What are some oxymorons used in Act III of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet?

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tamarakh's profile pic

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Some of the best oxymorons in Act 3 our found in Scene 2, when Juliet learns that Romeo has killed Tybalt and has been banished. Juliet shows just how much she feels she has been deceived by Romeo through calling him all sorts of contrary opposites.

One oxymoron she refers to Romeo as is "beautiful tyrant." A tyrant is an oppressive dictator who pays no heed to justice. Since tyrants oppress their people, tyrants cannot be considered beautiful.

Another is "fiend angelical." A fiend is the devil or an extremely "cruel" and "wicked person" ("Fiend," Dictionary.com). The word angelical refers to an angel, or a very good and virtuous person. Therefore, a "fiend" cannot also be "angelical."

A third oxymoron is "Dove-feather'd raven." Dove's are typically white, while ravens are black. Therefore a raven cannot be white, or "dove-feather'd." Also, since doves are characteristically considered beautiful, while ravens are plain, ugly, or even scary, they are contradictory images. The images contrast what Juliet first perceived as Romeo's beauty to what she now believes is his ugly soul.

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mwestwood's profile pic

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Oxymorons are apparently contradictions, but there is often some deeper relationship that makes them true.

After the Nurse returns from obtaining the rope ladder for Romeo to come and visit Juliet under the cover of night, she is extremely distraught, crying "he's dead, he's dead." Of course, in another dramatic instance of miscommunication, Juliet believes that the Nurse alludes to Romeo and she, too, becomes extremely upset. Finally, the Nurse reveals that Romeo has slain Tybalt and he is now banished from Verona. In reaction, Juliet speaks, using several oxymorons:

  1. "wolfish-ravening lamb"
  2. "Despised substance of divinest show"
  3. "A damned saint"
  4. "an honourable villain"

While these four oxymorons are apparently contradictions, there is much truth in them that Juliet feels in her conflicted state of mind. For, Romeo was a "lamb" to her before he killed Tybalt in a "wolfish" manner; he was "divinest show to him" before this murder, but now he is despised by her family; he was like a saint to her, but now he is damned to banishment; he is honorable in defending his friend, but a villain to the Capulet family.

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karythcara's profile pic

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There are two common kinds of oxymoron: the phrase and the sentence. An oxymoron combines words that are contradictory to each other in order to express an idea, whether humorous or tragic, that seems too profound, too big, to express in normal language, such as the idea of hurtful love, deep love that gives emotional or psychological pain. An oxymoron (pluralized correctly as "oxymora" but popularly as "oxymorons") is similar to but different from a paradox in that a paradox is longer in construction (constructed as one or more sentences versus a phrase or one sentence), and a paradox seems to contradict its own idea while actually supporting a truth: e.g., Overtime pay may kill your enthusiasm while vacationing may increase your rewards.

Oxymoron phrases are often constructed with an adjective and a noun, such as princely fool, painful jest, tearful laughter, although not always, since Juliet says in III.ii "serpent heart" to mean false heart or false love. These, like price fool are noun phrases, with a noun modifying a second noun. Sentences containing an oxymoron have contradictory words within different parts of the same sentence, for example (this example actually presents two oxymoroa, one associated with night and one with fire): e.g., The pitch night became glaring brightness in the shadow of the dancing fire.
 
In III.ii, Juliet's full line about the "serpent heart" presents a sentence oxymoron along with two phrase oxymora: "O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face!" The key contradictory words in the sentence oxymoron are heart and face, and each is part of its own noun phrase oxymoron: (1) "serpent heart" (2) "flowering face." A useful paraphrase of Juliet's sentence oxymoron, which will illuminate her meaning, is: O cruel heart, hid with a happy face! Her emotion is horror, and the oxymoron expresses the meaning that Romeo deceived her but showed his true self when he slew Tybalt.
 
