For many people, Shakespeare is reduced to two generally misunderstood quotes from monologues: Hamlet is all “To be or not to be” (which not all hearers may realize is not some existentialist meditation but rather serious suicidal ideation), and Romeo and Juliet is all “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”
Ah, Romeo and Juliet. Two star-crossed lovers. Most of those who haven’t seen or read the play don’t know that Romeo and Juliet actually get married or that they’re both awfully young (Juliet is approaching her fourteenth birthday). And I’d venture to say that most of them don’t know what “wherefore art thou Romeo” means.
The thing is, wherefore just isn’t used today, with some fairly rare and rarefied exceptions. Most people know it only from that phrase. And, now, where does that phrase get uttered in the play? Juliet says it on her balcony, mooning over Romeo, who is lurking below unbeknownst to her. Now, if you’re a girl with a mad crush on a guy and you’re out on a balcony and you don’t know where he is, what’s more plausible: that you’re wondering where he is or pondering why he is? And since wherefore starts with where, the former interpretation seems quite natural, no?
Well, it sure does to a lot of people. I remember seeing a Saturday morning Warner Brothers cartoon where, after Juliet (played by a bird) utters the line, Romeo (another bird) climbs up and says, “I’m here, my love.” For that matter, it seems to have been a suitable reading for whoever wrote the headline for a recent theatre review in the Globe and Mail: “Wherefore art the love, Romeo?” Bonus points on that one for the quite common failure on archaic conjugation (art being of course what goes with thou and certainly not with the love, but the headline writer may have known that and just felt it was worth the joke).
Frankly, I think this word gets a fair amount of wear for one that’s not well understood. But anyone who happens to read or listen to what Juliet says afterwards will be confused if they think wherefore means “where”, as she wishes Romeo could deny his name and she declares “that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” Well, OK, people, what’s the central conflict in the play? Their families are enemies, that’s what! She’s fallen in love with a guy from the wrong gang! Ah! Romeo, Romeo, why you gotta be Romeo, eh? What for are you Romeo? What are you Romeo for? Couldn’t you be called something else?
Funny, isn’t it, that “What for are you Romeo” sounds so uneducated, whereas “Wherefore art thou Romeo” sounds so high-level – rather at opposite ends of the scale of fiscal wherewithal? At Shakespeare’s time, of course, thou was not a starchy word; it was a normal term one used for one’s equals and inferiors. And wherefore was just a one-word way of saying “for which” or “for what”.
Yes, that fore is really for. And the where? Well, it’s where, but used in the extended sense we see in whereupon and whereby – which mean “upon which” and “by which” (it’s also the where in wherewithal). Wherefore can be a relative pronoun (“He explained to me wherefore he had done it”) or, as we usually see it, an interrogative.
So is this whiffling on wherefore some kind of warfare on the fair words of English, or simply a bonk from a ball out of the blue on the fairway, and where was the “fore”? In fact, as irksome as it is to some, it’s unsurprising – a word that doesn’t get used much anymore is likely to be misunderstood if it looks too much like it means something else. What’s to do? Well, you could always use it more, preferably in contexts that make its meaning clear. But do be aware that everyone you say it to will think of Juliet…