The language of Romeo and Juliet is some of the most beautiful ever written. Compare and contrast the romantic language used by Romeo with the more prosaic language used by Juliet’s nurse. Your answer should include references to literary and dramatic traditions of the Elizabethan stage and a sound knowledge of the historical and cultural context of the play as a whole.
Romeo and Juliet is a powerful love story written by William Shakespeare in the late 1500s. It is well known throughout the world for its romantic scenes, interesting language and tragic ending.
More is known about William Shakespeare than any other professional dramatist of his time.
He was born in 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, he is traditionally said to have been born on 23rd April. He had five brothers of which one died young, and his parents were called John and Mary. In November 1582 he married Anne Hathaway and in later years they had three children.
He started his professional career in the late 1500s and, until his death on April 23rd 1616, he wrote many extremely popular plays, sonnets and poems.
His plays usually could be divided into three categories, comedy, tragedy and War. Romeo and Juliet is unquestionably a tragedy.
Romeo and Juliet has universal values to many people of our time and is often thought of as one of Shakespeare’s best ever works. It contains many styles of Shakespeare’s language, and the language of that time. It is a classic Shakespeare love story involving various recurring themes such as conflict, fate, love and marriage.
Shakespeare used five styles of writing in his plays, which were common with other playwrights too. These were Poetic Verse, Blank Verse, Prose or Sonnet. These were the styles of language at that time, the more educated of the people tended to speak about something for a lot longer than needed, but that was just what it was like at the time, whereas the more ordinary people spoke in more plain language and rarely had big speeches.
Poetic Verse was often used to signal the end of scenes like a curtain call or for the highest dramatic effect. Take, for example, this rhyming speech from Romeo:
Romeo: 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;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth to dear.
(Act 1 Scene 5, lines 43-46)
Poetic verse was only ever used by the more educated, important characters of the play e.g. Romeo and McBeth.
Blank Verse was unrhymed and intended to represent the rhythms of speech. It is usually used by noble characters who are given elevated speech to show their feelings and mood:
Romeo: Is she a Capulet? O dear account, my life is my foe’s debt.
(Act 1 Scene 5, lines 116-117)
About 88% of the play is written in verse, and only 12% in prose. It is probably because at that time the audience would expect the actors of a tragedy to speak in verse. The poetic style was thought of as being particularly suitable for tragic themes and moments of high dramatic or emotional intensity. In Romeo and Juliet, even the less educated characters like Juliet’s Nurse spoke in blank verse occasionally, which is unusual.
Prose was ordinary language used by characters of all ranks. Uneducated characters tend to use it. It can also be used for comic exchanges between characters, for plot and development and for speech which lacks dramatic intensity:
Romeo: Nurse, command me to thy lady and mistress. I, protest unto thee-
Nurse: Good heart, and I’ faith, I will tell her as much. Lord, Lord, she will be a joyful woman.
Romeo: What wilt thou tell her, Nurse? Thou dost not mark me
Nurse: I will tell her sir, that you do protest, which as I take it is a gentlemanlike offer.
Romeo: Bid her devise
Some means to come to shrift this afternoon, And there she shall at Friar Lawrence’ cell be shrived and married. Here is for thy pains.
Nurse: No truly sir, not a penny.
(Act 2 Scene 4, lines 172-183)
Through looking at that short extract you can clearly that Romeo is the more educated of the two, and which is using the Prose and which is using Blank Verse.
Sonnets are fourteen lined poems with an ‘a-b a-b-c’ rhyming pattern, and the last word of the last two lines always rhyme. Sonnets should always have ten syllables each line. They are not used as much as other styles in Romeo and Juliet but they can be used to signify that something important is happening. The prologue of the play is a sonnet.
