Shakespeare uses many types of figurative language like metaphor, simile, and personification. Recognizing when his characters are speaking figuratively helps to understand what they are saying. The famous balcony scene of the play is overflowing with figurative language.
Romeo begins by using the sun as a metaphor for his beloved Juliet:
“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.” (2.2.3–6)
In these same lines Romeo has furthered his metaphor by using personification. He creates for us the idea that the moon is a woman who is “sick and pale with grief,” seemingly jealous of Juliet’s beauty.
Toward the end of the scene, Juliet tries to tell Romeo how much she loves him. She uses the sea as a simile to help him understand:
“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite. (2.2.133–136)
Shakespeare’s Language: Prose vs Verse
Many students—and adults, for that matter—find Shakespeare difficult to read and hard to understand. They accuse him of not speaking English and refuse to believe that ordinary people spoke the way his characters do. However, if you understand more about his language, it is easier to understand. One idea that may help is to remember that his plays are written in two forms: prose and verse. In Romeo and Juliet prose is less common than verse.
Prose is the form of speech used by common, and often comic, people in Shakespearean drama. There is no rhythm or meter in the line. It is everyday language. Shakespeare’s audiences would recognize the speech as their language. When a character in a play speaks in prose, you know that he is a lower class member of society. These are characters such as criminals, servants, and pages. However, sometimes important characters can speak in prose. For example, the majority of The Merry Wives of Windsor is written in prose because it deals with the middle-class. The first scene of Romeo and Juliet is written in prose, until Benvolio and Tybalt, the more important and higher born characters in the play, enter:
Abraham: Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
Sampson: No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir.
Gregory: Do you quarrel, sir?
Abraham: Quarrel, sir? No, sir.
Sampson: But if you do sir, I am for you. I serve as good a man as you.
Abraham: No better.
Samson: Yes, better, sir.
Abraham: You lie.
Samson: Draw, if you be men.
Benvolio: Part fools! / Put up your swords. You know not what you do.
Tybalt: What, art thou drawn among these heartless hinds? / Turn thee, Benvolio, Look upon thy death.
Benvolio: I do but keep the peace. Put up thy sword, / Or manage it to part these men with me.
We can recognize the beginning of this passage as prose. The servants, who have crossed paths in the street, insult each other hoping for, but not wanting to be blamed for, a fight. Their words flow freely, without concern for where the line ends on the page.
The verse lines begin when Benvolio enters in an attempt to break up the fight. He is followed by Tybalt, who wants to get in on the action. As with most of Shakespeare’s important characters, these two speak in blank verse. It contains no rhyme, but each line has an internal rhythm with a regular rhythmic pattern. The pattern most favored by Shakespeare is iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is defined as a ten-syllable line with the accent on every other syllable, beginning with the second one. The rhythm of this pattern of speech is often compared to a beating heart. Examine Benvolio’s final line and count the syllables it contains:
“Or manage it to part these men with me.”
place the words with syllabic count:
1-2 3-4 5-6 7-8 9-10
Replace the words with a ‘da’ sound to hear the heart beat:
da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA
Now put the emphasis on the words themselves:
Or-MAN age-IT to-PART these-MEN with-ME
In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare used prose to create moments of confusion, especially when there is fighting or arguing on stage. Interestingly, Mercutio, the highest born of the leading characters in the play, jumps rapidly between prose and verse. This is perhaps to show his mercurial, or erratic, nature. Whether he is speaking in a rhythmic pattern of dreams and fairies or exchanging biting banter with Romeo, he is a master of wit and never misses an opportunity to “one up” his friends or rivals.
An Example of Prose
Mercutio (upon being mortally wounded by Tybalt): No, ‘tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, but ’tis enough, ’twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o’ both your houses! Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a man to death! A braggart, a rouge, a villain, that fights by the book of arithmetic! Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm. (3.1.95–102)
An Example of Verse
Friar Laurence (counseling Romeo just before marrying him to Juliet):
These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder
Which as they kiss consume. The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness,
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately. Long love doth so.
Too swift arrives as tardy too slow. (2.6.9–15)
A Verse Scene
Romeo and Juliet (saying goodbye after their wedding night):
Juliet: 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 yond pomegranate tree.
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.
Romeo: It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale. Look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.
Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.
Juliet: Yond light is not daylight, I know it, I.
It is some meteor that the sun exhaled
To be to thee this night a torchbearer
And light thee on thy way to Mantua.
Therefore stay yet. Thou need’st not to be gone.
Romeo: Let me be ta’en; let me be put to death.
I am content, so thou wilt have it so.
I’ll say yon gray is not the morning’s eye;
’Tis but the pale reflex of Cynthia’s brow.
Nor that is not the lark whose notes do beat
The vaulty heaven so high above our heads.
I have more care to stay than will to go.
Come, death, and welcome! Juliet wills it so.
How is’t, my soul? Let’s talk. It is not day.
Juliet: It is, it is. Hie hence, begone, away! (3.5.1–26)