Why is it that we use the phrase ‘Parting is such sweet sorrow’ so often? Generally, we don’t even know what it means. After all, it doesn’t make sense, does it? Sweet sorrow seems to contradict itself…

‘Parting is such sweet sorrow’ is a quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, spoken by Juliet in act 2, scene 2. The scene in which this sentence appears takes place on a balcony attached to Juliet’s bedroom (the famed ‘balcony scene’), towards the end of which Juliet says:

‘Sweet, so would I
Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing.
Good night, good night!Parting is such sweet sorrow.’

Romeo and Juliet discover that parting is such sweet sorrow, during the famous balcony scene

Romeo and Juliet discover that parting is such sweet sorrow, during the famous balcony scene

The young lovers in this play talk to each other for a long time and fall in love. They make a plan that Romeo will send Juliet a message the next morning about getting married. They can hardly tear themselves away from each other, and Juliet expresses her sadness that it should happen. However she is also anticipating the joy (the sweetness) that she feels is coming their way. They are to see each other soon and the sadness will be replaced by sweetness.  Leaving Romeo hurts her and yet, although the parting is very painful the pain intensifies her feelings for him. And thus we have the ‘sweet sorrow.’

The phrase is used today in other contexts, such as in connection with death. When a loved one has passed on and all we are left with are memories, notwithstanding the sorrow of that parting, we are left with many sweet memories of their life. It is also used quite theatrically by friends saying goodbye, as a lighthearted flourish. It is a quote that comes quickly to the mind – probably because it is so beautiful. It mentions sorrow without it being the sorrow of death. It anticipates meeting again and acknowledges the pleasure the parting friends have experienced in their relationship. It’s perfect. And that’s what Shakespeare intended it to be.

The quote is familiar to everyone: it is frequently used in commercials and appears often in songs and the titles of books. It is one of those beautiful Shakespeare aphorisms that appears frequently in our culture. Shakespeare uses the poetic device of alliteration: the ‘s’ sound in such sweet sorrow; and long vowels, to intensify and drag out the words like a musical phrase that plays on the emotions.

The sentence contains the puzzle produced by its contradiction. It’s an oxymoron, a literary device that combines the two contradictory ideas of pleasure and pain. It’s not possible to explain its meaning, except to say that although the parting is sorrowful there is the pleasure in the anticipation of the joy of being reunited with the one whose absence has caused the pain.

Psychologists claim that parting is a stretching of emotional bonds: the sorrow is tinged with the sweetness of the memories. The joy of being is modified by the knowledge that nothing is forever. The Romans called it: ave atque vale – hail and farewell. Psychological literature is full of studies of separation anxiety, grief and loss. There is a denial phase to grief in which the bereaved believe that the lost one will come back, and so there may be a certain sweetness in the sorrow of parting.

As we usually find, Shakespeare seemed to know all that, and wrapped it up neatly in this four word phrase.

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