Major Symbols and Motifs
Explore the different symbols and motifs within Shakespeare's tragic play, Romeo and Juliet. Symbols and motifs are key to understanding Romeo and Juliet as a play and identifying Shakespeare's social and political commentary.
Light and Darkness
One of the most often repeated image patterns in the play involves the interplay of light and darkness. The integration of the language indicates an important motif overall. Romeo compares Juliet to light throughout the play. Upon first sight of her, Romeo exclaims that she teaches "the torches to burn bright" (I.v.43). She is also "the sun" who can "kill the envious moon" (II.ii.3), and later in this scene, Shakespeare says that her eyes are like "[t]wo of the fairest stars in all the heaven" (II.ii.15). But hers is a light that shows best against the darkness; she "hangs upon the cheek of night / As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear" (I.v.44-45).
Romeo is also compared with a light that illuminates the darkness; if Juliet dies, she wants Romeo cut "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" (III.ii.22-25). This quote reminds us that their light shines most brightly in the dark — that it is a muted glow associated primarily with stars, torches, and the dawn, rather than with sunlight, which is almost obscenely bright.
Like their love, darkness is associated with mystery, emotion, and imagination. In fact, the day works against them. At the end of their honeymoon night, Romeo says, "More light and light: more dark and dark our woes" (III.v.36); they must part before the light arrived so that he is not caught and killed.
The combination of light and dark makes an interesting motif in Romeo and Juliet. But for our young lovers, the nighttime itself is an important motif as well. The evening hours holds all of the significant moments for Romeo and Juliet. They meet; they pledge their love; they elope; they commit suicide.
Nighttime represents a time when a person can let go of their inhibitions. The same hold true for our title characters. They have a boldness at night that doesn't always show up in the day; this is especially true for Romeo. The night provides privacy and place away from the public's prying eyes, where Romeo and Juliet's love can blossom.
Poison, both sleep inducing and lethal, is the instrument of Romeo and Juliet's deaths. (Technically Juliet stabbed herself, but that never would have happened if not for the sleeping potion.) While poison has a literal purpose in the play, it's also a symbol. The poison symbolizes the Capulet and Montague feud. Not only is the feud deadly in itself, — recall Mercutio's death — it's also the catalyst for Romeo and Juliet's double suicide.