Study Guide

Romeo and Juliet Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By William Shakespeare

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Thumb Biting

Unless you're fluent in childish Elizabethan gestures (anyone? Bueller?), you might be wondering what the what Sampson's up to when he spots the Montague's servants on the streets and announces, "I will bite my thumb at / them, which is disgrace to them if they bear it" (1.1.43-44).

Basically, thumb biting, which involves biting and then flicking one's thumb from behind the upper teeth, is a Shakespearean version of flipping someone the bird and saying "nanny nanny boo boo." It's an insulting gesture that sounds just a wee bit (okay, a lot) immature. Here's how it all goes down in the play:

ABRAHAM
Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

SAMPSON
I do bite my thumb, sir.

ABRAHAM
Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

SAMPSON
[aside to Gregory] Is the law of our side, if I
say 'Ay'?

GREGORY
No.

SAMPSON
No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir,
but I bite my thumb, sir. (1.1.45-52)

Sampson doesn't have a good reason to insult the Montagues' servants—he's basically looking to stir up trouble because his masters (the Capulets) are feuding with the Montagues. The funny thing is, Sampson's too much of a coward to own up to his silly gesture because the "law" won't be on his "side" if his thumb biting causes a big old brawl (he doesn't want to get busted for causing a fracas).

Pretty dumb, right? And that seems to be Shakespeare's point. The Capulet/ Montague feud, which has obviously trickled down to involve their servants, is completely absurd. Just like Sampson's thumb biting.

Sex and Death

Sex and death: pretty much the opposite of each other, right? Not in Romeo and Juliet. In fact, Romeo and Juliet sees to think sex and death go together like, uh, Oreos and milk.

In the very first scene, Sampson crudely puns on the term "maidenhead" (virginity) when he equates sword fighting against men with raping women: "When I have fought with the men I will be civil with the maids—I will cut off their heads […] the heads of maids or their maidenheads" (1.1.23-24; 26). Yikes. Remind us to keep away from Sampson, K?

But crude sex/ death jokes aren't just for belligerent servants. Even Juliet links sex and death by punning on the word "die" when, day-dreaming about her impending wedding night with Romeo, she imagines Romeo being transformed into a bunch of "little stars" lighting up the night sky: "Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die / Take him and cut him out in little stars, / And he will make the face of heaven so fine" (3.2.23-25). Fun fact: Juliet's playing with the fact that "die" was slang for "orgasm." So, "when I shall die" … yeah. You can connect the dots, right?

Even Capulet gets in on the game, when Capulet sees his daughter's lifeless body and says that "death" has "lain with" (slept with) Juliet: "See, there she lies, / Flower as she was, deflowered by him. Death is my son-in-law, death is my heir" (4.5.42-44). (By the way, Capulet has no idea at this point that Juliet is married to Romeo—he still thinks she was all set to marry Paris and is still a virgin.) So, "death" (think orgasm) is linked to "deflowering" (think death). Pretty twisted.

If your mind isn't blown enough yet, we have one more for you: Romeo drinks his poison from a goblet, a traditional symbol of female sexuality. (Sound familiar? This same symbolism is used in the Da Vinci Code, where the Grail, a big V-shaped goblet, symbolizes, well, a woman's genitalia.) Juliet, in contrast, stabs herself with Romeo's dagger—i.e., a penis (source Marjorie Garber). Oh, and guess what the word "vagina" literally means in Latin? "Sheath." So, when she thrusts the dagger into her chest, as though she's putting it into a sheath … We're pretty sure you can connect the dots on that one, too.

But what does it all mean? Symbolically, Romeo and Juliet combine physical death and sexual climax. It's all pretty ironic, really. Typically, sex acts between men and women are supposed to result in the creation of life (making babies, that is). Yet, in the play, that's just not the case.

Oxymoron and Paradox

If you like jumbo shrimp or boneless ribs, then you and Shakespeare have something in common: you both like oxymora.

An oxymoron is a Greek expression that refers to the combination of two terms that are ordinarily opposite—like "oxy," meaning "sharp," and "moron," meaning "dull." Jumbo shrimp? Boneless ribs? Both oxymora.

Shakespeare loved these things, particularly in Romeo and Juliet. For example, at the end of the famous balcony scene, when Romeo is leaving, Juliet says "parting is such sweet / sorrow" (2.2.199-200). "Sweet sorrow?" Totally oxymora.

Think that's impressive? Get a load of Juliet's use of 6 oxymora when she finds out that lover boy (that would be Romeo) has killed her cousin, Tybalt:

O serpent heart, hid with a flow'ring face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical!
Dove-feathered raven, wolvish-ravening lamb!
Despised substance of divinest show!
Just opposite to what thou justly seem'st,
A damnèd saint, an honorable 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! 
(3.2.79-91)

Clearly, Juliet is experiencing some mixed emotions—she wonders how the love of her life, the guy she thought was so wonderful, could be a killer. Juliet's use of oxymoron here gives expression to her turmoil.

This passage is also full of paradoxes, longer statements that contradict themselves and nonetheless seem true—like when Juliet asks, "Was ever a book containing such vile matter so fairly bound?"

The point is that these oxymora and paradoxes work with the major paradox at the center of the play, expressed in Juliet's cry, "My only love sprung from my only hate" (1.5.152). By using oxymora and paradox through the play, Shakespeare manages to make the form (how it's being said) match up with the content (what's being said). Pretty nifty.

Plants and Poison

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger—unless it puts you into a near-death state that fools your husband. The point is, poison (and medicine) are a big deal in Romeo and Juliet. Like love and hate, the difference between them is pretty slim.