Iambic Pentameter is a type of blank verse, it is spoken a lot in Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare was taught about it at school. It is used often in the romantic speeches by Romeo and sometimes to create effects of shock and tragedy. In Shakespeare’s earlier plays such as Richard III, Iambic Pentameter was very regular in rhythm (often expressed as de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM). An example of Iambic Pentameter in Romeo and Juliet is in the balcony scene:
Romeo: O speak again, bright angel, for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o’er my head,
As is a winged messenger of heaven
Unto the white-unturned wond’ring eyes
Of mortals that fall back to gaze on him
Shakespeare uses figures of speech, that is imagery or word pictures, to either say more about points made in dialogue and action, reinforce and enhance the audience’s ideas of the characters, or magnify or draw attention to themes in the text.
To do this he uses similes, personification, metaphors, motifs, extended metaphors, alliteration, hyperbole, anthesis, lists, repetition and oxymorons.
Similes are comparisons using ‘as’ or ‘like’. For example, the moon is like a balloon. Shakespeare used similes a lot, mainly for Romeo’s romantic speeches and occasionally in other characters descriptive speeches. In Romeo and Juliet, an example of a simile is where Romeo and Juliet are talking about marriage:
Juliet: Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be ere one can say ‘it lightens’
(Act 2 Scene 2, lines 119-120)
Personification is giving human feelings to animals or inanimate objects. It is used to build dramatic effect. For example:
Juliet: Come, gentle night. Come, loving, black-browed night, give me my Romeo.
Metaphors are stronger comparisons saying something is like something else. For example, the moon is a balloon. Like similes, Shakespeare used metaphors a lot in romantic speeches to make it seem as if true love has been found. An example in Romeo and Juliet is where Romeo is waiting at Juliet’s balcony for her to come out when he hears her voice and says this:
Romeo: O speak again bright angel
He is implying that Juliet is an angel.
Oxymorons are words or phrases that you would not expect to see yoked together to cause an effect. They are used by Shakespeare to make certain scenes as dramatic as possible, and he used them mainly in tragedies. As soon as Juliet hears that Tybalt, her cousin, has been killed by Romeo her grief and outrage is tempered by her disbelief that Romeo could carry out such a deed:
Juliet: Fiend angelical, dove-feathered raven, wolvish ravening lamb, … A damned saint, an honourable villain!
(Act 3 Scene 2, lines 75-79)
Oxymoron’s were used a lot in Elizabethan times, and you can see that Romeo and Juliet exaggerate the use of oxymoron’s in some of their meaningful lines, and in some cases Romeo parodies them.
Motifs are characters, themes or designs, which recur throughout a text. For example, hatred and love are motifs in Romeo and Juliet.
Alliteration is a figure of speech in which a number of words close to each other begin with the same sound. For example:
‘When the sun sets the earth doth drizzle dew.’
Alliteration helps to draw attention to these words and can be used to make dramatic effect.
Hyperbole is deliberate exaggeration, for dramatic effect. For example when Juliet thinks that the Nurse is saying that Romeo is dead, she says:
Juliet: What devil art thou that dost torment me thus? This torture should be roared in dismal hell.
Anthesis is the opposition of words or phrases against each other, as in ‘Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love’ (Act 1 Scene 1, line 166). The setting of word against word (‘hate’ verses ‘love’, ‘light’ verses ‘dark’) is one of Shakespeare’s favourite language devices as it powerfully expresses conflict.
Repetition runs through the play and adds to its dramatic impact. The two words used most frequently in Romeo and Juliet are ‘love’ (over 130 times) and ‘death’ (around 70 times). The repetition is a clear indication of a play’s major themes or concerns.
One of Shakespeare’s favourite language methods is to accumulate words or phrases similar to a list. To do this he ‘piles up’ item on item, incident on incident, this intensifies the atmosphere. An example of a list in Romeo and Juliet is where Juliet defies Lord Capulet about getting married to Paris:
Lord Capulet: God’s bread, it makes me mad! Day, night, work, play,
Alone, in company, still my care hath been
To have her matched
(Act 3 Scene 5, lines 176-178
In this paragraph I am going to compare Act 1, Scene 3, where the Nurse, Juliet, and Lady Capulet talk about Juliet getting married, and the Nurse and Lady Capulet argue over how old Juliet actually is, with Act 1, Scene 4, where Romeo and Mercutio talk about Romeo’s love life, and Mercutio tells Romeo he doesn’t have to go for Rosaline because there are other beautiful girls out there.
