Themes and Motifs in Romeo and Juliet:

Light and Dark


In the first scene of the play, after Prince Escalus has broken up the street brawl, Montague and Lady Montague stay behind to speak with Benvolio. Lady Montague says she is glad Romeo didn't take part in the brawl and asks Benvolio if he's seen him. Benvolio begins his answer by saying, "Madam, an hour before the worshipp'd sun / Peer'd forth the golden window of the east, / A troubled mind drave me to walk abroad . . . ." (1.1.118-120). Benvolio then goes on to describe how he spotted Romeo in a grove of sycamore, and how Romeo, when he caught sight of Benvolio, retreated further into the woods. Montague, worried about his son, says Romeo has gotten in the habit of avoiding the light:

Many a morning hath he there been seen,
With tears augmenting the fresh morning dew,
Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs;
But all so soon as the all-cheering sun
Should in the furthest east begin to draw
The shady curtains from Aurora's bed,
Away from the light steals home my heavy son,
And private in his chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks fair daylight out
And makes himself an artificial night:
Black and portentous must this humor prove,
Unless good counsel may the cause remove.   (1.1.131-142)
Both Benvolio and Montague speak of sunlight as holy and healthful, and both consider Romeo's preference for the dark a dangerous sign of depression. [Scene Summary]


Inviting Paris to his feast, Capulet says, "At my poor house look to behold this night / Earth-treading stars that make dark heaven light" (1.2.24-25). The "Earth-treading stars" are the beautiful ladies who will shine so brightly that they will light up the night sky.

The idea that feminine beauty shines brightly is repeated at the end of the scene. Benvolio is trying to persuade Romeo to get over Rosaline by comparing her beauty to that of other ladies. He says, "Compare her face with some that I shall show, / And I will make thee think thy swan a crow" (1.2.86-87). Romeo answers that "The all-seeing sun / Ne'er saw her match since first the world begun" (1.2.92-93), but Benvolio replies that at Capulet's feast he "will show you shining " (1.2.98) maids that will make Romeo consider Rosaline just ordinary. Not persuaded, Romeo declares that he will go to the feast, "no such sight to be shown, / But to rejoice in splendor of mine own" (1.2.101). "Splendor" is a word for great beauty, but its primary meaning is "great light." [Scene Summary]


Before Capulet's door, as his friends are ready to go in to the feast, Romeo announces that he's not really in the mood. He puns, "Give me a torch: I am not for this ambling; / Being but heavy, I will bear the light" (1.4.11-12). As a torch-bearer, he wouldn't wear a mask or do any dancing. He's in a dark mood, "heavy," not light-footed, so he will only carry the light. [Scene Summary]


On first seeing Juliet, Romeo exclaims,

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,
As yonder lady o'er her fellows shows.   (1.5.44-49)

Thus, Romeo describes Juliet's beauty in terms of dark and light. "She doth teach the torches to burn bright" means both that her beauty is brighter than the blaze of any torch and that her presence makes the whole room light up. The bright blaze of Juliet's beauty is made even brighter by the contrasts with the blackness of an "Ethiope" and the blackness of crows. [Scene Summary]


In the balcony scene, Romeo looks up at Capulet's house, sees Juliet come to the window, and says, "But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Juliet is the sun" (2.2.2-3). The rest of Romeo's speech is an ecstatic expression of Juliet's shining beauty, and of the longing it arouses in him. Continuing his comparison of Juliet and the sun, Romeo says, "Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, / Who is already sick and pale with grief, / That thou her maid art far more fair than she" (2.2.4-6). Juliet is a "maid" of the moon because the moon-goddess Diana is the patroness of chastity, and Juliet is a chaste maid. But Romeo sees in her the promise of bright warm love, far more beautiful than the pale, chaste light of the moon.