Other oxymoroa in this same speech by Juliet are a bit more obvious, although the sentence oxymoroa are still rather subtle, like "Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave." Look for contradictory words like fiend and angel, dove and raven:

    Beautiful tyrant! fiend angelical!
    Dove-feather'd raven! wolvish-ravening lamb!
    Despised substance of divinest show!
    Just opposite to what thou justly seem'st,
    A damned saint, an honourable villain!
 
Shakespeare uses the literary technique of oxymoron for a number of different purposes. In Romeo and Juliet, Act III, it is often to evince (clearly show) unbearable grief, shock, remorse, horror, in other words, to evince strong negative emotional responses, although in some places and in some woks Shakespeare may opt to use the oxymoron for different purposes, such as for humor. In Act III, some of the characters most notable for the use of the oxymoron are the Prince, Juliet and Friar Laurence. Romeo and the Nurse also have dialogue that employs the technique of the oxymoron. Examining some of these will reveal the emotion evinced and the meaning revealed by the oxymoron spoken.

III.i
Prince: "Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill."
The Prince is lamenting the fate of Romeo after Romeo has slain Tybalt. The Prince has decreed that any who engage in street "bandying" (verbal quarreling or physical quarreling, including sword fighting) will be executed, but after learning from Benvolio that Tybalt slew Mercutio, while Romeo tried to subdue the quarrel, and that only after Tybalt returned to the scene of his crime did Romeo slay Tybalt, the Prince shows mercy to Romeo and exiles, or banishes, him instead of demanding his life: "the prince will doom thee death...." The Prince speaks a sentence oxymoron to evince an emotion of deep lament and strong remorse. The meaning revealed in the contradictory phrases (mercy/pardon, murder/kill) is that the Prince knows that exile, although an act of mercy, is a cruelty because the exiled person is all but dead: their loves and lives are left behind and their new place will be one of estrangement and deprivation. So the mercy of exile will surely be like a living death to Romeo (living death is also an oxymoron; it seems some ideas are bound to be expressed in an oxymoron).

III.iii 

FRIAR LAURENCE
    Romeo, come forth; come forth, thou fearful man:
    Affliction is enamour'd of thy parts,
    And thou art wedded to calamity. [...]
    There on the ground, with his own tears made drunk

In these oxymoron-laced lines, Friar Laurence is evincing the emotion of dismay; his meaning is in his intent to show Romeo (who is listening to Laurence talk with Nurse) a true picture of himself in the hope of bringing him to a state of sensible thought; he wants Romeo to stop seeing the horrible side of events and instead see the happy side (in fact, Laurence virtually quotes what Juliet says to herself to change her focus from Tybalt's death to Romeo's life). Laurence says that "affliction" (pain and suffering) is in love with Romeo. This oxymoron employs the contradictory ideas of pain and love to describe Romeo's state. He then says that Romeo is married to "calamity" (a terrible and damaging event) to further identify Romeo's condition by employing the ironic and contradictory ideas of marriage (as he has just married Juliet) and disaster. Laurence then describes Romeo's physical state by using the contradictory ideas of tearful sorrow and drunkenness to say that Romeo is lying on the floor, as he would be if passed out drunk, crying unrelentlingly over his sorrows; of course tears cannot make drunk, a contradiction that adds significantly to the oxymoron.

III.iii
Nurse replies to Friar Laurence by exclaiming "O woful sympathy!" The emotions evinced are strong pity and mournfulness. The contradictory ideas in the oxymoron are enormous sadness and deep pitying compassion. These are contradictory ideas because one is self-oriented (woe), but one is other-oriented (compassion). Nurse's oxymoron means that, even though she is torn by sorrow for her beloved Juliet and for "Tybalt, the best friend I had!" (which are feelings in opposition to feelings of compassion for the killer of Tybalt), she nonetheless has a deep sympathy for Romeo, the husband of her Juliet.

These are some of the examples of the literary technique of oxymoron in Act III of Romeo and Juliet. As you look for more, be sure to keep in mind (1) contradicting words and ideas, (2) two-word phrases and (3) full sentences, each of which are important elements of the oxymoron.
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