Act 1, Scene 3
Nurse: Now by my maidenhood-at twelve years old- I bade her to come. What lamb! What lady-bird! God forbid! Where’s this girl? What Juliet!
This is the Nurse wondering where Juliet is, and shouting for her in Elizabethan swearing, calling Juliet an insulting name.
Nurse: I’ll lay fourteen of my teeth, And yet to my teen be it spoken, I have but four, She is not fourteen. How long is it now To Lammas-tide?
The Nurse is pondering over how old Juliet is, counting over the years in her head, and trying to remember if Juliet was born near any important events.
Nurse: Even or odd, of all days in the year, Come Lammas Eve at night shall she be fourteen. Susan and she-God rest all Christian souls- Were of an age.
The Nurse assures herself that Juliet is thirteen and her birthday is coming up soon, and she remembers her dead daughter Susan who died young and would have been a similar age to Juliet.
Nurse: Of all the days of the year, upon that day. For I had then laid wormwood to my dug, Sitting in the sun under the dove-house wall.
The Nurse then starts to mumble on about when Juliet was a baby and how she used to breast-feed Juliet in the garden, she is deliberately trying to embarrass her. The speech from line 16-48 is in blank verse which is unusual for someone of the Nurse’s stature.
Act 1, Scene 4
Romeo: Give me a torch, I am not for this ambling. Being but heavy, I will bear the light.
Romeo tells Mercutio to give him a light because he can’t see anything in the dark.
Romeo: Not I, believe me, you have dancing shoes
With nimble soles, I have a soul of lead
So stakes me to the ground I cannot move.
He says, ‘No, believe me! I can’t dance, you go ahead, I’m too depressed.
Romeo: I am too sore empierced with his shaft, To soar with his light feathers; and so bound, I cannot bound a pitch above dull woe. Under love’s heavy burden I sink.
Romeo is so depressed that Rosaline doesn’t like him that he just wants to sit alone, and think about what he has done wrong.
Romeo: Is love a tender thing? Is it too rough, Too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn.
This is an example of a phrase that you would never hear the Nurse say. It is complicated to analyse, and Romeo could have said what he said in more simple English, but if he did always speak like the Nurse then it would make the play less interesting. He is despairing over the fact that Rosaline doesn’t love him and that she has supposedly broken his heart, and he is complaining that love is rough and always hurts those who fall in love.
From analysing these two Scenes you can see already that Romeo is the more educated and richer of the two just from the way he talks. He tends to more words than necessary, and complicated language to understand while the Nurse uses ordinary, simple to understand language and often swears.
In this paragraph I will be comparing Act 2 Scene 2, one of the most romantic scenes of play at Juliet’s balcony, with Act 2 Scene 4, where the Nurse comes looking for Romeo to tell him about the arrangements of the marriage to Juliet, but the young Montague’s tease her mercilessly.
Act 2 Scene 2
Romeo: He jests at scars that never felt a wound.
But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise fair sum and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid since she is envious.
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
Translating this speech into modern English, Romeo says, “He makes fun of injuries that didn’t hurt. What’s that light at the window, is it Juliet? It is, and she is as bright as the Sun. Wake up and come over here to see me, because I miss you already and am suffering all the time I’m not with you. Haha, as if her maid is more beautiful than her, she is just jealous, she is green with jealousy; she is silly to be jealous.
He starts off by saying how much he loves Juliet and how beautiful she is, then he goes on about how the nurse is Jealous of Juliet’s looks because he thinks that the Nurse will tell Lord or Lady Capulet about Romeo’s love.
The first two lines are one of the most well known in the whole play and contain beautiful romantic language containing personification written in blank verse. There would be very few people of that time who could speak as romantically as Romeo in that speech.
Act 2 Scene 4
Nurse: I pray to you sir, what saucy merchant was this that was so full of his ropery?
She is saying then, “well mister, who is this guy so full of himself?