Before Romeo and Juliet take their lives, Friar Laurence, who's big into herbal medicine, shows Romeo a flower and makes a cryptic statement that seems to echo throughout the play:

Within the infant rind of this weak flower
Poison hath residence and medicine power:
For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each
   part;
Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart.
Two such opposèd kings encamp them still
In man as well as herbs—grace and rude will;
And where the worser is predominant,
Full soon the canker death eats up that plant. 
(2.2.23-31)

Friar Laurence suggests that, depending on how it's used, a flower can be healing (because it's aromatic) or poisonous (if it's orally ingested). The Friar also muses that people are a lot like the flower he holds in his hand—being full of both "grace" and "rude will," human beings also have the capacity to be good or deadly, depending on whether or not "rude will" takes over.

We can't help but notice that Friar Laurence's observations speak directly to the play's tragedy—Romeo and Juliet's love turns deadly when it's "poisoned" by their family's hateful feud. At the same time, their love also has the capacity to heal, which becomes evident when their parents decide to reconcile at the play's end.

Queen Mab

First things first: if you haven't already, go back and read Mercutio's Queen Mab speech in Act I, Scene 4. (Or give yourself a little treat, and watch this version from Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version.)

Let's start with the basics. According to Mercutio's vivid description, Queen Mab is a tiny fairy that rides around in a coach made out of an "empty hazelnut" with spider's "legs" for wheel spokes (1.4.72, 64). The coach is driven by an even tinier "grey-coated gnat" and drawn by a "team of little atomi" (tiny atoms).

Queen Mab spends her time galloping over the noses and lips of sleepers, filling their dreams with wild fantasies (lovers dream of love, soldiers dream of slitting throats, lawyers dream of winning lawsuits, etc.). Mab (whose name is also a slang word for "whore") is also kind of scary. When she's in a bad mood, she plagues women who dream of "kisses" with nasty sores ("blisters") that might just be cold sores but might also be nastier things, like pox from syphilis, and she's fond of making young, virginal girls have naughty dreams.

So, why is everything about Queen Mab so tiny and sexual? To answer that, we need to think about what it is that prompts Mercutio's wild rant in the first place. Fed up with Romeo's lovesick moping for Rosaline, Mercutio taunts his buddy by saying that Queen Mab must have paid him a visit in the dream Romeo tries to tell him about. Mercutio also informs Romeo that dreams "are the children of an idle brain," which is another way of saying that Romeo is an idiot and his dreams about Rosaline are ridiculous (1.4.104). Given the context of the speech, it seems like Mercutio is suggesting that, like Queen Mab, dreams (especially Romeo's) are small and insignificant.

Pretty wild stuff, don't you think? It's easy to see why, in Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film, Romeo + Juliet, Mercutio takes a hit of ecstasy before delivering his "Queen Mab" speech—the whole thing can seem like drug-induced nonsense. Romeo all but says so when he yells, "Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talk'st of nothing" (1.4.101-102).

Light in Darkness

Like a candle in the darkness, the imagery of light in dark comes up a lot in Romeo and Juliet. "O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright," Romeo says when he first sees Juliet. "It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night / As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear" (1.5.42-53).

Variations on this imagery are repeated again and again—images of Juliet as a sun rising in the darkness, of Juliet's eyes shining in the sky, images of Romeo's body cut out in little stars, of Romeo and Juliet's love as a bright furious lightning flash. At times, the image of a flash of light disappearing into the dusk seems to symbolize both the brilliant strength of Romeo and Juliet's love, as well as its transience. The imagery of light and darkness also picks up the play's emphasis on the contrasts between love and hate, passion and death.

Night

Night is a pretty important time in the play. It's when all the passionate love scenes occur so, night seems to shelter and protects the lovers, while the glare of day threatens to reveal them. In contrast, the heat of the sun makes the young men of Verona irritable and prone to violence and the street brawls occur during the daytime.

We often think of night as both a time for romance and liberation, as well as a time of danger, and the imagery of night and darkness in Romeo and Juliet carries both night's promises and its threats. Hidden in darkness, Romeo and Juliet's love is free from the social rules that would divide them. But danger also lurks in the darkness, and the secrecy of Romeo and Juliet's marriage will prove fatal to them.

"For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring" (3.1.4).

Love

Say what you will about Baz Luhrmann (uh, vulgar and flashy), he gets it: during Romeo and Juliet's first love scene, he dunks Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in a swimming pool. So what? Check out what Romeo says to Juliet during that scene: "Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized" (2.2.54).

In the Christian tradition, baptism—dunking or sprinkling someone with water—is a symbol of rebirth; it welcomes new Christians into the community of faith. By saying that Juliet's love will "baptize" him, Romeo is saying that Juliet's love has the potential to make him reborn.

And that's not all. Romeo is constantly comparing his love for Juliet to a religious experience. When the pair first meets, Romeo calls Juliet a "saint" and implies that he'd really like to 'worship' her body (1.5.114). Not only that, but Romeo's "hand" would be "blessed" if it touched the divine Juliet's (1.5). Eventually, Juliet picks up on this 'religion of love' conceit (a conceit is just an elaborate metaphor) and declares that Romeo is "the god of [her] idolatry" (2.2.120).

Death

Both lovers have intimations of coming death—Romeo before he even arrives at the Capulet's party, and Juliet when she sees Romeo climbing from her window on his way to exile in Mantua. "Oh god, I have an ill-divining soul," she calls down to him. "Methinks I see thee, now thou art so low, / as one dead in the bottom of a tomb" (3.5.54-56). In the most literal possible way, Juliet's drug-induced deathlike state foreshadows her own death. And the apothecary from whom Romeo buys the poison is described as looking like death—thin, starving, with hollow eyes. Romeo buys his suicide weapon from a man that symbolizes death.