Romeo, Romeo: why?! (2.2.33-37)

JULIET                        O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

                        Deny thy father, and refuse thy name;

                        Or if thou wilt not, but be sworn my love,

                        And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

ROMEO           [Aside] Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this? (2.2.33-37)

Up there with Hamlet knowing Yorick really well, surely one of the most misquoted or at least misunderstood lines in all Shakespeare. Wherefore, WHY are you called Romeo, Romeo? There’s a lovely artless realism here: she has only learned his name after their encounter at the ball, and is repeating it like a trophy or talisman, trying it out, tasting it. It’s in this speech that names and bodies (or body parts), words and things, are really going to come together, so here are the names – loaded, as ever, with the reminder of the feud. Juliet is imagining the possibility of casting off their family identities, whimsically through Romeo declaring himself illegitimate, denying his father, or through love and, possibly, marriage (if she denies her own name and, implicitly, takes his, swearing the vows of marriage). (Brief vision of an anachronistic teenage notebook, scrawled all over with Romeo, Romeo, Romeo, and Mrs Juliet Montague. Yes, anachronistic.) She is already imagining a future in which they take on a new identity together, with new names, or no names at all – because names are a problem.

Romeo’s dilemma: he is both flattered and encouraged, so does he interrupt at this point or hear more encouraging flattery? Fortunately, he decides to bide his time, allowing him to continue to react with delighted disbelief, and – more importantly – allowing Juliet to continue. It matters that she thinks she’s alone and unheard; this is in effect a soliloquy, or at least it has that intimacy and self-revelation. Both we and Romeo are overhearing: this is, apparently, the real Juliet, not dutiful daughter or clever, witty girl at a party. Just Juliet.


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