Romeo & Juliet:  Images of Light and Fate

I Defy You Stars!

Rebecca Faecher

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Light imagery
Fate imagery

    "A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life." (Prologue 6)  From the first lines of the play the audience is made aware of the role of fate and of the ultimate deaths of the lovers.  The learned audience member will be instantly aware that when fate is at work the outcome is inevitable.  However, if the rich imagery and forwards in the text are used well then one can not help but hope that Fate will be thwarted.  Fate, rather than being personified as in earlier times, is given power and substance through cosmic imagery.  Shakespeare also uses every form and manifestation of light in the imagery surrounding the two lovers.

Light Imagery

    Both Romeo and Juliet think of each other as forms of light.  After meeting Juliet Romeo waits outside her bedroom in the garden and states that, "Juliet is the sun [and he calls her to] Arise . . . and kill the envious moon." (2.2.3-4) To Juliet Romeo is a day in the midst of night just as only in the darkness is their love illuminated.  However, the images of light are not the soft light of a warm afternoon.  On the contrary, the picture is that of, "an almost blinding flash of light, suddenly ignited, and as suddenly quenched, which was undoubtedly the way Shakespeare saw the story, in its swift and tragic beauty." (Spurgeon 1-2)  The images, like the action itself, come out at a fast and furious pace and like a streak of lightening are gone in an instant, leaving only an imprint on the brain.  Friar Lawrence remarks on this in Act two scene six with, "These violent delights have violent ends/ And in their triumph die like fire and powder,/ Which as they kiss consume." (9-11)  They are trying to alternately speed up, slow down, stop, and reverse time and through that fate, which is and must be impossible.  The lovers also see light in an unusual way. They meet and interact in darkness and therefore darkness becomes the friend of "light."  It also follows that the rising of the sun, the real sun which is harsh and unforgiving, is their enemy.  As Romeo states, "More light and light it grows, more dark and dark our woes!" (3.5.35-36) In the light of day the families could discover the secrets of the lovers much more easily than they could at night.  So the lovers, these brilliant sparks of light, find life for their love in the darkness and semi-darkness which is all the better for their illumination.

Fate Imagery

            The stars which represent fate prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to the love that Romeo and Juliet share.  It is the fight against family, feud, city, and fate which propels the action forward.  It is also because we the audience members want so badly for the star-crossed lovers to prevail that we cry at an outcome which we had no real doubt would happen.  Not only do the characters in Romeo and Juliet believe in the controlling force of fate but according to E. M. W. Tillyard [link to not yet written historical contexts paper link could be whole quote or something; I totally arbitrarily chose his name], "the Elizabethan [also] believed in the pervasive operation of an external fate in the world." (49)  Furthermore, "it was quite taken for granted that the stars dictated the general mutability of sublunary things, and that fortune was a part of this mutability applying to mankind alone." (Tillyard 48)  One of the earliest instances of a character guessing at the fate awaiting him is Romeo in Act one scene four.  Romeo has a premonition of what will come which is eerie in its accuracy.  He foresees his own "untimely death" as stemming directly from the actions of that night (the party at the Capulets') and while he may contrive with the best of intentions and brightest of plans he will not escape what has been set before him.  Much later in the play Romeo has one of his most famous lines.  In Act five scene one, upon hearing of Juliet's death, he says, "Then I defy you stars!" (24)  At first glance this is merely the ranting of a very young man but with a closer inspection those five words hold much significance.  Romeo cannot defy the stars any more than he can change history.  Mere lines before his death Romeo says, "O, here/ Will I set up my everlasting rest/ And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars/ From this world weary flesh." (5.3.109-112)  The last action of his life is done in Act five scene three as a final attempt to throw the grasp of fate from his body but the audience knows that it is in actuality fate who has won, as it always will.
 A careful examination of the cosmic imagery surrounding the lovers, the influence, and the impact of fate in Romeo and Juliet will yield a more satisfactory interpretation of the play.  The stars, moon, sun, and very heavens themselves all conspire against the protagonists.  "The background, both of things seen, and of the imagery, is of light against darkness; sunshine, starlight, moonbeams, sunrise and sunset, fire, candles, and torches, set off by quick coming darkness, clouds, mist, rain, and night," (Spurgeon 1) all run together and into each other until there is just a torrent of sight, sound, and image as fast and fierce as the play itself.  To effectively perform the play one cannot dwell on what might have been but rather on what is--a furiously paced production.  The abundant imagery and foreshadowing within Romeo and Juliet are a very necessary key to understanding the play.

Spurgeon, Caroline F. E. "Shakespeare's Iterative Imagery" in Aspects of Shakespeare: Being. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1933.
Tillyard, E. M. W. The Elizabethan World Picture. New York: Macmillan, 1944.

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