Misunderstanding of "wherefore"One of the most famous lines in R&J is Juliet's plea, "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?" The modern translation, understandably, is "where...

Misunderstanding of "wherefore"

One of the most famous lines in R&J is Juliet's plea, "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?" 

The modern translation, understandably, is "where are you, Romeo?"  However, the meaning in Shakespeare's day, according to David Crystal and Ben Crystal, (compliers of the fascinatining Shakespeare Miscellany) is not "where" but "why". 

If we properly understand Juliet's question, how does this impact (or not) our comprehension of the scence and the ramifications that follow?

Expert Answers
blacksheepunite eNotes educator| Certified Educator

If Juliet were wondering "where" Romeo was, she'd be concerned more about finding him than about the problem at hand. The problems between them all stem from the hatred they have inherited. She wants to be free to love, but she would never be free to love Romeo. That's why she curses that he is Romeo, and a Montegue, and her sworn enemy: her family would never approve. At a time when most girls' marriages were arranged by their fathers, this is the worst possible outcome--it would have been better if he had been poor than the son of her father's ememy. The complications in the scenes that follow all arise from this problem, and from the inability of either side to communicate with their families what was happening between them. Tybalt would never have knowingly tried to kill Juliet's husband. Paris would not have married her, and Juliet certainly would not have had to fake her death to get out of a second marriage.

gbeatty eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Good question, Jamie. First, let me say that I assume the word choice was intentional—that Shakespeare wanted Juliet to ask "Why are you Romeo?" in a way that echoed asking "Where are you Romeo?" She yearns for him even as she interrogates him.


What it means, first and foremost, is that she's more complex that she's often played. She's not just pining away for Romeo, sighing. She's sighing, while cursing their situation. She is a good daughter, or she has been, and despite her passion, she's no fool: she doesn't want to be involved with someone from a feuding family.



sullymonster eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Why are you Romeo?" is at the very heart of the conflict, and points to Shakespeare's thematic purpose.  Also, Juliet's following lines would not make sense:

O, be some other name.
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

Shakespeare is criticizing the feud that has no remembered cause and is just based on prejudice now.  People's identity should not be associated with where they come from, and we should not judge them by that.