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 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
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.
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).
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.