An oxymoron is a paradoxical phrase or pair of words that contradicts itself. Classic examples of oxymorons include “jumbo shrimp” and “dull roar” - new descriptions formed by opposite words.
William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet includes several oxymorons that both elevate the play’s language and foreshadow its tragic ending. Keep reading for examples of these oxymorons from Shakespeare’s best-known work, as well as their literary purpose.
Oxymorons in Romeo and Juliet, Acts I-II
The prologue of Romeo and Juliet warns the audience of an unhappy ending to its tale of “star-crossed lovers.” Throughout Acts I and II, oxymorons remind us of the prologue’s message: these opposing forces will not end peacefully. They reflect the characters’ ambivalent attitudes, torn loyalties, and misaligned goals.
One of the most famous oxymorons in Romeo and Juliet comes from the Prince’s admonition to the Montegues and Capulets on the streets of Verona. He warns them about further quarrels disturbing the city’s peace:
Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word,
By thee, old Capulet, and Montague,
Have thrice disturb'd the quiet of our streets…
(Romeo and Juliet 1.1 91-93)
The word “civil” in the phrase “civil brawls” implies that the brawls are friendly. The idea of a “friendly fight” is a clear oxymoron that contradicts itself.
O Brawling Love, O Loving Hate
Before Romeo set eyes on Juliet, he was head over heels for Rosaline. But Rosaline’s rejection has set him into a moody tailspin. Now faced with news of the most recent Capulet-Montague brawl, Romeo laments to Benvolio:
“Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all.
Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate
O any thing, 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!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.”
Oxymorons dealing with the fight – “O brawling love, O loving hate” – show Romeo’s ambivalent attitude toward the families’ animosity. He also uses oxymorons to describe how out-of-sorts he feels in his love toward Rosaline (“cold fire, sick health, still-waking sleep”).
So Loving-Jealous of His Liberty
Act II features the famous balcony scene in which Romeo and Juliet express their love. Juliet tells Romeo that she wants him to go, but also to stay, reflected in the following oxymoron:
'Tis almost morning; I would have thee gone:
And yet no further than a wanton's bird;
Who lets it hop a little from her hand,
Like a poor prisoner in his twisted gyves,
And with a silk thread plucks it back again,
So loving-jealous of his liberty.
Placing “loving” and “jealous” next to each other in this way underscores Juliet’s internal conflict. Had she been able to let Romeo go, she could have avoided her tragic fate – but alas, the other side of the oxymoronic phrase kept them together.
Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow
Another frequently quoted line from Romeo and Juliet is at the end of Act II, scene 2. But when “parting is such sweet sorrow” is taken out of context, the audience misses the oxymoron in the line above:
“Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing.
Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.”
Juliet knows that Romeo’s life is in danger if he stays, but mourns the thought of him leaving. “Kill thee with much cherishing” indicates that her love will end with his death, and “sweet sorrow” is an oxymoron describing a lovely sadness. The concept of killing someone with love is a common theme in Romeo and Juliet, echoed in its many oxymorons.
Her Burying Grave That Is Her Womb
The image of the earth being both a grave and a womb is also a repeated motif in the play. Here, Friar Lawrence reflects on his garden and the cyclical nature of life:
The earth that's nature's mother is her tomb;
What is her burying grave that is her womb,
And from her womb children of divers kind
We sucking on her natural bosom find,
Many for many virtues excellent,
None but for some and yet all different.
Audiences may not know that Romeo and Juliet later end their lives in a grave. However, this oxymoron both sets the tone and foreshadows their tragic end.
Oxymorons in Romeo and Juliet, Acts III-IV
Act II in Romeo and Juliet ends with their marriage and the hope for a more positive future. However, the very first scene sets events in motion that continue through Act IV, reflected in the characters’ many oxymoronic phrases.
I Am Fortune’s Fool
Romeo’s cry after the duel that took Tybalt’s life is another oxymoron. He laments his waste of luck in marrying Juliet:
O, I am fortune's fool!
The word “fortune” describes the universe’s allotment of happiness to Romeo. But the very next word, “fool” indicates a person who has no fortune or luck. The oxymoron establishes the figurative crossroads Romeo finds himself in at this moment.
Much confusion arises after the death of Tybalt. Desperate to hear the news from the sobbing nurse, Juliet pleads with her for clarity:
What storm is this that blows so contrary?
Is Romeo slaughter'd, and is Tybalt dead?
My dear-loved cousin, and my dearer lord?
