- Pettet, E. C. "The Imagery of Romeo and Juliet."
- English 8 (1950): 121-126.
Thesis: Pettet announces the thesis of the essay in the first sentence: "While it is a commonplace that the plot of Romeo and Juliet depends to an exceptional degree on chance and so distinguishes the play from the rest of Shakespeare's tragedies, much less attention has been paid to the note of Fate and premonition, affecting characters and audience alike, with which Shakespeare invests every major development of the story" (121). After this rather stiff opening, the essay gets a lot better. In vivid language Pettet shows how the sense of Fate is expressed in the lovers' premonitions, in star-imagery, in the use of light and dark, and in images "of strife, contrast, contradiction, and paradox" (124).
With so much emphasis on Fate there is nothing surprising in the fact that Shakespeare makes frequent use of the time-old symbol of the stars in his imagery. Nor, in such a story of romantic love, is it remarkable to find the star-image employed in a second conventional way -- as a metaphor for feminine beauty (especially for the eyes of the Lady) and for the attraction of lovers. What is, however, of interest is the way in which Shakespeare subtly fuses these two sorts of star-image; and perhaps the most striking example of this interpenetration is to be observed in some of the lines spoken by Romeo as he watches Juliet at her balcony:Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,No doubt this passage could be dismissed as yet another typical conceit of the time. But the scene in which the lines occur is singularly free from the extravagant conceits and artificialities of Petrarchan love-poetry, which Shakespeare appropriately reserves for the early Romeo, the youth in love with love; and if we submit our imagination to the full effect of the scene, this sustained star-image transcends the mere conceit to assume a new meaning. Juliet is now Romeo's star, his fate; and, as his star, she has the magical power of transforming night into day, of changing his wretchedness into radiant joy and the bitter hatred of their families into love.
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy regions stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
There is a similar, though slighter overtone earlier in the play, when old Capulet says to Paris:At my poor house look to behold this nightHere, too, it is of course possible to skip the image of 'earth-treading stars' as a familiar cliché for beautiful women; but, taking it in conjunction with the phrase 'dark heaven', we may perhaps catch in it a faint announcement of one of the fundamental themes of the play -- of the hardness and misery of human destiny, sweetened, if but for a brief moment, with beauty and love.
Earth-treading stars that make dark heaven bright.
In the star-imagery of Juliet's speech when she is waiting vainly, after the killing of Tybalt, for Romeo to come to her --And, when he shall die,we certainly have, so far as Juliet herself is concerned, a playful, fanciful conceit, for in her passion and fulfilment she cannot really think of her lover as dead. Yet -- once more merging into the symbol of the star as fate -- how intense this apparent conceit is, with its irony and prophecy. Little as Juliet knows it, heaven and its crossing stars are in reality soon to lay claim to Romeo; and their way will be just that cruel way of violence that she hints, and Romeo will be nothing but a symbol of the lover, a bright, remote star. (123)
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
Bottom Line: Eloquent.