Saturday 28 November 2009

Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou Romeo?

A letter in today's Guardian runs:

Many years ago we attended an amateur performance of Romeo and Juliet in Trinidad, and the cry went up "Romeo, Romeo wherefore art thou", followed by a pause and a cry from the audience of "Romeo, Romeo, where you is boy?"

There's so much wrong with this that I needed to drink a bottle of vermouth before deciding to concentrate on wherefore. As any fule kno, wherefore does not mean where. It means why.

The story so far is that Juliet has fallen in love with a handsome young chap without knowing his name. She then discovers that the boy is called Romeo, and realises that she's fallen heels over head for the one boy she can't marry. So, thinking that nobody is listening, she soliloquises "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?", which could be paraphrased as "Romeo, why did you have to be called Romeo (a name implying that you are a scion of the Montague family and therefore denied to me)?"

Why wouldn't work in the iambic penameter of te-TUM te-TUM te-TUM te-TUM te-TUM [te] (Romeo is two syllables); so Will used wherefore instead.

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.

It is not a question of location, but of name. That's why she talks of no longer being a Capulet.

The Guardian's epistle doesn't even mention the final Romeo of the line, which would change the question completely to "Romeo, why do you exist?"

I'd jabber on about the punctuation of vocatives, but enough is enough.

Allegedly the actual balcony


  1. It reminds me of something a student of mine wrote in an essay once:

    "As we all know, Shakespeare liked to use big words".

    Is this true, or were words generally bigger back then- i.e. Shakespeare was using normal-sized words which appear big to us today because the words we use have shrunk.

  2. Words are very much like mini-cheddars. We forget that everything used to be so huge as to destroy the unwary psyche through the Power Of Size.

  3. As someone who is very new to studying the language rather than merely spouting it, I have to admit that I did not know this either. Though, I've never read Shakespeare. I am not quite to that level yet!