In William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, what is meant by the use of the word "gall?"

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

William Shakespeare’s use of the word “gall” in Romeo and Juliet involves the same context in which references to the bitter fluid produced by the human organ known as the gall bladder are routinely employed today.  “Gall” is often employed as a metaphor for the bitterness that people feel under certain negative circumstances.  While “gall” has other meanings – for example, referring to impudent behavior or somebody having “the gall” or the temerity to do or say something inappropriate or out of turn – Shakespeare’s use of the word is clear in the following two passages.  The first involves a conversation between Romeo and his cousin Benvolio, in which Romeo describes his unreciprocated feelings of love for Rosaline:

ROMEO Why, such is love’s transgression.

Griefs of mine own lie heavy in my breast, . . .

Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs;

Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes;

Being vex’d a sea nourish’d with lovers’ tears:

What is it else? a madness most discreet,

A choking gall and a preserving sweet.

The second time “gall” is used in the play involves a conversation between Capulet and Tybalt, Juliet’s nefarious cousin and bitter enemy of Romeo and the Montague clan:

CAPULET Go to, go to;

You are a saucy boy: is’t so, indeed?

This trick may chance to scathe you, I know what:

You must contrary me! marry, ’tis time.

Well said, my hearts! You are a princox; go:

Be quiet, or—More light, more light! For shame!

I’ll make you quiet. What, cheerly, my hearts!

TYBALT Patience perforce with wilful choler meeting

Makes my flesh tremble in their different greeting.

I will withdraw: but this intrusion shall

Now seeming sweet convert to bitter gall.

Tybalt’s lament to his uncle that his thirst for Romeo’s death is being curtailed by the calmer head of his elder leaves a bitter taste in his mouth.  Shakespeare’s use of this particular metaphor is actually quite fascinating for what it reveals about his knowledge of medicine given the period in which he lived (the late 16th to early 17th Century).  Use of the metaphor implies that is has been around for centuries. 

michuraisin | Student

There are two different instances in Romeo and Juliet where the word gall is used. The first comes when Romeo is talking to Benvolio about love. He says:

"What is it else? a madness most discreet,
A choking gall and a preserving sweet."

The second instance is when Tybalt is speaking to Capulet about Romeo:

"I will withdraw: but this intrusion shall
Now seeming sweet convert to bitter gall."

In both contexts, gall means "bitterness, spitefulness, vindictiveness." For example, love is a great thing, but when you love someone and they seem out of reach, then love can be a bitter feeling.

I've linked a website that would be a great source for these kinds of questions. You can click on the word, and it'll tell you possible defintions and which story and situation the word is being used in. Hope it helps!

Zaca | Student

Gall means "bitterness, spitefulness, or vindictiveness". It's meaning comes from it's other definition, which is bile - a bitter substance produced by the body.