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Shakespeare's Oxymorons

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I love everything weird and colorful in this world and I try to live a life that will make the world a little better once I'm gone.

Oxymora in Shakespeare's Works

Shakespeare used the oxymoron quite often to express mixed emotions both in his plays and his sonnets. "Fair is foul, and foul is fair", "Parting is such sweet sorrow", "O brawling love! O loving hate!" - these are a few of his famous oxymora. Let's take a look at his use of the oxymoron, and we'll throw in a few paradoxes just for the fun of it.

The oxymora are underlined, the paradoxes italicized. To view the quote within the context around it, click on the chapter reference.

(Technically the plural of oxymoron is oxymora, but since so many people use oxymorons and language is always evolving, I'll use both.)

Romeo and Juliet

Oxymorons in Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet is a love story that is just filled with oxymora, but that's sort of how love is. It's wonderful and it's painful.

Act 1, Scene 1

O brawling love! O loving hate!
O anything of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity* !
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.

* (As pointed out by tandemonimom, "serious vanity" used here is an oxymoron because "vanity" here means not being vain or proud, but (in context with the oxymorons around it) the older sense of emptiness, or "something worthless, trivial, or pointless" as the dictionary defines it.)

Act 2, Scene 2

Parting is such sweet sorrow.

Struggling between her love for Romeo, and the criticizing him for killing Tybalt, Juliet whips out these few lines with a whopping six oxymorons and four paradoxes:

Act 3, Scene 2
O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
Beautiful tyrant! fiond angelical!
Dove-feather'd raven! wolvish-ravening lamb!
Despised substance of divinest show!
Just opposite to what thou justly seem'st;
A damned saint, an honourable villain!
O, nature! what hadst thou to do in hell
When thou didst bower the spirit of a fiend
In mortal paradise of such sweet flesh?
Was ever book containing such vile matter
So fairly bound? O! that deceit should dwell
In such a gorgeous palace.

Macbeth - Oxymorons in Macbeth

Illustration for a Scene from "Macbeth"

Illustration for a Scene from "Macbeth"

Paradoxes in Macbeth

Act 1, Scene 1
Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Act 1, Scene 3
So foul and fair a day I have not seen!

paradox:
Act 1, Scene 3
My dull brain was wrought
With things forgotten

Act 3, Scene 4

I must be cruel only to be kind: Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind.

paradox:
You are the queen, your husband's brother's wife.

More on Shakespeare's Use of Oxymora

These articles go into further detail about Shakespeare's use of oxymora.

Julius Caesar

Oxymorons in Julius Caesar

Act 5, Scene 1

Tut, I am in their bosoms, and I know
Wherefore they do it: they could be content
To visit other places; and come down
With fearful bravery, thinking by this face
To fasten in our thoughts that they have courage;
But 'tis not so.

The Tempest

An Oxymoron in The Tempest

Act 4, Scene 1

Do that good mischief which may make this island thine own forever...

Twelth Night

shakespeare-oxymorons

Oxymorons in Twelth Night

Act 2, Scene 4
Come hither, boy: if ever thou shalt love,
In the sweet pangs of it remember me;

Act 2, Scene 4
Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.

Act 2, Scene 5
She that would alter services with thee,
THE FORTUNATE-UNHAPPY.'

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Oxymorons in A Midsummer Night's Dream


Act 5, Scene 1

A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisby; very tragical mirth.'
Merry and tragical! tedious and brief!
That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow."

The Sonnets

Oxymorons in Shakespeare's Sonnets

Sonnet 1

And, tender churl, mak'st waste in niggarding:

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,

To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.

Sonnet 40
I do forgive thy robbery, gentle thief

Sonnet 72
Unless you would devise some virtuous lie

Sonnet 144
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.

Sonnet 151
Then, gentle cheater, urge not my amiss,

Guestbook - Tell us what's on your mind... (you don't have to do it in Shakespeare's english)

Edward Lane from Wichita Falls, Texas on March 31, 2020:

Okay, I won’t do this in Old English! It would be such sorrowful sweetness to do so. And such easy difficulty. I love this article. So original. So well written. This oxymora analysis is the best I’ve read. Hope the author writes many more!

sierradawn lm on January 06, 2014:

I had never noticed before how many oxymora are found in Shakespeare's work. This is such a fascinating lens and a wonderful tribute to Shakespeare.

