Romeo and Juliet Symbols and Motifs
by William Shakespeare

Class Division

Various servants and members of the lower class make up a significant number of the characters in the play, even though only a few of them have names. Scenes in which the servants take center stage are brief, but they occur regularly, usually in between scenes in which the upper-class characters – the Capulets and the Montagues – are making wedding plans or pontificating on the nature of all-consuming love that seems divine in origin. These scenes usually include some immediate, material concern on the part of the servant, contrasting sharply with the emotional or political complexities of the upper-class characters’ concerns.

As Lady Capulet talks about marrying Juliet to Paris, the Nurse complains of having only four teeth. As Romeo pines for Rosaline, Capulet’s servant cannot read the list of people he is supposed to invite to the night’s party. As the Capulets and their upper-class friends end an opulent feast and begin a night of dancing in rich costumes, the kitchen servants are rushing about, wondering where the rest of the servants have gone. When Romeo asks one of these servants who Juliet is, the servant does not know her name – despite working in Juliet’s own house! And, although it is illegal to sell poison and the penalty for doing so is death, the apothecary agrees to sell Romeo the poison because grinding poverty makes it necessary for him to obtain money by any means he can – even if it proves fatal.

Queen Mab

In the first act, Mercutio delivers one of the play’s longest speeches: a detailed description of the fairy Queen Mab, who brings dreams to sleeping humans. However, Queen Mab’s dreams are not always pleasant. Rather, they seem to bring out the worst in the dreamer, such as greed, violence, and lust. That the speech is given by Mercutio, whose primary role in the play is to skewer the daydreams, fantasies, and lofty opinions of others, is significant. It indicates that desires and fantasies are, at their core, nonsense, and that human beings’ attachment to them does more harm than good – a motif that is carried out when Tybalt’s pride results in both Mercutio’s death and his own, and when Romeo’s romanticism leads him to commit suicide without pausing to consider an alternative course of action.

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