One reason why Shakespeare’s work is so successful, popular and very much around today is that it is written in such a way that makes it appealing to the audience. The plots are held up by a firm backbone of imagery and clever literary techniques. They are more than just a beginning middle and end, the whole plot is linked together with predictions and coincidences and it all unravels throughout like a ball of wool. One prime example of this is Romeo and Juliet.
From the start of the play, in the prologue, Shakespeare uses language and imagery to build up the expectation that Romeo and Juliet’s love is doomed. Uncommonly, the play begins with telling us that the main characters are going to fall in love and kill themselves. We know this because it says, ‘the fearful passage of their death mark’d love’ and ‘a pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life’. This is an important image as people in the time of Shakespeare were superstitious and believed in astrology. And beginning with saying they were star-crossed meaning that their love was intertwined with their doom and it said so in the stars, is particularly poignant for those times. This is also a link to when Romeo finds out of Juliet’s supposed death and cries out ‘then I defy you, stars!’ With this exclamation, Romeo is saying that he defies destiny. This image makes the play somewhat cyclic, with it beginning with saying that it is destined for them to die and ending with Romeo defying his destiny, to lose Juliet and at the same time by taking his own life fulfilling it.
Shakespeare continues to use imagery implying that love and tragedy are closely linked. In Romeo’s speech about his grief over Rosaline, he says, ‘love is a smoke made with a fume of sighs’. This is a metaphor and could be saying that love, like smoke, is confusing, clouds your judgement, chokes you and could sometimes kill you and it is caused by the first sighs of falling in love. Although Romeo is referring to Rosaline this relates to the nature of his and Juliet’s love which, of course ultimately results in their death. In this same speech Romeo says that love is also ‘a choking gall, and a preserving sweet.’ This is a paradox and he is saying that though love is healing and sweet it can also be a poison. As well as being a prediction of the fact that it is love that kills both him and Juliet in the end but also the point is taken further by the details that it is a mixture that Juliet uses to fake her death and a poison that Romeo uses to kill himself with in the tomb.
When Romeo and Juliet meet for the first time Shakespeare cleverly uses imagery and the idea of new love ironically as the audience knows that they are both doomed to die for their love of one another. In the scene where they meet Shakespeare put a lot of religious imagery into use. Religion suggests church and holy ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. This is a tie in with the fact that Romeo and Juliet get married and that there are deaths in the play. Some examples of this are ‘this holy shrine’, ‘gentle sin’, ‘for prayers sake’. The religion of that time was Christian and Romeo and Juliet would have been Catholic. The idea of the Christian religion is that of love and how Jesus died for the love of his father and of his people. In doing this he brought people of different backgrounds and opinions together in one firm belief. In a way this is a subtle prediction of how Romeo and Juliet die in the name of love and reunite the long opposed houses of Montague and Capulet.
Friar Lawrence is a holy man which is a link to the religious imagery, and he is also an expert in herbs and their uses in potions and mixtures. This is a link with how Juliet uses a potion to fake her death and it is this which causes Romeo, on seeing her dead, to kill himself, also with a poisonous mixture. In act two scene six, where Romeo and Juliet go to Friar Lawrence to be wed, William Shakespeare uses the character of the Friar as a tool to portray to the audience, through imagery, that their love will end in tragedy. He says ‘these violent delights have violent ends’. Here the word violent has two meanings, when used alongside delights it implies that the delight and love is fierce and strong, using its emotional meaning. Whereas when it is used with ‘ends’ it gives the impressions of aggression, murder and death. This is a paradox and therefore a prediction that although Romeo and Juliet’s love is strong their death will be inevitable. Romeo also says ‘but come what sorrow can’ meaning that he will marry Juliet and love her, whatever happens to them. To the audience this is dramatic irony as we know that great sorrow will befall them both and bring sorrow to both their houses.
Another of example of imagery being used in Friar Lawrence’s speeches is just before this. He says that ‘poison hath residence, and medicine power’ meaning that in one flower both healing powers and powers to kill lie side by side which links to a major theme in the play, that love and death walk hand in hand. Friar Lawrence says ‘Now ere the sun advance his burning eye, the day to cheer,’ this could be a link to when Romeo says ‘it is the east, and Juliet is the sun’ and by saying that the sun brightens up the day reflects how the love of Romeo for Juliet brightens up his life. This is ironic as Juliet is also the reason Romeo commits suicide. This imagery is also a continuation of the Astrological imagery that is so important for portraying a story based so firmly on fate and destiny.
