Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
One of the play’s most consistent visual motifs is the contrast between light and dark, often in terms of night/day imagery. This contrast is not given a particular metaphoric meaning—light is not always good, and dark is not always evil. On the contrary, light and dark are generally used to provide a sensory contrast and to hint at opposed alternatives. One of the more important instances of this motif is Romeo’s lengthy meditation on the sun and the moon during the balcony scene, in which Juliet, metaphorically described as the sun, is seen as banishing the “envious moon” and transforming the night into day (2.1.46). A similar blurring of night and day occurs in the early morning hours after the lovers’ only night together. Romeo, forced to leave for exile in the morning, and Juliet, not wanting him to leave her room, both try to pretend that it is still night, and that the light is actually darkness: “More light and light, more dark and dark our woes” (3.5.36).
Opposite Points of View
Shakespeare includes numerous speeches and scenes in Romeo and Juliet that hint at alternative ways to evaluate the play. Shakespeare uses two main devices in this regard: Mercutio and servants. Mercutio consistently skewers the viewpoints of all the other characters in the play: he sees Romeo’s devotion to love as a sort of blindness that robs Romeo from himself, and similarly, he sees Tybalt’s devotion to honor as blind and stupid. Mercutio's punning and the Queen Mab speech can be interpreted as undercutting virtually every passion evident in the play. Mercutio serves as a critic of the delusions of righteousness and grandeur held by the characters around him.
Where Mercutio is a nobleman who openly criticizes other nobles, the views offered by servants in the play are less explicit. There is the Nurse who lost her baby and husband, the servant Peter who cannot read, the musicians who care about their lost wages and their lunches, and the Apothecary who cannot afford to make the moral choice, the lower classes present a second tragic world to counter that of the nobility. The nobles’ world is full of grand tragic gestures. The servants’ world, in contrast, is characterized by simple needs, and early deaths brought about by disease and poverty rather than dueling and grand passions. Where the nobility almost seem to revel in their capacity for drama, the servants’ lives are such that they cannot afford tragedy of the epic kind.
Romeo’s first conversation in the play centers around time and the way time can feel non-linear amid heightened emotion. Initially, he complains that time moves too slowly because Rosaline does not return his affections. Later, time seems to move too fast during his wedding night with Juliet, as both Romeo and Juliet lament the too-quick passage of time to morning when Romeo must escape Verona. When Paris begins courting Juliet, her father insists on waiting two years before they wed. However, after Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment, Capulet and Lady Capulet decide a quick marriage would be necessary to console Juliet. Juliet’s emotional state governs the timing of her wedding. When Friar Lawrence gives Juliet the sleeping draught, he tells her it will last “two and forty hours” (4.1.107). It is an incredibly specific measure of time, and therefore does not stretch or speed up depending on a person’s mood. These examples highlight the way time is compressed and distorted throughout the story. The entire play takes place over just four days. The play’s events do not seem like they should fit into such a short span, but the text uses this compacted time to emphasize the intensity of the romance, violence, and heartache it portrays.