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Analyzing Light and Dark Imagery in Romeo and Juliet

Summary:

In Romeo and Juliet, light and dark imagery underscores the intensity of the lovers' relationship. Light often symbolizes the beauty and passion of their love, as seen when Romeo describes Juliet as the sun. Conversely, darkness represents secrecy and danger, reflecting the obstacles they face. This contrast highlights the profound yet perilous nature of their love.

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Can you provide simple examples of light and dark imagery in Romeo and Juliet?

Light and dark imagery can be used only to show contrast, helping to highlight one thing by showing the opposite.  For example, in the balcony scene, Romeo describes Juliet as the sun:

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:

He says that Juliet is so beautiful, so "lit up with beauty" that she will kill "the moon" or, in other words, the night.  Her beauty will make it daytime.   These contrasts are just to show how extreme Romeo's admiration of Juliet is.

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Can you provide simple examples of light and dark imagery in Romeo and Juliet?

Traditionally, light has symbolized good and dark evil, or at least not-so-good.  While this is sometimes the case with Romeo and Juliet, the standard interpretation is not always true.  In the traditional sense, the balcony scene fits the criteria, for Juliet hopes for the sun to banish the "envious moon" and turn night into day.

But on the other hand, when the lovers spend their first full night together as man and wife, day is shunned for the pleasures that night has delivered.  Both the young lovers try to try to pretend that it is still night, and that the light is actually darkness.  Romeo hears the call of the lark, a bird of the morn, but Juliet desperately wants to pretend it is a nightingale they've heard (thus meaning it is still evening): 

 She says: Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day: / It was the nightingale, and not the lark, /  That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear; / Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree: / Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

And Romeo replies:  It was the lark, the herald of the morn, / No nightingale. Look, love, what envious streaks / Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east (3.5.1-9)

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What is the significance of light and dark imagery in Romeo and Juliet?

Light and dark imagery can symbolize many different things in Romeo and Juliet. Literary critic Clifford Leech argues that the contrast between light and dark imagery shows that, since their love is separated by their feuding families, their love is something unnatural, something that cannot fully exist in the world, but rather something that is doomed to failure as expressed by the dark imagery (Leech, "Rome and Juliet: Romeo and Juliet").

Light imagery is especially used to describe Juliet's beauty, showing us that Romeo sees her as more of a celestial being rather than a real person and that his love for her is otherworldly. Light imagery is especially used in the famous balcony scene when Romeo sees Juliet at her window. Romeo makes an analogy between Juliet and the sun, as we see in his lines, "But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? / It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!" (II.ii.2-3). Since the sun stands above the world, the image portrays Juliet, as well as Romeo's love for her, as otherworldly.

However, while their love is described with light imagery, their meetings always take place at night. One reason is that most amorous activity takes place at night. But another reason, as literary critic Leech suggests, is that the darkness they are in is literally crushing and killing their love, just like their families' feud. As Leech states, "Their love cannot--which is the mark of its doom--exist in the sun, its natural element," which Romeo shows in is paradoxical line, "More light and light; more dark and dark our woes," which he utters just as dawn is breaking the morning after their secret wedding night (Leech, "Rome and Juliet: Romeo and Juliet"; III.v.36).

Hence we see that the light and dark imagery can portray beauty, their love, and also the struggles they are enduring due to their families' hatred.

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What is the significance of light and dark imagery in Romeo and Juliet?

One of the things that makes this play so memorable and so well-loved is the beautiful poetic language using imagery portraying light and darkness. For the most part, Romeo uses images of light and the sun, while Juliet uses imagery of the moon, stars, and night sky. The use of celestial imagery is in keeping with the "star-crossed lovers" theme, but we also see here an interesting engagement with the association of the sun with masculine energy and the moon with feminine energy. 

Romeo's first glimpse of Juliet inspires him to compare her to a bright day, brighter than the night sky around them:

The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night

Romeo also compares Juliet to the sun in the famous balcony scene:

What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon.

Romeo also refers to how Juliet's "light" shines brightly in darkness, as here when he is devastated at the news that he has been banished from the kingdom and will be unable to see her:

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear...

That last image compares Juliet to a star, like a bright jewel on a dark-skinned person's ear. The image of the "Ethiop" (Ethiopian) also suggests a comparison to exotic cultures, romanticizing Juliet in Romeo's eyes. Interestingly Romeo uses the imagery of stars here to refer to Juliet. Juliet does the same when she speaks of Romeo in her famous "Gallop apace" soliloquy in a later scene.

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How does Shakespeare bring together the contrasting images of light and dark in Romeo and Juliet?

One place in which images of light and darkness are merged is in the famous balcony scene. In particular, images of the sun are used as images of light, while images of nighttime, like the moon, are used as images of darkness. Shakespeare uses the images of light and darkness for several reasons. One reason is to symbolize the sexuality that is a dominant theme.

Romeo's feelings of sexual attraction for Juliet are especially expressed using light and dark images in his opening soliloquy in Act 2, Scene 2. He compares Juliet to the sun in order to capture her beauty, as we see in his lines, "What light through yonder window breaks? / It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!" (2-3). Since the sun is the brightest object in the sky, comparing her to the sun describes her beauty as being glorious and bright, just like the sun.

More importantly, he also uses nighttime imagery to express his sexual desires for Juliet. He uses an extended metaphor likening Juliet to the moon's handmaiden, telling her in his mind to kill the moon and cease being her handmaiden. The moon literally refers to the Roman goddess Diana, goddess of the moon and childbirth who is especially known for her vow of chastity. Hence, when he tells her in his mind to cease being the moon's handmaiden, he is really telling her to give up her chastity, which we especially see in his lines, "[the moon's] vestal livery is but sick and green, And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off" (8-9). Since vestal livery can be translated as virginal uniform or clothing, Romeo is metaphorically in his mind telling Juliet to cast off her clothing. The nighttime imagery is especially significant because it is typically at nighttime when sexual activity takes place. Hence these two images of light and darkness combine to paint a provocative picture of Shakespeare's ongoing sexual theme.

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How does the imagery of light and darkness relate to the figurative language in Act 2 of Romeo and Juliet?

Much of the figurative language used to depict the light and dark is in reference to the blossoming love we see between Romeo and Juliet. We see this most strongly in the balcony scene, Act II, scene ii.

For example, lines 2-3 set this idea into motion when Romeo states:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Romeo compares Juliet to the sun here as though she is illuminating his world and eliminating the dark emptiness he felt in his love for Roseline. The comparison of Juliet to light-bearing celestial bodies (sun, moon, stars, etc.) continues throughout this scene.

Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.

For Romeo, Juliet is his "bright angel."

Likewise, Juliet enters into this same metaphor, stating:

therefore pardon me,
And not impute this yielding to light love,
Which the dark night hath so discovered.

Later in the scene, even when Juliet is questioning the logic of the emotions she feels it is this same vein of figurative language that brings her back:

It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say 'It lightens.' Sweet, good night!
This bud of love, by summer's ripening breath,
May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.

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How does the imagery of light and darkness relate to the figurative language in Act 2 of Romeo and Juliet?

Much of the figurative language in parts of Act II (and actually even more so in Act I when Romeo first meets Juliet) is based around the difference between light and dark.

To me, Shakespeare is using this difference to talk about the ways in which Romeo's life has changed since he has met Juliet.  Before, his life was dark.  He was moping around because Rosalind did not love him.

Now that he has met Juliet, his life is lighter.  He is happier than he used to be.  This shows up in all of the figurative language about light and dark in this play.

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