Themes and Motifs in Romeo and Juliet:

High and Low

Mercutio, Benvolio and some of Romeo's other friends are all ready to go into Capulet's feast, but Romeo is holding back. Mercutio says to him, "You are a lover; borrow Cupid's wings, / And soar with them above a common bound" (1.4.17-18), but Romeo replies, "I am too sore enpierced with his shaft / To soar with his light feathers, and so bound, / I cannot bound a pitch above dull woe: / Under love's heavy burden do I sink" (1.4.19-22). [Scene Summary]

When Romeo sees Juliet at her window, he exclaims, "But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Juliet is the sun." (2.2. 2-3). He compares Juliet to everything that is high, the sun, the moon, the stars, and an angel "As glorious to this night, being o'er my head / As is a winged messenger of heaven / Unto the white-upturned wondering eyes / Of mortals that fall back to gaze on him" (2.2.27-30). [Scene Summary]

After telling her the arrangements he has made to marry Juliet, Romeo tells the Nurse that within an hour she is to meet his servant, who will give her "cords made like a tackled stair [i.e., a rope ladder]; / Which to the high top-gallant [highest mast of a ship] of my joy / Must be my convoy in the secret night" (2.4.189-191). [Scene Summary]

After much teasing delay, the Nurse gives Juliet the joyful news that Romeo will marry her at Friar Laurence's cell. Therefore, she says, Juliet should go to church, while she goes to fetch the rope ladder, "by the which your love / Must climb a bird's nest soon when it is dark" (2.5.73-74). "Bird's nest" is the Nurse's metaphor for Juliet's bedroom, but it also probably refers to an intimate part of Juliet's body. Urging Juliet to go, the Nurse says, "hie [hasten] you to the cell" (2.5.77), and Juliet goes, saying, "Hie to high fortune! Honest nurse, farewell" (2.5.78). Thus Juliet makes a joyful pun on "high"; she will hie to a fortune (destiny) which is "high" because she will be married to the man she loves, and also "high" because she will be with him up in her bedroom. [Scene Summary]

This is how Benvolio delivers the news of Mercutio's death to Romeo: "O Romeo, Romeo, brave Mercutio's dead! / That gallant spirit hath aspired [risen to] the clouds, / Which too untimely here did scorn the earth" (3.1.116-118). Romeo answers, "This day's black fate on more days doth depend; / This but begins the woe, others must end" (3.1.119-120). "On . . . depend" means "hang or hover over"; it's as if Romeo is envisioning the death of Mercutio as a dark thunderhead, racing across the sky above him and into the unknown future. Then Tybalt returns and Romeo challenges him, saying "Mercutio's soul / Is but a little way above our heads, / Staying for thine to keep him company: / Either thou, or I, or both, must go with him" (3.1.126-129). One of them must die and rise into the clouds to join Mercutio. [Scene Summary]

As dawn ends Romeo and Juliet's one night of married happiness, Romeo must leave, and he jumps down from Juliet's window. Juliet, looking down at him, says "Methinks I see thee, now thou art below, / As one dead in the bottom of a tomb. / Either my eyesight fails, or thou look'st pale" (3.5.55-57). [Scene Summary]

Carrying the body of Paris into Juliet's grave, Romeo says, "I'll bury thee in a triumphant grave" (5.3.83), then sees Juliet and says, "A grave? O no! a lantern, slaughter'd youth, / For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes / This vault a feasting presence full of light" (5.3.84-86). A "lantern" is a turret room with many windows through which the light can shine, and a "feasting presence" is a reception chamber in which festivals are held. For Romeo, Juliet's presence transforms the dark, gloomy, underground grave into its opposite -- a room high in the air, full of light and joy. [Scene Summary]