When Romeo is challenged by Tybalt to a duel and refuses to fight him as they are related because Romeo married Juliet. Mercutio, who is in disagreement of this, fights Tybalt and is slain. The dying Words of Mercutio, who is neither Montague nor Capulet, are ‘A plague a’ both your houses’ this is a prediction that Romeo and Juliet are going to take their lives as Juliet is of the same house as Tybalt, Capulet and Romeo is a Montague. When Juliet finds out that Romeo is the one who killed Tybalt, she speaks of him using lots of oxymorons and paradoxes, to portray that though Romeo is good and she loves him, he has done something terrible. One paradox is, ‘o serpent heart, hid with a flow’ ring face’. Some examples of the oxymorons in the speech are ‘Beautiful tyrant’, ‘fiend angelical’, ‘Dove-feather’d raven’, ‘damned saint’, ‘honourable villain’. All of these describe the way that Romeo is beautiful and good but at the same time he is evil as he is, after all, an enemy of her family. These images also reflect the nature of Romeo and Juliet’s love for one another. On one hand it is a good and beautiful thing, on the other it will ultimately lead them both to their untimely deaths. This is another example of Imagery being used to build up the expectation that Romeo and Juliet are doomed to die for love. Again the point is stressed that in their case, love and death walk hand in hand, inseparably.
When Romeo and Juliet spend their first night together, they also spend their last. As Romeo is leaving and Juliet is trying to persuade him to stay, he says to her, expressing his happiness after spending the night with her, ‘let me be put to death, I am content, so thou wilt have it so’ He is saying that now he has spent one night with her he doesn’t care if he is caught and dies for Juliet’s sake, it is his love for her that makes him say this. In the same way he says, ‘Come, death, and welcome! Juliet wills it so’. Both of these are predictions that Romeo will indeed die for Juliet. Also when Juliet says ‘window, let day in, and let life out’ this is also a prediction that though the day is dawning now when the day is over, so will be their lives. Also when she says ‘be fickle, Fortune: For then I hope thou wilt not keep him long, but send him back.’ This is dramatic irony as the audience know from the prologue and the other predictions so far throughout the play, that Romeo’s fate is to die, and Juliet will never see him again after this moment.
There are more predictions and ironies in the speech by Juliet when she is taking the poison that will fake her own death. One irony is when she says ‘how if, when I am laid into the tomb, I wake before the time when Romeo come to redeem me?’ This is ironic as she actually awakes from her death like sleep too late and Romeo has already come and killed himself as he thinks she is dead. Also she says ‘dash out my desp’rate brains’ this is another dramatic irony and a prediction as she does in fact kill herself. The fact that she is taking a potion is in itself ironic as that is what Romeo uses to kill himself. This ties in with the imagery at the beginning, mentioned before. The fact that Juliet’s speech is full of negative imagery, for example: ‘loathsome smells’, ‘all these hideous fears’, ‘pluck the mangl’d Tybalt from his shroud’, ‘the terror of the place’, ‘And shrieks like mandrakes torn out of the earth’, All predict that the ending of the play is going to be also negative.
When the news of Juliet’s apparent death reaches Romeo there is more imagery to predict his and his lovers’ doom. He says, referring to Juliet, ‘For nothing can be ill if she is well’ this is ironic as she appears to be entirely the opposite of well, therefore Romeo is wrong. However she is well and Romeo just does not realise it and goes ahead and kills himself anyway. Another prediction is when Romeo says ‘well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight.’ As on that night they will both indeed lie together, dead in the tomb.
As Romeo is talking to Balthasar about leaving him alone after he enters the tomb he says ‘I descend into this bed of death’. In one respect this simply refers to the tomb being a place where dead bodies are laid. On the other hand it could mean that Romeo descends to his own death bed, this, therefore, is a prediction that Romeo is going to kill himself. As he enters the tomb, he expresses his hatred of it as it is the place where his lover lies, assumed dead. In a way he is also expressing his hatred of death. He says ‘thou womb of death’ which is a paradox, as womb signifies a new life and when used with death, this could be a link to the fact that the birth of Romeo and Juliet’s love was the birth of their fate to die for love.
