‘Wherefore art thou’ is one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, spoken by Juliet in his Romeo and Juliet play. After meeting Romeo at the party her father has thrown to celebrate her engagement to Paris, Juliet goes up to her room. She steps out onto her balcony and, not being able to get the handsome young Romeo Montague out of her mind she sighs, and speaks her mind out loud.
“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art though 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.”
On first coming to that, most school students would think that she’s wondering where Romeo is. Their teachers often have to put them straight on that because ‘wherefore’ is one of those early modern English words that have been lost to us, but in this case it looks very much like a word we do use – ‘where.’ Hence the confusion.
Although Shakespeare’s language is not difficult to understand because it is so much like the English we speak today, some words have been lost or have evolved to mean something entirely different. For example, if Juliet or the nurse had referred to Romeo as a brave young man they would have meant that he was handsome or fine-looking. If they had talked about him as a knave they would have been saying that he is a little boy or a servant. There are many such words in Shakespeare but not enough to make his texts difficult to understand. The meaning is usually very clear when read in context.
However, ‘wherefore’ is a bit more difficult because it could be confusing. In Renaissance English ‘wherefore’ meant ‘why.’ So Juliet is saying “Why are you Romeo?”
This is an expression of Juliet’s fear that this newly awakened love will end in failure. There is an ancient feud going on in Verona between the Capulets and the Montagues. She is a Capulet and Romeo is a Montague. There is no way that any union between them could occur because the hostility between the two families is firmly established and the situation is unmovable.
Her fear of failure is well-founded because they go ahead with their love affair and actually get married. And, just as she fears, it results in failure.
In that speech Juliet is wishing Romeo is not Romeo Montague but that he had a different name. It wouldn’t matter what his name was as long as it wasn’t the name of Montague’s son. If the boy she has just fallen in love with were from any other family it would be fine. The implication of the feud is lying heavily on her, as it does throughout the play. In her view, if he changed his name, or, indeed, if she changed hers, they would still be the same people. “What’s in a name?” she says. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” It’s not Romeo’s name that makes her love him, it’s the boy she has fallen for, regardless of his name. It’s such a pity that he’s a Montague. And so she sighs “why are you Romeo”