Allusion in Romeo and Juliet

An allusion is a brief, indirect reference to a place, person, thing or idea that holds, historical, mythological or literary significance. Finally, the dramatist merely makes a passing reference to the allusion without going into detail.

The author assumes that the audience or readers are aware of the philosophical or historical significance of the reference and can, therefore, understand its implication within the context of a play. Above all, In the vast majority of Shakespearean tragedies, frequent allusions are made to figures from Roman or Greek mythology and the Bible. Some of the most important allusions from “Romeo and Juliet” are:

Examples of Allusion in Romeo and Juliet

Example #1:

But all so soon as the all-cheering sun
Should in the farthest east begin to draw
The shady curtains from Aurora’s bed,
Away from light steals home my heavy son (I.i. 137-140)

In these particular lines, Lord Montague makes a reference to Aurora – the Roman goddess of dawn. Lord Montague expresses his concern for his son Romeo, stating that he has often seen Romeo crying at dawn. Moreover, Lord Montague maintains that Romeo’s lack of enthusiasm for life is evident from the fact that he often sleeps at dawn – the moment when the goddess Aurora awakes from her sleep and ascends the sky.

Example #2:

Well in that hit you miss. She’ll not be hit
With Cupid’s arrow. She hath Dian’s wit,
And, in strong proof of chastity well armed,
From love’s weak childish bow she lives uncharmed.  (I.i. 216-217)

The aforementioned quote, Romeo uttered in relation to his beloved Rosaline’s refusal to passionately respond to his love. Romeo makes a reference to Cupid, the Roman god of love, stating that Rosaline is so determined about not pursuing a relationship with Romeo that even Cupid cannot yield her otherwise.

Moreover, Romeo makes another reference to Diana, the Roman goddess of hunting, women, and childbirth and states that similar to Diana, who vowed celibacy for life, Rosaline is fiercely inflexible and will never consent to marry Romeo.

Example #3:

You are a lover. Borrow Cupid’s wings
And soar with them above a common bound. (I. iv. 17-18)

In the aforementioned lines, Mercutio alludes to Cupid while giving advice to a love-sick Romeo. Above all, it is noteworthy that in classical mythology, Cupid’s wings were often taken as a symbol of his unpredictable nature and were a manifestation of his ability to make people fall in and out of love very quickly. Using Cupid as a point of reference, Mercutio counsels Romeo that as a lover, Romeo should display more strength than an average man and exemplify Cupid’s power in falling out of love with Rosaline.

Example #4:

O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone (I.iv. 58-60)

In the above quote, Mercutio makes a reference to Queen Mab, the queen of the fairies, as a means of mocking the enormous significance Romeo places on his dreams. As a queen of the fairies, Queen Mab helped people in the fruition of their dreams. Mercutio tells Romeo that dreams are merely figments of one’s thoughts, fears, and imagination. Hence, a grownup like Romeo getting unnerved by his dream is as absurd as a grownup individual entertaining the Queen Mab fantasy.

Example #5:

When King Cophetua loved the beggar maid. –
He heareth not, he stirreth not, he moveth not. (II.i. 17-18)

In this quote, Mercutio makes a reference to the Medieval legend, King Cophetua who had never been in love until Cupid cast his spell on him, and the King instantly fell in love with a beggar. Mercutio further asserts that the King’s newfound, unanticipated love for the beggar completely paralyzed him, rendering him incapable of thinking about anything else. Equating Romeo’s predicament with King Cophetua, he alleges that similar to the King, Romeo cannot fathom thinking about anyone other than Rosaline.

Example #6:

Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say “Ay,”
And I will take thy word. Yet, if thou swear’st,
Thou mayst prove false. At lovers’ perjuries,
They say, Jove laughs. (II.ii. 95-99)

In this renowned quote from the acclaimed balcony scene, Juliet refers to Jove – the king of Gods in Roman mythology. It is also noteworthy that Jove was notorious for his illicit affairs. One of Jove’s duties was to ensure that people abide by their promises or pledges. However, after asking Romeo if he actually loves her, Juliet maintains that even if he were to lie about his loyalty, Jove would not be offended in the least since Jove pays no heed to unfaithful lovers retracting from their promises.

Example #7:

Else would I tear the cave where Echo lies
And make her airy tongue more hoarse than mine
With repetition of “My Romeo!   (II.ii. 172-174)

After bidding farewell to Romeo in the balcony scene, Juliet eagerly asks Romeo to return soon. Thereafter, Juliet makes a reference to Echo – the nymph featured in ancient Greek mythology. Echo fell in love with Narcissus but unfortunately, he did not return her love in response to which Echo retreated to a cave and kept repeating the words of others. By alluding to Echo, Juliet is implying that if Romeo does not return, Juliet will find Echo and persuade her to repeat Romeo’s name ad infinitum.

Example #8:

Tybalt, you ratcatcher, will you walk? (III.i. 76)

In the aforementioned quote, Mercutio, while conversing with Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, makes a reference to a character named Tybalt who is featured in a renowned Medieval tale “Reynard the Fox”. The character Tybalt showcased in “Reynard the Fox” is quarrelsome and temperamental and is portrayed as a rat-catcher. Within the context of “Romeo and Juliet”, Juliet’s cousin Tybalt is depicted as an aggressive individual ever-ready to initiate a brawl. Hence, Mercutio equates Tybalt with his namesake character from the Medieval tale.

Example #9:

I am hurt.
A plague o’ both houses! I am sped.
Is he gone and hath nothing? (III.i. 93-95)

Tybalt stabs Mercutio, then Mercutio engages in an elaborate curse condemning the two families – Capulets and Montagues – for his demise and praying that the deadly plague afflicts them. In this particular quote, plague is a reference to the Bubonic plague that afflicted Europe in the 14th century and resulted in the deaths of countless people.

Example #10:

Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds
Towards Phoebus’ lodging. Such a wagoner
As Phaëton would whip you to the west
And bring in cloudy night immediately. (III.ii. 1-4)

While expressing her impatience for reuniting with Romeo, Juliet alludes to Phaeton’s chariot in the above lines. According to Greek mythology, Phaeton was the son of Phoebus also the sun god. One day Phaeton asked his father that he be allowed to ride the sun chariot. Phoebus agreed but unfortunately, Phaeton could not control the horses, and they rushed across the sky. Juliet wishes for a rider as fast as Phaeton to emerge across the sky so that night would approach quickly thereby ensuring Juliet’s much-anticipated meeting with Romeo.