Nurse: And ‘a speak any thing against me, I’ll take him down, an ‘a were lustier than he is, and twenty such Jacks; and if I cannot, I’ll find those that shall. Scurvy knave, I am none of his flirt-gills, I am nine of his skin’s-mates.
She is furious that Mercutio, Benvolio and Romeo were mocking her, and she threatens to attack them if they do it again, and if she can’t beat them up, she says she’ll get someone who will (meaning the Capulets).
Nurse: Now afore God I am so vexed, that every part about me quivers. Scurvy knave! Pray you sir a word and as I told you, my young lady bade me inquire you out. What she bade me say, I will keep to myself. But first let me tell ye, if ye should lead her into a fool’s paradise, as they say, it were a very gross kind of behaviour, as they say; for the gentleman is young, and therefore if you should deal double with her, truly it were an ill thing to be offered to any gentlewoman, and very weak dealing.
The Nurse gives Romeo a warning about treating Juliet properly. She even threatens him in a way, and speaks very angrily to look after her and not dare to two-time her. That speech was all in prose.
Those two passages from Romeo and the Nurse were very different. They were both about the same person, Juliet, yet spoken in very different ways. Romeo used extremely romantic blank verse, while the Nurse used aggressive Prose to prove her point. There were quite a few language devices in the little part of Romeo’s speech I picked out, e.g. personification, and if I picked out more there would have been even more poetic devices, but in the Nurse’s speech there were none.
Again you can see that Romeo is romantic and well educated with his flowing language, and the Nurse is just a simple townsperson of that time. You can imagine a lower-class Nurse swearing and threatening people, but you can’t really imagine a higher-class one doing it.
In this paragraph I will look at the Nurse and Romeo’s conversation in Act 2 Scene 4, where they talk about when Romeo and Juliet will get secretly married, and I will compare the way they talk.
Romeo: Nurse, commend me to thy mistress. I, protest unto thee-
Nurse: Good heart, and I’ faith, I will tell her as much. Lord, Lord, she will be a joyful woman
Romeo: What wilt thou tell her, Nurse? Thou dost not mark me
Nurse: I will tell her sir, that you do protest, which as I take it is a gentlemanlike offer.
Romeo: Bid her devise
Some means to come to shift this afternoon, And there she shall at Friar Lawrence’ cell be shrivelled and married. Here is for thy pains.
Nurse: No truly sir, not a penny.
Romeo: Go to, I say you shall.
Nurse: This afternoon sir? Well, she shall be there
It starts off with Nurse teasing Romeo about not passing on the message from Juliet, but Romeo manages to persuade her to say it. They arrange a time and a place for the wedding and then afterwards have a little chat about Juliet.
Romeo always seems to use words such as ‘dost’, ‘thou’ and ‘wilt’ whereas nurse uses simple language similar to what we would use today. There were not any poetic devices in that short passage that I could see, but Romeo still uses more complex language, maybe to show the Nurse that he is the right man for Juliet. He often talked slightly more casual to friends but not always. The Nurse seemed to talk in the same way to everyone no matter how high their position. She was even saying things that would be considered as swearing today in front of her boss Lady Capulet.
In the final comparison paragraph, I will look at the way Romeo reacts when he thought Juliet was dead, Act 5 Scene 1, and the way the Nurse reacts, Act 4 Scene 5.
Act 4 Scene 5
When the Nurse goes to wake Juliet and finds she doesn’t wake she says:
Nurse: Mistress! What, mistress! Juliet! Fast, I warrant her. She-
Why lamb, why lady-fie you slug a bed! Why love I say! Madam! Sweet-heart! Why bride! What, not a word? You take your pennyworths now. Sleep for a week; for the next night I warrant, the County Paris hath set up his rest, that you shall rest but little. God forgive me. Marry, and amen. How sound is she asleep! I must needs wake her. Madam, madam, madam! Ay, let the County take you in your bed. He’ll frighten you up I’ faith. Will it not be? What, dressed, and in your clothes, and down again? I must needs to wake you. Lady, lady, lady! Alas, alas, help, help, my lady’s dead! O weraday that ever I was born! Some aqua vitae ho! My lord! My lady!
