Motifs and Symbols


Nature is prominent in many of Shakespeare’s plays, helping to set the tone of the piece. Storms are common, in plays such as The Tempest, King Lear, Macbeth, etc, helping present the chaotic state of affairs. Often it happens at dramatic moments, to emphasise the importance of it.

In Romeo and Juliet, there are no storms. The Luhrmann film chooses to have it rain after Romeo kills Tybalt, employing pathetic fallacy to the impact of this action, but it is not in the play.

In the play, the main weather referenced is heat. It creates an oppressive atmosphere which adds to the tension and makes a little more sense of some of the irrational decision-making. It also supports the idea of Romeo and Juliet’s passion for one another being responsible for a lot of what goes on, a different kind of heat.

However, most of the natural imagery revolves around stars, the moon and the sun, as well as heaven. This gives the play a supernatural, ethereal quality, and serves to remind the audience of the role of fate and fortune.

Though the decisions of characters do impact the play, this may support the presentation of _Romeo and Juliet _as a play about the powerlessness of humans to prevent what is fated from occurring; much like the sun and the heavens, they are beings beyond the reach of man, which touch the characters of this play, but cannot be altered themselves.


Shakespeare emphasises certain numbers in different plays. In _The Tempest _it is “thousand”; in _The Merchant of Venice _it is “one”; and in _Romeo and Juliet _it is “twenty” which keeps appearing. Now there might be no relevance to this at all, but it is still worth exploring.

Within the play, it is generally used to emphasise something, for instance the Apothecary notes that, even if he had the strength of “twenty men” the poison would still kill him.

Therefore, its usage is a clever one; the idea of the strength of “twenty” appears achievable and yet it is not.

This mimics the sense that Romeo and Juliet’s love always feels within reach, and yet is destined to never be fulfilled. Whereas the “thousand” in _The Tempest _establishes the limitless possibility on it, and the “one” in _The Merchant of Venice _hints at the simplicity and isolation of the characters, the “twenty” here sits between the world of possibility and powerlessness.

There are a couple of other ways it can be read too:

  1. Some argue that it relates to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20, which appears to be talking about a love which can never be fulfilled (although between two men).
  2. Its content fits with an exploration of passion and love, and seems to be quite a personal piece by Shakespeare. Others argue that “twenty” reminds us of the human qualities of these characters, the number twenty associated with the numbers of fingers and toes humans have.
  3. A final argument looks at the Latin representation of the number: XX is a pair of letters, or quite literally a pair of (star-)cross’d (lovers); tricky to fit into an argument but a romantic perspective on it, nonetheless.

Darkness & Light

Light and darkness are fairly obvious representations in themselves, but Shakespeare’s use of them is clever. First of all, in almost every reference to ‘light’, ‘dark’, ‘day’, and ‘night’, one is almost never present without the other.

There are way too many moments to mention (I would recommend looking at this online version of the text here: and then searching for those specific words. But “streaks of light(…) and flecked darkness”, “more light and light, more dark and dark our woes” and “day’s black fate” are all nice examples.

It is a reminder of inevitability, but also that these two things co-exist. You can’t have one without the other. They are bound together, serving as a parallel to the beautiful but tragic bond between the two lovers.

As well as the joining of these states, they also track a journey through the play. At the start of the play, these images are not so inextricably linked, and both are positive. The darkness of night is a time when love and mystery can occur.

Friar Laurence’s first line following Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting, rhymes “light” with “night”. Now the two are enjoined, so too are light and darkness.

In Juliet’s soliloquy when waiting to hear news from Romeo, she uses the word “night” eleven times- Romeo’s absence leaves her in darkness.

At the close of the play, we are left with a clear image from Prince Escalus: “A glooming peace(…)/ The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head.” Finally, we are left with something in-between. It may be gloomy, but there is peace at last. It is not sunny, nor dark; from a play filled with light and dark, the audience is left with something in between.

The final relevance, is the ambiguity of some of these terms. “Light” is used to depict a sense of positivity and hopefulness, but at points alludes to the sense of something insubstantial. Their love may be positive, but it is somewhat fanciful. It requires the darkness to give it weight.

Similarly, “day” is also used to give a feeling of newness and possibility. Yet this also begins to morph into something less positive. It is the “hot” day which contributes to Mercutio and Tybalt’s deaths; the constant shifting of the day of Paris and Juliet’s wedding heightens the stakes, accelerating the tragedy; and the final reference to “day” in the play? “dooms-day.”