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Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University explains the symbols in William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet | Symbols


Shakespeare uses three main symbols: two that represent the internal struggle between good and evil within individuals and the external force of society's violence and one that symbolizes the importance of reliability.

Daggers and Swords

Daggers and swords symbolize the external force of violence in the play. Weapons are physical representations of masculinity, rage and hatred, and, sometimes, sexuality, but their symbolic meaning is mostly constructed in scenes involving a large group of people. For the Capulet servants and for Montague's kin, their swords align them with their households. For Sampson, a sword represents masculinity. "Draw if you be men," he demands in Act 1, Scene 1. Similarly, when Mercutio draws his sword to fight Tybalt, he does so in reaction to what he sees as Romeo's "dishonorable, vile submission" to Tybalt. Later, when Romeo uses his sword to kill Tybalt, the idea that Juliet's beauty "hath made me effeminate/And in my temper softened valor's steel" motivates him to commit murder. For Benvolio, who is more mild tempered than the other male characters, the men's use of swords speaks to their ignorance and irresponsibility: "Part, fools!" he says. "You know not what you do."

The prince, who serves as a judge between the two households, refers to the weapons of his "rebellious subjects" as "neighbor-stained steel" and "mistempered." He suggests that both the weapons and the men are ill-made, as they express hatred toward those whom, in a well-ordered society, they should love.

Plants and Poisons

Plants, Friar Lawrence tells the audience, have within them either medicinal qualities or dangerous poison. In this way plants are a symbol of humanity; "in man as well as herbs," he says. He extends the metaphor to say that a plant can be corrupted from purity, "strained from that fair use," and turned from its better nature. When both virtue and vice live in a plant, as in a person, "where the worser [vice] is predominant, ... death eats up the plant." In other words, a plant used the wrong way can be poisonous, and a person who is more inclined to vice than virtue will eventually turn wholly bad.

Romeo and Juliet, individually and together, struggle between their virtuous and lower natures. Together their love drives them to be virtuous, loyal, honorable, and kind, but their passionate nature also corrupts their purity. Romeo fails to stop the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio, and he gives in to his rage and kills Tybalt. Juliet gives in to her passions and allows them to lead her to deceitfulness. Having lost their internal struggles to the negative side of their natures, they can only come to a tragic end. Their love is ultimately poisonous to them; it does not save them, "death eats up the plant," and the earth becomes their tomb.

Sun and Moon

The sun and moon symbolize constancy and fickleness. The sun's regular rising and setting are a steady reminder of how people's love should be manifested. The moon, on the other hand, waxes and wanes, making it a suitable opposite for the sun. Tension between the two depictions helps the audience understand the main characters— especially Juliet—whom Romeo compares to the sun.

Romeo and Juliet's classic scene takes place in moonlight, with Juliet on a balcony and Romeo below, under "night's cloak." Romeo says Juliet is radiant like the sun, and when Romeo tries to swear by the moon, Juliet says he should not swear by the "inconstant moon" but rather by himself. Afraid that he will wake up and realize that his time with Juliet has been a dream, Romeo says, "O blessed, blessed night! I am afeard,/Being in night, all this is but a dream." The unreliable moonlight makes him question the truth of what is happening.

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