And All Things Change Them to the Contrary: Romeo and Juliet and the Metaphysics of Language
David Lucking, Università degli Studi di Lecce, Italy
While the fact that oxymoron is the most pervasive rhetorical figure in Romeo and Juliet is unlikely to escape the notice of any reasonably attentive reader, the significance that is to be attributed to this predominance is by no means equally apparent. Critics have evinced widely varying views as to whether the frequency with which this device recurs is to be regarded as a key to character or to the stage of development attained by Shakespeare's own art at the time of composition, and whether in either case its use is indicative of control of the verbal medium or of domination by it. It has been suggested on the one hand that the predilection for this and other figures is symptomatic of an initial immaturity which the protagonists of the tragedy outgrow through their experience of authentic love,1 and on the other that it reveals their verbal dexterity and hence their intellectual superiority to the various other characters surrounding them.2 At a somewhat more distant remove from the play, attention has been directed towards the issue of the playwright's personal commitment to oxymoron, the question, that is, of whether his insistent utilization of this device in Romeo and Juliet should not be interpreted as an index of his own rhetorical propensities rather than of any particular trait in his personages. Although many such discussions of the rhetorical fabric of the drama appear to imply that oxymoron is a wholly artificial, self-indulgent, or otherwise inferior device, and that its prevalence betrays a want of taste or judgment on the part either of the characters or of the playwright himself, it has been pointed out by more sympathetic commentators that oxymoron is an eminently suitable choice of figures in a play which seems deliberately concerned to dramatize the paradoxical identity of opposites. Taking my cue from proponents of the latter view, I propose in the following analysis to examine the manner in which oxymoron functions as a sort of figurai paradigm for the structural dynamics operating throughout Romeo and Juliet as a whole, enacting in terms specific to itself the tensions rendered on a more comprehensive scale at the levels of plot and theme.3
That oxymoron should be the rhetorical device most frequently resorted to by Romeo himself is entirely to be expected in view of the premises of the play, and might therefore appear at first to be adequately explicable in those terms alone. Romeo is cast in the role of a lover from the moment we first hear of him, and oxymoron is traditionally regarded to be a congenial figure for people in his plight for the reason that it can function as a sort of verbal correlative to the paradoxes and dilemmas supposed to be intrinsic to their condition. Love is an illness, though an illness of which the victim is unwilling to be cured; the mistress is a tyrant, but a gentle tyrant and perhaps even a docile one; the relationship is sweet and bitter at the same time, a source of simultaneous anguish and delight, and so forth. More particularly, it was part of the stockin-trade of Renaissance love poets to represent the beloved woman as an enemy undergoing a protracted siege in which the poetry itself was deployed, with greater or lesser expectation of success, as a weapon. Perceived in the light of this metaphor, which depicts the process of wooing as a military campaign of incalculable duration and indeterminate outcome, the poet's mistress assumes the paradoxical character of beloved antagonist, passionately adored even as means are relentlessly sought to subdue her.
What at one level is merely a literary convention, however, contains in Romeo and Juliet a significant component of literal truth from the beginning. If love and hate are generally understood to be diametrically opposed forces contending against one another in the human world, in this play...
(The entire section is 5,612 words.)