We are told that contradictions are illogical, but in literature, authors use contradiction to express complex emotions. In this lesson, we’ll analyze the use of oxymoron in the play ”Romeo and Juliet” and see how contradiction works as an expressive tool.
Contradictions in Literature
Contradictions can help a reader understand complex emotional moments in literature. An oxymoron is a figure of speech that is a combination of opposing terms that seem contradictory, yet work together to form expressive phrases.’Great Depression,’ ‘act naturally,’ and ‘virtual reality’ are all phrases we use on a semi-regular basis. We never stop to consider their contradictory nature.
In literature, oxymorons help create imagery and display characters’ conflicting emotions. Let’s take a look at the famous play, Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, and analyze its use of oxymorons.
At the beginning of the play, there is a brawl between the Montague and Capulet servants.
After the fight, Benvolio, Romeo’s cousin, looks for Romeo, who has been pining over the unrequited love he feels for a Capulet named Rosaline. In conversation with Benvolio, Romeo says:Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.Why, then, O brawling love, O loving hate, O anything of nothing first create! O heavy lightness, serious vanity, Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms, Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health. . .This speech contains multiple examples of oxymoron.
For example, how can there be a ‘heavy lightness?’ Something cannot be light and heavy simultaneously – these two words are opposites. Similarly, how can fire be described as cold?In this passage, Romeo reveals his conflicting emotions regarding life, the feud between the Montagues and Capulets, and his unrequited love for Rosaline. He uses contradictory terms to relate his pain regarding his love for a woman that will never love him back. Oxymoron describes his feelings toward the feud between his family and the Capulets.
He cannot understand the feud, does not want to partake in the fighting, but cannot ignore his loyalty for his parents.Using oppositional phrases like ‘bright smoke’ and ‘sick health,’ Shakespeare helps the reader feel as Romeo does in his quest to reconcile his broken heart and broken relationship with the Capulet family.
After the Capulets’ party, Romeo sneaks into the Capulets’ courtyard and finds Juliet talking to herself. After a blissful conversation in the famous balcony scene, Juliet says:Good night, good night.
Parting is such sweet sorrow. . .How can something be sweet and sorrowful? These two terms are opposites by nature: Sweet has a positive connotation and sorrow a negative one. Again, Shakespeare uses oxymoron to convey Juliet’s conflicted feelings regarding the thought of Romeo leaving her (the sorrow), and the love she feels for him (the sweet). Juliet does not want Romeo to leave but knows he must or be killed.
Later in the play, Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, and Mercutio, Romeo’s best friend, get into a fight. Tybalt kills Mercutio, and in a fit of passionate rage, Romeo kills Tybalt. After the Nurse reveals Tybalt has been killed by Romeo’s hand, Juliet begins to emotionally unravel. She laments to her Nurse:Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical!Dove-feathered raven, wolvish-ravening lamb!Despised substance of divinest show!Just opposite to what thou justly seem’st,A damned saint, an honorable villain.
Like in Romeo’s rant, we see a list of bold oxymora that reflect Juliet’s internal struggle. Her cousin, whom she loved dearly, is now dead and killed by her own, albeit secret, husband! Talk about drama.Juliet describes Romeo as something black and white as well as good and evil. First, she calls him a ‘tyrant’ and a ‘fiend,’ adding ‘beautiful’ and ‘angelical’ to the negative words. She speaks of a dove and a raven, along with a wolf and a lamb. A dove is a symbol of peace, whereas a raven symbolizes danger.
A lamb signifies innocence, where a wolf represents mischief and cunning. These oxymorons reveal Juliet’s confusion and internal struggle to reconcile Romeo as both her husband and a murderer.Juliet also calls Romeo a ‘damned saint’ and ‘honorable villain,’ the terms saint and honorable in the wrong places.
In her eyes, Romeo is perfect, and she cannot believe such a person could kill, especially her family member. She is unable to process that the person she loves, the wonderful ‘saint,’ could ever be a murderous ‘villain.’ Juliet must decide where her loyalty stands, with her family or with her husband.
So, what do we think? Do these contradictions make sense? Out of context, they probably don’t, but within Romeo and Juliet’s drama, they provide the reader and/or the audience insight into their tumultuous emotions.
Romeo and Juliet both use opposing terms, oxymorons, to explain their conflicting feelings regarding life, death, love and hate. Romeo uses oxymoron to reconcile his unrequited love and the drama his family faces with the Capulets. Juliet uses oxymoron to describe her internal struggle of reconciling Romeo as her husband and a murderer.