A concise paradox comprising two opposite terms is called an oxymoron. An oxymoron can either be a phrase, or a sentence. Within a dramatic text, an oxymoron is often incorporated to highlight the complexity underlying an idea. In Shakespearean tragedies, oxymorons are meant to reinforce the grief, horror, remorse or shock experienced by the characters. For instance, in “Romeo and Juliet”, the main characters often resort to oxymorons to emphasize the intensity of their emotions that cannot be expressed otherwise. Some of these oxymoron examples are highlighted below:
Oxymoron in “Romeo and Juliet”
“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…”
(I. i. 179-181)
This quote is spoken by Romeo after Benvolio advises him to forego his infatuation with Rosaline. Unable to overcome his obsession with Rosaline, Romeo has an emotional outburst, and he uses the oxymoron – “loving hate” to express his inner turmoil. Loving hate is a contradictory term that signifies that love and hate can exist simultaneously. Unrequited love can breed hatred and vice versa. By emphasizing the duality of love and hate, this phrase highlights the ambivalent emotions experienced by Romeo.
“Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep that is not what it is!”
(I. i. 185-186)
The above verse is replete with several oxymorons that highlight the heaviness that descends on Romeo after Rosaline refuses to respond to his love. The conflicting term, “feather of lead”, is outlined as an attribute of love and implies that although the initial phase of love is like a breeze that feels as light as a feather. The aftermath of brutal rejection by one’s beloved feels like a burden as heavy as lead. Moreover, “sick health” refers to the fact that the initial feeling of well-being ensured by love, can quickly transform into sickness as a result of unrequited love.
“Good night, good night. Parting is such sweet
(II. ii. 199-200)
Juliet delivers the above-mentioned endearing verse to bid farewell to Romeo during the pivotal balcony scene. In this verse, the oxymoronic phrase, “sweet sorrow” signifies that temporary estrangement from one’s lover simultaneously yields unsettling sorrow and a sweet sense of hopefulness. Hence, for Juliet, the anticipation of her probable reunion with Romeo, balances out the pain of temporary separation, emphasizing the coexistence of exquisite joy and sadness.
“Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill.”
(III. i. 207)
The above statement is an example of an oxymoronic sentence delivered by the Prince of Verona as he penalizes Romeo for killing Tybalt. After realizing that the killing is an accidental occurrence, the Prince orders Romeo to be exiled. However, the contradiction in this particular punishment becomes evident from the fact that while exile may appear as a pardon or a less painful sentence, it is infinitely more agonizing than imprisonment. In effect, for Romeo, exile is a life-sentence disguised as mercy.
O serpent heart, hid with a flow’ring face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical!
(III. ii. 79-81)
These emphatic verses feature a series of oxymorons spoken by Juliet after she discovers that Romeo has murdered Tybalt. Riddled with intense disbelief and shock, Juliet refers to Romeo as a “beautiful tyrant” and “fiend angelical.” These paradoxical phrases highlight that there is a stark discrepancy between Romeo’s seemingly harmless and beautiful demeanor and his tyrant-like murderous impulse. Juliet’s shock is compounded by the fact that both angelical and fiend-like qualities can simultaneously coexist in her beloved thereby leading her to be skeptical of her own judgment of Romeo.
“A damnèd saint, an honorable villain!”
(III. ii. 88)
After learning about Tybalt’s murder, Juliet wavers between belief and disbelief and refers to Romeo as a “damned saint” and “honorable villain.” These oxymoronic phrases highlight the inner conflict plaguing Juliet in relation to Romeo’s essential goodness. Unable to categorize Romeo as being entirely villainous or saint-like, Juliet tries to reassure herself by exclaiming that Romeo is not entirely devoid of honor and has some semblance of humanity in him.
“Was ever book containing such vile matter
So fairly bound? O, that deceit should dwell
In such a gorgeous palace!”
(III. ii. 89-91)
While trying to assimilate the shock of Romeo’s brutal killing of Tybalt, Juliet ponders on Romeo’s action and uses the above oxymoronic sentence to reinforce the contrast between Romeo’s trustworthy, amicable exterior and the rash impulsive aspect of his personality. Juliet equates Romeo with a “fairly bound” book comprised of “vile matter,” having a deceptive impact thereby emphasizing the distinction between Romeo’s appearance and reality.
“Just in her case. O woeful sympathy!”
(III. iii. 93)
This statement is delivered by the nurse after Friar Lawrence informs her that Romeo incessantly cries after being estranged from Juliet. The oxymoron “woeful sympathy” highlights the pitiful predicament experienced by both Juliet and Romeo due to their separation from each other. Although sympathy essentially implies compassion and solace, the adjective “woeful” signifies the contrasting element of sorrow that underlies sympathy thereby highlighting the unresolvable sadness felt by Juliet’s nurse when she sees the heartache of the two lovers.
“And thou art wedded to calamity.”
(III. iii. 160)
This particular oxymoronic verse is expressed by Friar Lawrence while he is counseling Romeo. The Friar uses the phrase, “wedded to calamity” to highlight the misfortune and catastrophes that seem to haunt Romeo wherever he goes relentlessly. In this oxymoronic phrase, the contrast arises from the juxtaposition of “wedded” – connoting joyous celebration and blissful union – with “calamity” – that denotes pain and anguish.
“That almost freezes up the heat of life.”
(IV. iii. 17)
This quintessential statement is delivered by Juliet before drinking the sleeping potion. The oxymoronic phrase, freezing up the heat of life, highlights the fear lurking in Juliet’s heart pertaining to the aftereffect of drinking the potion. This graphic contrast of chilling fear and Juliet’s warm blood effectively conveys the overwhelming anxiety experienced by Juliet – the unsettling feeling that something awful might happen and might eventually jeopardize her life.