Then, dreadful trumpet, sound the general doom!
For who is living, if those two are gone?
Trumpets are associated with triumph and glory. Its positive connotation contrasted with the word “dreadful” creates an oxymoron that perfectly describes the feeling of unwanted news.
Beautiful Tyrant, Fiend Angelical
Juliet then learns that Tybalt is dead and Romeo is his killer. Her flood of conflicting emotions comes out as a series of oxymorons:
O serpent heart, hid with a flow'ring face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical!
Dove-feathered raven, wolvish-ravening lamb!
Despised substance of divinest show!
Just opposite to what thou justly seem'st,
A damnèd saint, an honorable villain!
Juliet cannot make sense of how her beloved husband is a hated murderer. She deems him a “beautiful tyrant” and “fiend angelical,” mixing up the words in each oxymoron to reflect her own mixed-up feelings. Juliet does the same thing with “a damned saint, an honorable villain!”
Freezes Up the Heat of Life
After being promised to Paris for marriage, Juliet sees only one way out of her predicament. She convinces herself to take the elixir that will make her appear dead:
“Farewell! God knows when we shall meet again.
I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins,
That almost freezes up the heat of life:
I'll call them back again to comfort me:
Nurse! What should she do here?
My dismal scene I needs must act alone.
Placing “freezes” and “heat” in the same sentence demonstrates how quickly death can take hold of someone. It also foreshadows what is about to happen when Juliet does drink the elixir.
Oxymorons in Romeo and Juliet, Act V
The untimely end to both Romeo’s and Juliet’s lives, as well as the play itself, is full of oxymorons. Love leading to death is the ultimate paradox. Here are some examples of oxymorons throughout the last act of Romeo and Juliet.
Friar Lawrence has sent a letter to Romeo informing him of Juliet’s plot. However, having learned that the letter never got to Romeo, Friar Lawrence knows
Unhappy fortune! by my brotherhood,
The letter was not nice but full of charge
Of dear import, and the neglecting it
May do much danger.
“Unhappy fortune” roughly translates to “bad luck.” Like Romeo’s line “I am fortune’s fool,” Friar Lawrence’s line contrasts the positive connotation of “fortune” with a negative word. This oxymoron reflects back to the prologue’s reference to “star-crossed lovers” – a tragic ending set up by the universe.
Poor Living Corpse
The plan for the lovers to meet at the tomb has gone awry. Fearing that Juliet will wake up alone, Friar Lawrence sets off to the Capulet tomb. He declares:
But I will write again to Mantua,
And keep her at my cell till Romeo come;
Poor living corse, closed in a dead man's tomb!
Juliet’s state as a living person inside a tomb is a paradox in itself. The term “living corse (or corpse)” is an oxymoron that describes her situation: she is dead, but she is also alive.
Myself Condemned and Myself Excused
After Romeo and Juliet meet their tragic end, the prince wants answers. He inquires what role Friar Lawrence had in the ordeal, and the friar explains:
I am the greatest, able to do least,
Yet most suspected, as the time and place
Doth make against me of this direful murder;
And here I stand, both to impeach and purge
Myself condemned and myself excused.
Friar Lawrence admits that he knows the most but was least able to help. His oxymoronic phrase “myself condemned and myself excused” indicates that he is both guilty and innocent of Romeo’s and Juliet’s deaths.
Kill Your Joys With Love
The prince chastises Capulet and Montague for their ongoing feud. It parallels his lecture from Act I, but also shifts blame to himself for not taking their fight seriously enough:
Where be these enemies? Capulet! Montague!
See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish'd.
The phrase “kill your joys with love” contrasts the negative verb “kills” with the positive nouns “joy” and “love.” This oxymoron perfectly describes the ultimately tragedy of Romeo and Juliet’s story: they were killed by love and hate alike.
A Glooming Peace
The prince’s final words come after Capulet and Montegue have ended their feud. He acknowledges their agreement with a grim conclusion:
A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon'd, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
The word “peace” has a positive connotation. Pairing it with the word “glooming” marks the play’s final oxymoron, as the only way these families can end their war was with the sacrifice of their own children.
Literary Devices in Romeo and Juliet
Each of these oxymorons summarizes the conflicted nature of Romeo and Juliet. As Juliet states in Act II her “only love sprung from her only hate” proves to be the ultimate paradox of the play. To learn more about Shakespearean literary devices, read these examples of alliteration from Romeo and Juliet. Then, discover the main themes of Romeo and Juliet.