Figurative language is the use of figures of speech to be more persuasive or interesting in writing or speaking. Figurative language includes, but is not limited to, simile, metaphor, personification, allusion, oxymoron, alliteration and punning.
Shakespeare, of course, is widely regarded as the master of figurative language. One of his most famous plays, Romeo and Juliet, is often read by high school students who are tasked with the analysis of his figurative language. So, how does the reader find the figurative language?
In Shakespeare, it is pretty easy. Rather than saying something in a literal fashion, Shakespeare goes further and attempts to paint a picture with his words. Instead of simply saying that Juliet is beautiful when he first sees her in Act I, Scene 5, Romeo says,
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear—
Beauty too rich for use, for Earth too dear.
The middle lines comparing Juliet to a jewel is a simile because Shakespeare is comparing two completely different things to highlight the attributes of the first thing. Similes always use the words like or as in the comparison. Metaphors are like similes without using like or as. In the famous balcony scene Shakespeare again extols the beauty of Juliet, this time with a metaphor:
It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
In this passage Romeo compares Juliet to another bright object, this time the sun. Notice that like or as is not employed in this comparison. Shakespeare extends the metaphor by saying that the moon is jealous of Juliet because the girl is far more beautiful. The scene is played out at night which makes it even more significant that Juliet is, figuratively, shining.
Personification is when the poet gives human qualities to something that is not human. In the preceding passage, Shakespeare not only uses a metaphor but also personifies the sun as a killer and the moon as feeling the very human emotion of grief. Another famous example of personification in Romeo and Juliet comes at the beginning of Act II, Scene 3 when Friar Lawrence gives human qualities to the morning and darkness:
The gray-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night,
Check’ring the eastern clouds with streaks of light,
And fleckled darkness like a drunkard reels
From forth day’s path and Titan’s fiery wheels.
Here, the morning is said to smile on the night. In other words, it is dawn and the sun is rising. Because Shakespeare used very few props, and modern theater lighting had not yet been created, he often describes the setting with his words. Darkness is receding and is compared to a drunkard staggering away.
Allusion, a reference to something from history or literature, abounds in the plays of Shakespeare, and Romeo and Juliet is no exception. Two of the most common sources for allusion in literary works are the Bible and Greek and Roman mythology. Of course, because Romeo and Juliet is a play about lovers, Cupid is invoked in several passages. In referring to Rosaline, the woman he is infatuated with at the beginning of the play and who spurns his advances, Romeo says, in Act I, Scene 1, "She’ll not be hit with Cupid’s arrow." Again, as Romeo's group is on their way to the Capulet's party in Act I, Scene 4, Mercutio invokes the Roman god of love when he tells Romeo, "You are a lover. Borrow Cupid’s wings and soar with them above a common bound."
An oxymoron is a figure of speech
which uses contradictory terms, or words that are literally opposed to each other. A famous oxymoron is the term "jumbo shrimp." In his tirade about how he loves Rosaline, but she could care less about him, Romeo uses several oxymorons in Act I, Scene 1:
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,
Still-waking sleep that is not what it is!
Obviously, love doesn't match hate and, likewise, cold and fire are opposites.
Alliteration, often used by poets and songwriters alike, is the repetition of consonant sounds, as in the famous tongue twisters "Peter Piper...," and "She sells seashells..." Shakespeare uses alliteration in the very first lines of Romeo and Juliet
. In the prologue
, the chorus
says, "From forth the fatal lines of these two foes." Notice the repeating "F" sound.
Punning is one of the most fun and creative uses of figurative language. A pun
is a form of word play that highlights the different meanings of words that sound alike. An excellent example of a pun appears in Act I, Scene 4 of Romeo and Juliet
when Romeo, explaining why he won't dance when he gets to Capulet's party, says,
Not I, believe me. You have dancing shoes
With nimble soles. I have a soul of lead
So stakes me to the ground I cannot move.
Romeo plays on the words sole and soul. His shoes have soles but they are quite different from his soul, which, at this point in the play, is heavy because he is in love with Rosaline, who does not share his affection.