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The Individual Versus Society

Much of Romeo and Juliet involves the lovers’ struggles against public and social institutions that
either explicitly or implicitly oppose the existence of their love. Such structures range from the
concrete to the abstract: families and the placement of familial power in the father; law and the
desire for public order; religion; and the social importance placed on masculine honor. These
institutions often come into conflict with each other. The importance of honor, for example, time and
again results in brawls that disturb the public peace.
The Inevitability of Fate
The mechanism of fate works in all of the events surrounding the lovers: the feud between their
families (it is worth noting that this hatred is never explained; rather, the reader must accept it as an
undeniable aspect of the world of the play); the horrible series of accidents that ruin Friar Lawrence’s
seemingly well-intentioned plans at the end of the play; and the tragic timing of Romeo’s suicide and
Juliet’s awakening. These events are not mere coincidences, but rather manifestations of fate that
help bring about the unavoidable outcome of the young lovers’ deaths.
Light/Dark Imagery
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.

In his first appearance, in Act 2, scene 2, Friar Lawrence remarks that every plant, herb, and stone
has its own special properties, and that nothing exists in nature that cannot be put to both good and
bad uses. Thus, poison is not intrinsically evil, but is instead a natural substance made lethal by
human hands. Friar Lawrence’s words prove true over the course of the play. The sleeping potion he
gives Juliet is concocted to cause the appearance of death, not death itself, but through
circumstances beyond the Friar’s control, the potion does bring about a fatal result: Romeo’s suicide.
Poison symbolizes human society’s tendency to poison good things and make them fatal, just as the
pointless Capulet-Montague feud turns Romeo and Juliet’s love to poison. After all, unlike many of
the other tragedies, this play does not have an evil villain, but rather people whose good qualities are
turned to poison by the world in which they live.
In Act 1, scene 1, the buffoonish Samson begins a brawl between the Montagues and Capulets by
flicking his thumbnail from behind his upper teeth, an insulting gesture known as biting the thumb.
He engages in this juvenile and vulgar display because he wants to get into a fight with the
Montagues but doesn’t want to be accused of starting the fight by making an explicit insult. Because
of his timidity, he settles for being annoying rather than challenging. The thumb-biting, as an
essentially meaningless gesture, represents the foolishness of the entire Capulet/Montague feud and
the stupidity of violence in general.
Queen Mab
Queen Mab and her carriage do not merely symbolize the dreams of sleepers, they also symbolize
the power of waking fantasies, daydreams, and desires. Through the Queen Mab imagery, Mercutio
suggests that all desires and fantasies are as nonsensical and fragile as Mab, and that they are
basically corrupting. This point of view contrasts starkly with that of Romeo and Juliet, who see their
love as real and ennobling..


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Impossibility of Certainty

What separates Hamlet from other revenge plays (and maybe from every play written before it) is
that the action we expect to see, particularly from Hamlet himself, is continually postponed while
Hamlet tries to obtain more certain knowledge about what he is doing.
Many people have seen Hamlet as a play about indecisiveness, and thus about Hamlet’s failure to act
appropriately. It might be more interesting to consider that the play shows us how many
uncertainties our lives are built upon, how many unknown quantities are taken for granted when
people act or when they evaluate one another’s actions.

The Complexity of Action

Directly related to the theme of certainty is the theme of action. How is it possible to take
reasonable, effective, purposeful action? In Hamlet, the question of how to act is affected not
only by rational considerations, such as the need for certainty, but also by emotional, ethical,
and psychological factors. Hamlet himself appears to distrust the idea that it’s even possible
to act in a controlled, purposeful way. When he does act, he prefers to do it blindly,
recklessly, and violently. The other characters obviously think much less about “action” in the
abstract than Hamlet does, and are therefore less troubled about the possibility of acting
The Mystery of Death

In the aftermath of his father’s murder, Hamlet is obsessed with the idea of death, and over
the course of the play he considers death from a great many perspectives. He ponders both
the spiritual aftermath of death, embodied in the ghost, and the physical remainders of the
dead, such as by Yorick’s skull and the decaying corpses in the cemetery. Throughout, the
idea of death is closely tied to the themes of spirituality, truth, and uncertainty in that death
may bring the answers to Hamlet’s deepest questions, ending once and for all the problem of
trying to determine truth in an ambiguous world.

The Nation as a Diseased Body

Everything is connected in Hamlet, including the welfare of the royal family and the health of
the state as a whole. The play’s early scenes explore the sense of anxiety and dread that
surrounds the transfer of power from one ruler to the next. Throughout the play, characters
draw explicit connections between the moral legitimacy of a ruler and the health of the
nation. Denmark is frequently described as a physical body made ill by the moral corruption
of Claudius and Gertrude, and many observers interpret the presence of the ghost as a
supernatural omen indicating that “[s]omething is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I.iv.67).
The dead King Hamlet is portrayed as a strong, forthright ruler under whose guard the state
was in good health, while Claudius, a wicked politician, has corrupted and compromised
Denmark to satisfy his own appetites. At the end of the play, the rise to power of the upright
Fortinbras suggests that Denmark will be strengthened once again.

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and
inform the text’s major themes.

Incest and Incestuous Desire

The motif of incest runs throughout the play and is frequently alluded to by Hamlet and the
ghost, most obviously in conversations about Gertrude and Claudius, the former brother-in-
law and sister-in-law who are now married. A subtle motif of incestuous desire can be found
in the relationship of Laertes and Ophelia, as Laertes sometimes speaks to his sister in
suggestively sexual terms and, at her funeral, leaps into her grave to hold her in his arms


Shattered by his mother’s decision to marry Claudius so soon after her husband’s death,
Hamlet becomes cynical about women in general, showing a particular obsession with what
he perceives to be a connection between female sexuality and moral corruption. This motif of
misogyny, or hatred of women, occurs sporadically throughout the play, but it is an important
inhibiting factor in Hamlet’s relationships with Ophelia and Gertrude.

Ears and Hearing

One facet of Hamlet’s exploration of the difficulty of attaining true knowledge is slipperiness
of language. Words are used to communicate ideas, but they can also be used to distort the
truth, manipulate other people, and serve as tools in corrupt quests for power. Claudius, the
shrewd politician, is the most obvious example of a man who manipulates words to enhance
his own power. The sinister uses of words are represented by images of ears and hearing,
from Claudius’s murder of the king by pouring poison into his ear to Hamlet’s claim to
Horatio that “I have words to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb” (

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or

Yorick’s Skull

In Hamlet, physical objects are rarely used to represent thematic ideas. One important
exception is Yorick’s skull, which Hamlet discovers in the graveyard in the first scene of Act
V. As Hamlet speaks to the skull and about the skull of the king’s former jester, he fixates on
death’s inevitability and the disintegration of the body. He urges the skull to “get you to my
lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come”—no one
can avoid death (V.i.178–179). He traces the skull’s mouth and says, “Here hung those lips
that I have kissed I know not how oft,” indicating his fascination with the physical
consequences of death (V.i.174–175).


Hamlet is one of the most famous tragedies ever written, and in many respects it exhibits the
features traditionally associated with the tragic genre. In addition to the play ending with the
death of Hamlet and a host of others, Hamlet himself is a classic tragic protagonist. As the
Prince of Denmark, Hamlet is a figure whose actions matter to an entire kingdom, which
means the play’s events reverberate through the entire world of the play. Like other tragic
heroes, he displays many admirable traits. Hamlet may have a reputation for moping around
Elsinore Castle with a melancholy disposition, but this is because he grieves his beloved
father’s untimely death. Despite his sadness, Hamlet is an intelligent young man of great
potential, as many other characters recognize.