Aunt-Mollie on February 26, 2013:

I read everyone of Shakespeare's plays in college. He is a master of language. There hasn't been another writer who even comes close to his genius.

compugraphd on July 12, 2012:

B"H

I love oxymora (we had the word "oxymora" in a double crosstix puzzle -- I realized it was the plural of oxymoron when oxymoron didn't fit, but most of the letters worked and then I realized it needed to be plural based on the clue). I should have known Shakespeare would have them in his work. Great lens!

Thrinsdream on April 22, 2012:

Yesterday we were thinking of as many oxymorons as possible and today TAH DAH your article. Just to raise a smile we came up with working lunch, politically correct, army intelligence and student teacher . . well it made me smile. Loved this article. With thanks and appreciation. Cathi x

fish-oil-expert on April 21, 2012:

Wow fascinating. My girlfriend thought these were interesting. She said "You can read Shakespeare more to me, if you want". LOL!

Celticep from North Wales, UK on April 20, 2012:

Fascinating lens! I'm going to Facebook share this so that my daughter, who is a Shakespeare addict, can enjoy it too! :)

anonymous on April 19, 2012:

@spanish121: awfully Pretty

siobhanryan on April 18, 2012:

(Parting is such sweet sorrow) is my favorite. Nice lens

kindoak on April 18, 2012:

Ah, words.. the soothing splendor of language which makes me terribly peaceful :)

spanish121 on April 18, 2012:

Horribly Lovely - Thankyou

anonymous on April 17, 2012:

@kerbev: ha-ha, you overestimate me, I'm not that talented )

Kerri Bee (author) from Upstate, NY on April 17, 2012:

@anonymous: haha - I thought it was a Shakespearean Insult with a lisp. :-)

flycatcherrr on April 17, 2012:

Delightful. Language play like this is just one of the many reasons why Shakespeare is still, always, worth reading!

anonymous on April 17, 2012:

@kerbev: not wench, went (th) lol

And pardon me, since English is my seventh language ;)

Kerri Bee (author) from Upstate, NY on April 17, 2012:

@anonymous: Who you callin' a clapping wench?!?!?

anonymous on April 17, 2012:

Oh, humble genius! Femida lens! To thee my silent clapping wentth

GhostZon3 on April 16, 2012:

Great lens! I read this in school, and this has brought my to a whole new understanding of his writing. Nice work!

Auntie-M LM on March 26, 2012:

What a fun lens! Did you know that in Shakespeare's time people had a working vocabulary roughly 18 times more than ours today? That is likely why his poetry is so exquisite.

esvoytko lm on February 23, 2012:

Keynes would later adapt the "foul is fair" quote to describe the historical necessity of capitalism. I think most people don't realize he took the phrase from Shakespeare. Great lens!

Nimsrules LM on February 11, 2012:

I've always been a huge fan of this great poet. You vocabulary automatically developed while reading Shakespeare's works.

Einar A on January 07, 2012:

Shakespeare contributed so much to the English language as we know it today. This is a fun and informative lens!

Barb McCoy on December 23, 2011:

Gold mine! I am a homeschooling mom of a teen who loves Shakespeare. I am going to share this lens with him as part of our literature study. Thanks and blessed.

Cita55555 on April 22, 2011:

Shakespeare was certainly a joker:-)

Kathryn002 on March 13, 2011:

I really like this lens. Romeo and Juliet was riddled with oxymorons I seem to remember. That's the nature of love, though, I suppose.

Indigo Janson from UK on February 14, 2011:

I didn't know Shakespeare was such a fan of using oxymorons... but this is certainly proof of that!

Linda Hoxie from Idaho on June 10, 2009:

Very nice lens, I love Shakespeare, and never really thought about the oxymorons! Found you on the ransom lens viewer, and I am happy I did!

anonymous on May 07, 2009:

i thought there was supposed to be only seven oxymorons in act one scene two of romeo and juliet? i counted ten!

MargoPArrowsmith on April 07, 2009:

Do you teach this stuff? If not, it would make nice small seminar material on college campuses. ***** And I think you have a new career!

Jimmie Quick from Memphis, TN, USA on February 23, 2009:

Lensrolled to my Shakespeare for Children lens. Thanks for the fun oxymorons. Shakespeare was a master with words.