Juliet: O, Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?
is probably the most well-known Shakespeare line of all time – and the most misunderstood. The line is from “Romeo and Juliet,” Act II. Scene II.
To give Juliet’s words some context, let’s start at the beginning. Our play takes place in 16th Century Verona in Northern Italy. It’s evening. Young Juliet Capulet’s parents are giving a fancy dress ball where Juliet meets and kisses the dreamiest guy. But the young man mysteriously slips away from her before she can get his name. Quickly, Juliet pulls her nurse (nanny) aside, points toward the fleeing young man, and asks her nurse:
Juliet: What’s he that follows there, that would not dance?
Nurse: I know not.
Juliet: Go ask his name….
Nurse: His name is Romeo, and a Montague, The only son of your great enemy.
Juliet: My only love, sprung from my only hate!
Juliet despairs that she has fallen in love with a Montague, the son of her father’s sworn enemy. Juliet goes upstairs to her bedroom to undress for bed. Then she walks onto the balcony that overlooks the dark orchard to collect her thoughts.
Juliet is distraught that an age-old feud between her family (the Capulets) and Romeo’s (the Montagues) should keep her from having a relationship with Romeo. She wants to know: Why – for what purpose – is he Romeo???? Why is he not named Jack Sprat – anything! – but the name of my father’s enemy’s son? She is not asking where Romeo is.
Juliet: O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore [why] art thou Romeo? [Why is your name Romeo, the name of my father's enemy's son?]
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.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to fair Juliet talking to herself up on the balcony, Romeo has leapt over the orchard wall and is hiding amongst the trees, spying on Juliet.
Romeo hears what Juliet is saying and whispers to himself:
Romeo: Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?
She does not hear him and continues speaking.
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 called,
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.
Romeo: (speaking out from the orchard) I take thee at thy word.
Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.
Click below to see the balcony scene from Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet.” It won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design.
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