Shakespeare at 400: 'Romeo and Juliet'

Shakespeare at 400: 'Romeo and Juliet'
photo by Margaret H. Laing

“Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) contains what might be the most thoroughly quoted dramatic scene in all of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations — Act II, Scene 2.

Actually, though, it starts being quotable early. From the Prologue to Act I comes a description used for this and many other plays, “A pair of star-cross’d lovers.”

But it’s Act II, Scene 2 of “Romeo and Juliet” that appears over and over again. As I browsed along, taking notes for this post, I felt little need to look for the citation, I found several very famous quotations that read ” ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ Act II, Scene 2.”

Even if you’re totally unfamiliar with the play — as someone out there must be — you’re likely to know something about these lines.

“He jests at scars, that never felt a wound.

But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

This scene also contains one of the more parodied and misunderstood speeches in all of Shakespeare’s plays. It leads me to a favorite category familiar to readers of these posts: Words Worth Defending. The word at stake is wherefore.

In the following speech, Juliet isn’t looking all over for the missing Romeo. She’s looking directly at him. In modern usage, if we dare edit this, she’d be saying “Why did you have to get named that?” Now consider the original:

“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.”


Understanding that “wherefore” equals the modern “why” may be easier when you consider yet another famous piece of this scene:

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.”

That’s all for now — but even “A thousand times good-night!” is Act II, Scene 2, again… .

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