A little later, Romeo asks himself what would happen if two stars traded places with Juliet's eyes. He decides that the brightness of her cheek would outshine the stars, and "her eyes in heaven / Would through the airy region stream [shine] so bright / That birds would sing and think it were not night" (2.2.20-22). Then, when Juliet speaks, Romeo says,

                                                    She speaks!
O, speak again, bright angel! for thou art
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   (2.2.25-30)
Comparing a beautiful woman to an angel was, and still is, a common thing, but Romeo really believes Juliet is angelic. An angel is "glorious to the night" because it appears in a "glory," a halo surrounding and emanating from its body. When the angel appears, people "fall back," arching their backs, turning their faces to the sky, and casting their eyes upward so that the whites of their eyes show. [Scene Summary]


When Friar Laurence first appears he sets the scene for us: "The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night, / Chequering the eastern clouds with streaks of light, / And fleckled [dappled] darkness like a drunkard reels / From forth day's path and Titan's fiery wheels" (2.3.1-4). The imagery not only gives us a vivid picture of dawn's mixture of light and dark, but it reminds us of the lovers' situation. Night can be said to be "frowning" because it can be full of uncertainty and danger, and darkness can be compared to a drunkard because it is in the dark that we party hearty and throw caution to the winds. In the night Romeo and Juliet have experienced all of this: uncertainty, danger, and sudden passion. But now the fiery wheels of the sun-god's chariot are chasing away the night and bringing the light of day, with its relentless realities. [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. The Nurse adds that she must do a lot of work for Juliet's pleasure, but it is Juliet who "shall bear the burden soon at night" (2.5.76). "Bear the burden" means "do the work," with an obvious sexual meaning. In the Nurse's opinion, the night is made for love-making. [Scene Summary]


With the sun low in the sky, Juliet waits for Romeo to come to her bed. In her imagination, night will bring the consummation of her love. She says, "Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night, / That runaways' eyes may wink and Romeo / Leap to these arms, untalk'd of and unseen" (3.2.5-7). Juliet is seeing things as though she is on a bed, seeing the curtains close about her, bringing the dark in which the acts of love are performed. In the dark the lovers will provide their own light, because "Lovers can see to do their amorous rites / By their own beauties" (3.2.8-9). This idea, that beauty creates its own light, is the same one Romeo talked about when he saw Juliet on her balcony and described her as an angel shining in the night.

Juliet asks night to come to her, and she asks Romeo to come with it: "come, Romeo, come, thou day in night; / For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night / Whiter than new snow on a raven's back" (3.2.17-19). This beautiful metaphor contrasts Romeo's shining whiteness and the deep black of the night; this contrast is repeated in the climax of Juliet's reverie:

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
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.        (3.2.21-25)
Some editors print "when he shall die" instead of "when I shall die," but "I" makes perfectly good sense. Juliet believes that when Romeo comes to her in the night he will be with her forever, even after her death, shining like stars in the night. [Scene Summary]


As dawn ends Romeo and Juliet's one night of married happiness, Romeo is getting ready to leave and Juliet says, "Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day: / It was the nightingale, and not the lark, / That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear" (3.5.1-3). The song of the lark, herald of the morning, has awakened Romeo and filled him with fear of being caught in Verona, but Juliet tries to reassure him that he has heard only the nightingale that sings every night on a nearby pomegranate tree. Romeo knows better. He says it was the lark, and adds, "Look, love, what envious streaks / Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east" (3.5.7-8). The word-picture he paints is beautiful, but ominous. Streaks of sunlight are filtering through the slowly parting clouds in the east, but those streaks are "envious" because they announce the end of the happiness that the lovers have had in the night. This effect of sad beauty grows in what Romeo says next: "Night's candles [i.e., the stars] "are burnt out, and jocund day / Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops. / I must be gone and live, or stay and die" (3.5.9-11). The day, like a rooster stretching itself up to crow, is perched on the top of the world, ready to announce its jolly ("jocund") arrival, but for Romeo it means death. Seeing the sky get ever lighter with each passing minute, Romeo sums up the sad irony of the situation: "More light and light; more dark and dark our woes!" (3.5.36) [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.

In the last speech of the play, Prince Escalus says that the morning sky is dark, fitting the mood of occasion: "A glooming peace this morning with it brings; / The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head" (5.3.306) [Scene Summary]








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