Quoting Shakespeare: “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

This is the first of an occasional series discussing Shakespeare’s plays and language by examining quotes from the works.

With tomorrow being the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, everyone is talking about the Bard. Where I live, in a barn a few miles from Stratford-Upon-Avon, I’m surrounded by a multitude of events celebrating this 400th anniversary (which is also the 452nd anniversary of his birth).

Magazines, newspapers, and websites are running articles about Shakespeare: about his life, the plays, and his language. Many of them tell us about all the words and phrases that Shakespeare “invented,” but at least one article points out that he didn’t invent all these terms, they’re just the first known uses in print.

A friend came to visit last weekend and we went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of Hamlet. This friend had never seen a Shakespeare play, and he had told me he didn’t think he’d understand the language. He was surprised that he did understand so much; he said he felt that he understood about 70% of the words, and was tripped up, at times, by the unfamiliar accents. But it’s not just archaic words that can confuse people; it’s also words that have different meanings, or meanings that we can’t figure out.

One of the most famous quotes in all of Shakespeare is from Romeo and Juliet, and it goes like this:

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?

Here’s the full text of the scene where this line appears:

JULIET
O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.

ROMEO
[Aside] Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?

JULIET
'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

Most people assume that “wherefore” means “where,” but that’s not the case. In fact, I saw a bit in the news today where a weatherman had written “Romeo, where art thou,” and then explained that he would be providing weather from Stratford-Upon-Avon today.

Wherefore is an archaic word that means “why.” Juliet is not asking Romeo where he is; he’s right in front of her. He’s asking him “Why art thou Romeo,” or, more correctly, “Why art thou a Montague?” If you remember the story, there are two feuding families, the Montagues and the Capulets; Romeo is one of the former, and Juliet belongs to the latter. Her question is not about Romeo’s location – she’s not texting him asking why he’s late and where he is – it’s a lament that he has a name that will cause problems to their love.

She then asks him to renounce the Montagues:

Deny thy father and refuse thy name

And, as she later says:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

And this is followed by another well-known quote:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

Juliet points out that even if he shed his name, he would still be the same, and she would still love him.

This word, “wherefore,” is the key to the entire scene. So the next time you see Romeo and Juliet, remember what it means. And, by the way, if you haven’t seen it, this play is not a love story as you might expect; it’s a tragedy. It doesn’t end well…

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