Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

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These images of sunrise and of the ‘windows’ that can both reveal the dawn and shut out its light, prepare the audience for Juliet’s famous appearance on the balcony of her bedroom: ‘But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?/ It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!’ (II.ii.1-2). Even though it is still night time on stage, this is the symbolic sunrise of love and happiness for Romeo, who constantly stresses the light-bringing aspects of the girl he loves. And thus their short love’s day begins.

The audience next sees the lovers ‘at dawn’ – this time a true dawning – on the morning of their wedding night, when they argue poignantly over whether it is the lark or nightingale singing outside Juliet’s window. Here, the mood is different: the two are about to be parted, and the joy they share is being dissipated and displaced with extraneous cares and concerns beyond their control. The theme of these famous lines is the traditional one of the aubade: that time stop its passing; that the lovers might be together forever and the moments of bliss they enjoy in each other’s company never cease. In fact, as Romeo ominously points out to his beloved: ‘More light and light: more dark and dark our woes’ (III.v.36), and the very essence of this famous scene is that the physical increase of light as the sun rises corresponds to the growth of a metaphorical darkness.

Before this compromised dawning comes the day in which Romeo and Juliet are wed. It is symbolic that their marriage is arranged by a meeting between Romeo and the Nurse on the very ‘prick of noon’ (III.iv.112), and they are married shortly afterwards. Then, the heat of the afternoon sun creates the stifling atmosphere in Verona’s streets and squares that contributes to the fight which leaves both Tybalt and Mercutio dead and Romeo banished. A few hours later, and Juliet is longing for night – the night when she will consummate her marriage with her new husband:

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

The allusion to Phaeton’s disastrous ride through the heavens does not augur well, and for all her amorous longing for darkness, the audience, aware of what has happened, cannot but see the approach of night as symbolic of the tragedy awaiting the two lovers. It is indeed, inevitable: dawn has dispelled the darkness of the first hours of morning; the brilliance of noon has come and gone; now the ‘sun of love’ must set in twilight and sorrow. In the notes that follow, further examples of imagery circling about the fleeting nature of time are discussed, either with regard to the changing seasons or the cycle of life by which buds become blossoms and then finally, rotten fruits, such as the ‘medlar’ (II.i.36).

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William Shakespeare