The Nurse is in a state of shock and blurts out anything that comes to her head. She doesn’t believe she is dead so she shouts and shouts but Juliet does not wake. She says about Juliet getting married soon and that she can’t miss that, then she yells for Lord and Lady Capulet who are also horrified at the news.
This was another one of the Nurse’s speeches in blank verse, and doesn’t contain beautiful flowing language, but frantic shouting and yelling, with a lack of poetic devices again, which is not uncommon with the Nurse’s speeches.
And of course the Nurse had no idea about what Romeo and Juliet were planning and was understandably distraught with the fact that someone who she had brought up for all those years had suddenly died.
Act 5 Scene 1
After Romeo had just had a dream that he died and Juliet brought him back to life with kiss Balthasar arrived from Verona and told Romeo that Juliet was dead. Romeo replied like this:
Romeo: Is it even so? Then I defy you, stars. Thou knowest my lodging, get me ink and paper, And hire post-horses; I will hence tonight.
Romeo doesn’t believe Balthasar and decides to send a letter to the Friar to find out if this is true. Balthasar tells him to be patient.
Romeo: Tush, thou art deceived. Leave me, and do the thing I bid thee do. Hast thou no letters to me from the friar?
Romeo starts to believe Balthasar and wonders why the friar has sent no letter to him. He tells Balthasar to go.
Romeo: No matter. Get thee gone, And hire those horses; I’ll be with thee straight. (to Balthasar)
Well Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight. Let’s see for means. O mischief thou art swift to enter in the thought of desperate men. I do remember an apothecary- (to himself)
Romeo now believes that Juliet has died and is determined to go and see her. He then thinks that there is no point in living without Juliet so he thinks about asking an apothecary for some poison so he can die with dignity beside Juliet.
The reactions of the Nurse and Romeo were similar and yet completely different. What I mean by this is that the Nurse and Romeo both were in denial when they were first told, but both had completely different reactions after that. The Nurse started shouting and yelling and trying to wake Juliet, and was obviously devastated. However Romeo, firstly asked to send a letter to Verona completely calmly, then suddenly he decided that life wasn’t worth living without Juliet and wanted to kill himself next to Juliet.
There were no examples there of Romeo’s romantic language, but he still managed to keep his cool and speak in verse, whereas the Nurse started ranting and raving in shock.
In this essay I have compared the romantic language of Romeo with the more basic of Juliet’s Nurse. There is unquestionably a difference, which I have proven in my comparison paragraphs.
I have discovered that Romeo is the more relaxed character, and the Nurse more eccentric.
I have noticed that Romeo is more polite and well mannered, and that the Nurse can be quite rude and swears, but this was like a normal person of Elizabethan times.
I have compared the way the two reacted to Juliet’s death, the way they spoke when they talked to each other, the way the two spoke to other people and the way they spoke to people of authority, with a difference every time. In some ways, the Nurse and Romeo couldn’t be more different.
My opinion is that Shakespeare makes the Nurse like she is because rich Elizabethan mothers wouldn’t want to do all the hard work of bringing up a child and the Nurse is there to support Juliet, and to act as a friend to her. She speaks in basic language that you would expect to hear people of the time saying, and doesn’t change the way she speaks for anyone.
Romeo, on the other hand, is one of the main characters of the play famous for his beautiful romantic language throughout the play. His roles are to fall in love, to get married and to kill himself, and if those things never happened, then the play would never be as good. Romeo has a constant effect on the play and appears in almost every act, mostly talking to Juliet or his friends but now and again speaking to elders.
Shakespeare tries to give the impression that the Nurse is a silly old woman, and in many cases, an ugly one too. But he gives the impression that Romeo is a young, handsome, well-educated boy who is very romantic, and Shakespeare tries to make Romeo the most popular character in the play in my opinion. He does this by killing off Mercutio, who takes the attention off Romeo because of his comedy.
All the characters of the play have a role, and without that role the play would be different, and most people think that the play should stay the same as it has for centuries, including Romeo and Juliet’s Nurse.