How does Shakespeare use language and staging to develop character and plot within the play Romeo and Juliet?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Romeo and Juliet is replete with the poetry of courtly love, sonnets, light/dark imagery, synedoche, metonymy, oxymoron, paradox, extended metaphor (conceit), hyperbole, and rhyming couplets--all of which contribute to the development of character and the thematic plot. Also, puns are appropriated for comedic relief.

  • Sonnets

The first of 3 sonnets in Romeo and Juliet occurs in the opening Prologue. (The others are the binary dialogue of Romeo and Juliet in Act I, Scene 5 and the Prologue to Act II).  Within this first sonnet, there are certain poetic devices, among which are--

  1. metonymy: "two households" for two families.  [Metonymy is a figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated.]
  2. synedoche: "fatal loins" for fathers [Synedoche is a figure of speech in which one part is used for the whole]
  3. metaphors: "star-crossed lovers" Romeo and Juliet are compared to those doomed by unlucky star," "death-marked love

This sonnet, of course, summarizes the plot and introduces the trope of Fate/Chance. The second sonnet, spoken between Romeo and Juliet when they first meet is divided between the two and reveals Romeo as impetuous and Juliet as more reserved with her feelings. The third sonnet which introduces Act II spoken by a Chorus, continues the theme of paradoxes of old desire/young affection, foe/lover, love/carnal passion.

  • Courtly Love

Early in the play, Romeo's melodramatic character is depicted with his visions of idealized love and exaggerated feelings in his lines of courtly love, first about Rosalind, then Juliet:

Here's much to do with hate, but more with love,
Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate! [oxymorons]
O heavy lightness! Serious vanity! (1.1)

As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes
Would through the airy region stream so bright...
See how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
Oh, that I were a glove upon that hand
That I might touch that cheek! (2.2.)

Of course, the staging of Scene 2 increases the adoration of Romeo as he stands beneath the balcony of his exalted love who passes above him, giving rise to metaphors of Juliet's being like the sun in the heavens.

  • Imagery

Light/dark imagery indicates the dangers of the romantic plot of the youths from feuding families who must mask their feelings, as well as foreshadowing the violence of this love that Friar Laurence's monologue of Act II cautions,

These violent delights have violent ends
And, in their triumph die, like fire and powder, [simile]
Which as they kiss, consume [personification] (2.6)

Underscoring this foreshadowing is Juliet's earlier remark to Romeo, "Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing" (2.2.198-199).

  • Conceit

A pivotal point in character development and thematic plot is Mercutio's monologue on Queen Mab. For, when Romeo reports his dream, Mercutio contemptuously dismisses such fears as merely the work of Queen Mab. This speech demonstrates the keen wit and creativity of Mercutio as well as moving the plot from Romeo's love for Rosalind to Juliet, as well as evoking the motif of inconstancy which exists with Rosalind, but which Juliet in Act II exhorts Romeo not to swear by--"by the moon, the inconstant moon."

  • Hyperbole

“’Twixt my extremes and me this bloody knife / Shall play the umpire…” (4.1.61-62) [Juliet considers suicide]

"A sail! A sail!" (2.4) Mercutio makes fun of the Nurse's attire.

  • Pun


The Nurse says "flower of courtesy" in Act II, Romeo and Mercutio both have made puns on decorated shoes and courtesy/curtsy.

  • Irony


At the beginning of Act III, Mercutio scolds Benvolio for arguing, then he engages in a deadly argument with Tybalt.

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