struggle that they experience is one of an internal struggle between the desire for another and the constraints set upon that desire. To reiterate, this constraint is not simply by means of a family feud, but an internal constraint of the sexual drive that is not satisfied. To put some more force onto this, hear Juliet’s last words: “I’ll be brief. O happy dagger! / This is thy sheath; / there rust, and let me die”. Juliet thus stabs herself with Romeo’s dagger as a symbolic gesture of final copulation.

3. “Within the infant rind of this small flower / Poison hath residence and medicine power”

Another common set of oxymora is that between sickness and health – and more explicitly between poison and medicine. The citation above is from Friar Lawrence (Act 2.3) who muses on the possibility of life and death from but an “infant rind of this small flower”.2 The flower itself is of course of little importance; it is but a symbol of something greater that Shakespeare alludes to through the Friar’s mouthpiece. Namely, that the duality of drives is present in nature itself, and thus by extension is also present in human conduct. While the flower can be used as medicine as well as poison, so too the contradictory tendency is present in human beings as vehement internal drives. A little further, Friar Lawrence notes this quite explicitly: “Two such opposed kings encamp them still / In man as well as herbs, grace and rude will”.

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Footnotes

  1. I am of course well aware that I am not the first to propose this line of thought, cf. Gray, H.D. (1914). Romeo, Rosaline, and Juliet. Modern Language Notes, Vol. 29, No. 7, pp. 209-212. (pdf)
  2. Note that this is not an oxymoron, but rather a kind of pleonasm; the infant is small.

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