All drama contains conflict, it is conflict that creates and maintains interest in minds of the audience. Shakespeare was a past master at creating conflict, and his plays usually took a trajectory where initial disorder was followed by some sort of order, which was then followed by a rebellion by the protagonist/s. Whether or not the rebellion was successful determined if the play was to be a comedy or a tragedy. But whether the play was a tragedy or comedy, final order was invariably the result.
In Romeo and Juliet, the disorder of the brawl of the first scene seems to get resolved into order by the intervention from the prince, but this disorder is in fact something that simmers throughout the course of the play. Shakespeare deftly maneuvers language from the beginning to the end to maintain a sense of conflict and disorder, and the very Prologue indicates the recurrent nature of disorder throughout Romeo and Juliet, the “two hours’ traffic” in which the audience shall witness “how ancient grudge break to new mutiny”, and how “A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;” and thus, “with their death bury their parents’ strife”. Disorder does not cease till the very end in the deaths of the lovers.
As Harold Bloom remarks, Shakespeare has created an atmosphere of conflict and disorder at the very beginning by “by insinuating a conception of human nature as both gentle and violent, by postulating a repetitive cycle of peace and violence, by showing the paradoxical interdependence of fundamental opposites, and by repetition of the words ‘love’ and ‘strife’,”(Bloom, 2000, 175)
This atmosphere of conflict created in the Prologue is carried on into the acts of Romeo and Juliet, in the frequent use of antithesis in his language, where he uses words against each other so that they clash. One effective example of this is the Friar’s first speech, which juxtaposes words like “baleful weeds” and “precious-juiced flowers”, “tomb’ and “womb”, as well as “virtue” and “vice”. The speech accepts that “Two such opposed kings encamp them still/ In man as well as herbs, grace and rude will;” (Act 2 Scene 3, lines 27–8). Shakespeare here creates an atmosphere of hidden turbulence through the use of antithesis, which represents disorder about to break out from under a sense of order and equilibrium.
The disorder makes its first concrete appearance in the seeming death of Juliet, and Shakespeare again liberally uses antithesis to emphasize it. When Capulet mourns the death of his daughter, Shakespeare equips him with a barrage of phrases with antithesis:
“All things that we ordainèd festival,/ Turn from their office to black funeral:/ Our instruments to melancholy bells, / Our wedding cheer to a sad burial feast;/ Our solemn hymns to sullen dirges change;/ Our bridal flowers serve for a buried corse;/ And all things change them to the contrary”. (Act 4 Scene 5, lines 84–90).
Language rips at the base of tranquility, and Shakespeare deftly creates an atmosphere of disorder with the use of antithesis in his language.
Not only does Shakespeare use antithesis to create an atmosphere of disorder, he also effectively uses the oxymoron, where he comes up with incredibly strong expressions of conflict by throwing together incongruous or even contradictory words. Some of the most powerful examples come forth in a dialog by Romeo, who talks of the opposing yet strangely associated concepts of love and hate. “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!”(Act 1 Scene 1, lines 167–72).
Though at the stage Romeo utters these words he has yet to set eyes on and fall in love with Juliet, but they ring true in the context of the final aftermath in the play. Dialogs such as this with their significance understood towards the end of the play provide a lot of scope for the actors on stage to express different layers of meaning through their actions, gestures and facial expression. Shakespeare did not mean the play to be read, but to be acted out in front of an audience, and the striking use of language like this one shows his ability to create deeper meanings with his words in the course of the play.
And this brings us to another of the devices used by Shakespeare in his language: the repetitive use of the images of foreboding and death. Death is constantly evoked, as it is to be the emissary of disorder: “The idea of death pervades their thoughts almost constantly. In the garden scene, Juliet reminds Romeo that where he is standing is “a place of death,” considering who he is (Act2.Scene2.Line 64). Nothing daunted by the physical possibility of death, Romeo gallantly proclaims “there lies more peril in thine eye / Than twenty of their swords” (11. Lines71-72)”. (Halio, 1998, 69). This kind of foreboding is also seen in the use of imagery in several instances. One of the dialogs most burdened with foreboding is Romeo’s when he is about to enter Capulet’s house for the first time: “I fear, too early: for my mind misgives/ Some consequence yet hanging in the stars/Shall bitterly begin his fearful date/With this night’s revels and expire the term/ Of a despised life closed in my breast/ By some vile forfeit of untimely death”. (Act1.Scene 4.lines 104-111)
Most of these forebodings are also part of soliloquies, and Shakespeare uses the device of soliloquy to display the spread of disorder into the inner consciousness of the protagonists. “Leap to these arms, untalk’d of and unseen./Lovers can see to do their amorous rites/By their own beauties;/ …………./Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,/ Take him and cut him out in little stars,/And he will make the face of heaven so fine/That all the world will be in love with night/……”
As Hunter and Lichtenfels rightly observe about this poignant soliloquy : “The condensed movement the speech enables begins the turbulence of despair and hope, of tragedy and comedy that structures the rest of the play. Yet while this is happening the audience knows something that Juliet does not, and our knowledge becomes the counterpoint to the soliloquy”.( Hunter, Lichtenfels, 2004, 5)
Shakespeare was a consummate artist of the language, and used his skills in Romeo and Juliet to evoke a sense of disorder throughout the play through the use of the language devices described. The sense of disorder heightens a feeling of suspension and empathy in the audience, and despite a sure knowledge of the ending from the prologue itself, interest in the play is maintained.
Halio, Jay L. Romeo and Juliet: A Guide to the Play, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998, p.69.
Lichtenfels, Peter, Hunter, Lynette: “Negotiations between Text and Stage in Romeo and Juliet”. – author. Shakespeare Bulletin. Vol: 22. Iss: 2, 2004, p.5.
Bloom, Harold,(ed.) William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000, p.175.