For Shakespeare’s birthday, I’m sharing a fragment from Romeo and Juliet that never ceases to amaze me. It’s from that glorious balcony scene — no, I’m not a romantic at all, why do you ask? — the scene that made me want to take up acting when I was very young.
Also, this fragment is one that gives me fits, as an English teacher and general lover of language, because people get its meaning wrong all the time. Here’s a hint to help this fragment make actual, logical sense: “wherefore” means “why,” not “where.” If it meant “where,” that would suggest Juliet knows Romeo is out in the garden, and part of the point of the start of this scene is that she does not. He completely surprises her when he climbs up that trellis.
Also, if “wherefore” meant “where,” the rest of the lines would be a somewhat confusing non sequitur.
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.
Notice the lack of direct-address comma after “thou” in the first line? Yeah, me too. Its absence means she isn’t addressing him a third time in that sentence, but that his name here is a direct object of “art” (“are” in modern parlance).
As it turns out, Juliet is musing on the misfortune of the boy she likes being a Montague, and thus a member of the family her own family is feuding with and sworn to hate. This moment of pre-rebellious reverie is important, too, because she’s deciding that if Romeo won’t renounce his family, then all he has to do is swear his love to her, and she’ll give up her family, to be with him.
And just for fun, here’s an amazeballs flow chart from goodticklebrain.com to help you decide which of Sheakespeare’s plays you might want to watch to commemorate his birth- and deathday.