The imagery used in the next part of this speech; ‘Gorged with the dearest morsel of the earth. Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open. And, in despite, I’ll cram thee with more food.’ tells the audience that Romeo intends to commit suicide in the name of love. When he says ‘dearest morsel’ he is speaking of Juliet. He is saying effectively, that the jaws of death have swallowed Juliet, his love and the most important thing to him on the Earth, and now he intends to force it to take him as well. This is personification of death and makes it more menacing and real to an audience enforcing its important role in the play. Again this is an example of Shakespeare using imagery to predict the doom of the lovers and build up the expectation of their tragic destiny being fulfilled.
When Paris challenges Romeo to a fight in the tomb he says ‘for thou must die’ and Romeo answers ‘I must indeed’. This is not only how Paris and Romeo feel, but it is also what the audience know must happen according to the prologue.
When Juliet is laying in the tomb and found by her love, Romeo says ‘death that hath suck’d the honey out of thy breath, hath no power yet upon thy beauty’ and ‘and death’s pale flag is not yet advanced there’ he means that though he knows she is dead she does not look it. This is good use of dramatic irony as the audience know that Juliet is faking her death. So Romeo is correct Juliet does not look dead, because she isn’t.
Romeo has a speech before he dies which builds up to the fact that he is going to kill himself to further enforce the point to the audience. Some parts of this speech that do this are: ‘will I set up my everlasting rest’, meaning I will die; ‘eyes look your last!’ meaning this is the last time he will look at the world and Juliet; ‘Lips, o you The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss’ saying that he will kiss her one last time before he seals them forever and takes his final breath. This also links with when, just after this, his dying words are ‘Thus with a kiss I die’. This is extremely symbolic as a kiss symbolises love and it is, in effect, love which has killed Romeo. This again calls back to the fact that love and death are so closely linked in the plot.
When Juliet wakes and finds Romeo dead she immediately want to die to be with him as Romeo did for her. She spots the poison and says ‘and left no friendly drop to help me after?’ this is a paradox as poison is generally not regarded as a friendly thing as it induces death. Also she says ‘I will kiss thy lips’ hoping that some poison remains on them to kill her too. This is ironic as Romeo says ‘Thus with a kiss I die’ previously. She kills herself by stabbing herself with Romeo’s dagger. This in itself could be symbolic of Romeo being the cause of her death. As she would have stabbed herself in the heart it is a reference to how Romeo’s dagger, which would have been given to him by his family, killed Juliet through her love for him and it is because of that and the hatred between the two families that she is dead.
At all these points throughout the play, the oxymorons, ironies, paradoxes and subtle predictive language, act as Shakespeare intended them. They work together with the way that the prologue introduces the play by outlining the story of Romeo and Juliet’s love and how it ends with their death. The plot of the play and how Romeo and Juliet take their own lives is in itself ironic. Romeo commits suicide to be with Juliet in death when she is in fact faking her own death to be together with Romeo in life. Unfortunately he does not know this and as it is written in a way that makes the audience feel for the characters, they would understand the desperation of Romeo and how he wants to die and be with her, but at the same time they would know that she is not dead and realise that if Romeo kills himself Juliet will awake and find him dead. She does so and takes her own life out of her love for him. Therefore from the start of the play Shakespeare puts all of these techniques together, to back up his clever plot and builds up the audiences expectation that Romeo and Juliet’s love is doomed.
One main theme that runs through the play is how love and death are inseparably linked. Many times throughout the play is this point reinforced through imagery and other literary techniques. The fact that it is love that causes Romeo and Juliet’s deaths is not just it, it runs deeper than that. Their families had been rivals and duelling amongst themselves for a long time before Romeo and Juliet. This just shows that even between two families who are opposed to each other love will conquer and bring them together, even though for this cause, the fate of the lovers is to die. Therefore, as this is laid down in the prologue, the audience are introduced to this idea and their expectations of the lovers deaths are high to start with and reinforced by plentiful imagery of love and death being linked.