Why Romeo and Juliet's famous line is often misinterpreted (and what it really means)

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Claire Danes as Juliet and Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo in 1996 fiilm William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. (Fox)

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As lines from William Shakespeare go, it’s one of the big ones.

Even if you haven’t read any of the Bard’s plays, you can probably make a stab at the following: “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

Like all of Shakespeare’s best lines, it trips off the tongue, up there with “To be, or not to be, that is the question” from Hamlet and “What’s in a name?”, another gem from Romeo and Juliet.

It is believed that the tale of the pair of star-crossed lovers was first performed on 29 January 1595, 427 years ago.

There are no records of the performance, but according to the British Library, it is thought it was acted at The Theatre, an Elizabethan playhouse in Shoreditch, London - its timbers were later used in the construction of the Globe Theatre in 1599.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616), English Poet, Playwright and Actor, Widely Recognized as Greatest Dramatist, Portrait. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet in the 1590s. (Getty Images)

Shakespeare is believed to have written the play some time between 1591 and 1595, although it wasn’t published as a text until 1597.

It may have been more than four centuries ago, but Romeo and Juliet has stood the test of time, and it seems you only have to wait a few months for a new version.

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Last year, a stage adaptation at the National Theatre in London, starring Josh O’Connor as Romeo and Jessie Buckley as Juliet, was broadcast on Sky Arts.

And no adaptation is complete without the “wherefore art thou Romeo?” question, which poses its own puzzler… what is Juliet actually saying?

Jessie Buckley and Josh O'Connor in Romeo & Juliet (Sky UK)
Jessie Buckley as Juliet and and Josh O'Connor as Romeo in a production from the National Theatre broadcast on television in 2021. (Sky)

Upon a first reading, her question, posed from her window in Act 2 Scene 2 of the play, appears to mean: “Where are you Romeo?”

A case could be made for this interpretation, given that Juliet does not know Romeo’s location, although the audience is privy to his whereabouts, as he is hiding outside her home, listening to her speech.

It is more than 400 years since Romeo and Juliet was first performed on stage. (Getty Images)
It is more than 400 years since Romeo and Juliet was first performed on stage. (Getty Images)

However, the “wherefore” actually translates as “why”. In asking, “why are you Romeo?”, she is referring to the feud in the city of Verona - Juliet wants to know why Romeo has to be who he is - a Montague - while she is from the Capulet family - and their love is frustratingly forbidden.

She expresses this in the lines that follow.

She says:

“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.

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy:

Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.”

Juliet is saddened and anxious that Romeo is a Montague, thinking - rightly, as it turns out - that their love is doomed because they are from warring families. Quite simply, she wishes he was from a different family so there would be more hope for their relationship.

She is basically asking: “Why are you a Montague?”

Juliet then adds: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Verona, Italy - April 22, 2019: Balcony of Juliets house in city of Verona, Italy during sunny day in April 2019
The balcony at 'Juliet's house' in Verona, but Shakespeare didn't write about a balcony for the famous scene in his play. (Getty)

There is another mistake often made about this famous exchange, forever known as the “balcony scene”, in that something rather crucial is missing: a balcony.

Shakespeare simply refers to Juliet appearing at a window - in fact, there were no balconies in England at the time he wrote the play.

Another playwright, Thomas Otway, lifted Romeo and Juliet’s plot and characters and transported them to Rome for his 1679 work, The History and Fall of Caius Marius. And he added a balcony, something that obviously stuck, as almost every other version has done the same since.

Watch: How new 'Romeo and Juliet' filmed under COVID protocols

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