Secret Library

The Curious Meaning of Juliet’s ‘O Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou Romeo?’

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses the meaning of a strange Shakespearean quotation

Let’s start with two correctives to common misconceptions about Romeo and Juliet.

First of all, when Juliet asks her star-cross’d lover, ‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ she isn’t, of course, asking him where he is. ‘Wherefore’ means ‘why’: ‘the whys and the wherefores’ is a tautological phrase, since whys and wherefores are the same. (If we wish to be pedantic, ‘wherefore’ strictly means ‘for what’ or ‘for which’, but this means the same as ‘why’ in most contexts.)

Second, the so-called ‘balcony scene’ in Romeo and Juliet was unknown to Shakespeare’s original audiences. In the stage directions for Romeo and Juliet and the so-called ‘balcony scene’ (Act 2 Scene 2), Shakespeare writes that Juliet appears at a ‘window’, but he doesn’t mention a balcony. It would have been difficult for him to do so, since – perhaps surprisingly – Elizabethan England didn’t know what a ‘balcony’ was.

As Lois Leveen has noted, when the Jacobean travel-writer Thomas Coryat described a balcony in 1611, he drew attention to how foreign and exotic such a thing was to the English at the time. The balcony scene was most probably the invention of Thomas Otway in 1679, when the Venice Preserv’d author took Romeo and Juliet and moved its action to ancient Rome, retitling the play The History and Fall of Caius Marius. It was hugely popular, and, although Otway’s version is largely forgotten now, it did leave one lasting legacy: the idea of the ‘balcony’ scene.

But let’s return to the first of these: the most famous line from the play, ‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ The play’s most-quoted line references the feud between the two families, which means Romeo and Juliet cannot be together. But Juliet’s question is, when we stop and consider it, more than a little baffling. Romeo’s problem isn’t his first name, but his family name, Montague. Surely, since she fancies him, Juliet is quite pleased with ‘Romeo’ as he is – it’s his family that are the problem. So why does Juliet not say, ‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Montague?’ Or perhaps, to make the poetry of the line slightly better, ‘O Romeo Montague, wherefore art thou Montague?’

Solutions have been proposed to this conundrum, but none is completely satisfying. As John Sutherland and Cedric Watts put it in their hugely enjoyable set of literary essays puzzling out some of the more curious aspects of Shakespeare’s plays, Oxford World’s Classics: Henry V, War Criminal?: and Other Shakespeare Puzzles, ‘The most famous line in Romeo and Juliet is also, it appears, the play’s most illogical line.’

Indeed, putting the line into its immediate context, Act 2 Scene 2, scarcely makes things clearer. It makes them worse:

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.

Not ‘I’ll no longer be a Juliet’: that wouldn’t make sense. But then if that doesn’t, why does ‘wherefore art thou Romeo?’

Juliet goes on to confirm that it is the family name rather than the given name that is the problem:

’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.

‘Though not a Montague’; ‘What’s Montague?’ These point out that Romeo being a Montague is the issue. And yet Juliet then immediately turns back to his forename, and sees that as a problem too. After the other world-famous lines from this scene ‘What’s in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet’), Juliet goes on the offensive where ‘Romeo’ is concerned: ‘So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d …’

Sutherland and Watts attempt to explain this oddity by arguing that Juliet is drawing attention, even subconsciously, to the arbitrariness of signs or words and their merely conventional relationship with the things they represent.

(When I used to teach language to first-year English students, the way I demonstrated – and got them to remember – the arbitrariness of all signs was by thinking of the English and French words for the thing with branches and leaves out there on the campus lawn. We may call it a ‘tree’, but those four letters only mean the branchy thing because English speakers follow the convention that ‘tree’ will denote the branchy thing; in France, they don’t recognise that convention, instead using the five letters, ‘arbre’ to refer to the same object. So the relationship between word and thing is completely ‘arbre-tree’ – i.e., arbitrary.)

I have a lot of time for Sutherland and Watts’s ‘solution’ to this puzzle. If we approach Juliet’s lines from a purely rational or logical perspective, they don’t make much sense: ‘wherefore art thou Romeo’ should read ‘wherefore art thou Montague’. But she has just met and fallen head-over-heels in love for the first time, with a boy who is part of the family that is her family’s sworn enemy. She isn’t being guided by pure logic, but by emotion – conflicted emotion, love vying with regret, passion fighting with sorrow.

By this, I don’t mean she is so emotionally overwrought that she isn’t making any sense, either: we all know what she means when she says, ‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo’. Instead, she is choosing to vent her sadness over the situation, not by narrowly attacking his surname, but by attacking the very fact that he is both Romeo the boy she loves and Romeo of the house of Montague. Both of these ‘signifiers’ – to follow Sutherland and Watts’s interpretation inspired by Saussure and Lacan – refer to the youth who stands outside her window, but she would love him just as much if he were a boy named something else. Names themselves, and the baggage they bring with them, are the problem: hence ‘wherefore art thou Romeo’.

Names shouldn’t matter: Montague, Romeo, Capulet, Juliet. But she knows they do. Hence the plaintive lament in her line ‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo’. If he wasn’t known as ‘Romeo Montague’, or ‘Romeo’ for short, and belonged to some other family, he would still be the youth he is. And their love would not be doomed.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.

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