Rowan's World, et Cetera

Wherefore does nobody know what wherefore means?

by Rowan on 21 September, 2010

O Romeo, Romeo!
Wherefore art thou Romeo?

Undoubtedly one of the most quoted lines of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. But what’s the right answer? If you said “I’m over here!” then you’re wrong – not because of where Romeo may or may not be right now, but because that’s quite simply not what “wherefore” means.

wherefore (interrogaive adverb) – for what reason
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary

Juliet is not looking around to find her lover, she’s despairing that she should have fallen in love with one of her family’s sworn enemies: of all the people in all the world, why did he have to turn out to be Romeo Montague?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

So a better answer would be “just because!” or – the answer implied by Shakespeare – “by a mere accident of birth, a whim of the gods”.

So wherefore does everyone get it wrong?

There must be plenty of people who do know what “wherefore” means, but evidently there are plenty more who don’t, and simply guess that “wherefore” is a long-winded way of saying “where”. And it’s not that illogical a guess, given Shakespeare’s use of thoroughly over-the-top words – like “incarnadine”, meaning “turn red”. If it turned out that “art” or “thou” were being used wrong as well, I guess we shohuldn’t be surprised, as it is more or less the same guesswork that lets us understand those.

We’ll tak a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

When Richard Dawkins was first pondering the idea of “memes” – self-replicating ideas subject to the same evolutionary forces he had just described in The Selfish Gene – he used the line above as an example. There is no line which says “for the sake of auld lang syne”, but people continue to sing it. He points out that the sound of people singing “the sake of” drowns out those going straight on to the “auld”, meaning the “sake of” meme is dominant, and propogates, while the more correct version cannot compete.

O Romeo, Romeo!
Wherefore art thou Romeo?

Perhaps there is something similar going on with the Shakespeare line. If you put the stress on the last “Romeo”, you can highlight the question of identity; but it’s somehow not as satisfying a rhythm as stressing the “art”, which is then more open to the where = wherefore misinterpretation. And if – as is generally the case – you are quoting the line out of context, the satisfying rhythm is the one that will stick in your mind.

Indeed, considering how few people seem to realise what it means, the line is incredibly widely quoted, suggesting that there is a catchy rhythm to it. It is, in other words, a highly successful meme, but one which has, in order to spread, abandoned its original meaning. It has become so prevalent as a ‘snowclone‘ that “wherefore art thou?” could almost be considered to have gained the meaning of “where are you?”

It still annoys me whenever I hear people getting it wrong, though!

2 thoughts on “Wherefore does nobody know what wherefore means?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.