This phrase is filled with emotional agony of the speaker, Juliet, in William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. Juliet 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.”
(Romeo and Juliet Act II, Scene II, Lines 33–36).
It implies Juliet’s fear that their love would eventually end in failure, as Romeo is a Montague and she a Capulet (Two tribes terribly hostile to each other.)
The phrase, “O Romeo! Why are you Romeo?” is the opening sentence of a romantically philosophic speech of Juliet. Its literal meaning is that Juliet is agonized to think that Romeo is a Montague and painfully wishes him to have been from some other tribe. Figuratively speaking, the phrase addresses one of the most sensitive and unsolved questions of philosophy—man’s habit of attributing names to forms. Where the purpose of names is solely to recognize things, however, gradually they become more important than the forms they refer to.
The purpose of this phrase is to criticize procedures that involve unnecessary complication. In general terms, people use it to criticize excessive terms and conditions for doing something (like getting loans or insurance papers signed). We find its usage in various areas of life like when courts, visa offices or government institutions reject someone’s case over documental flaws; the victims often utter the same phrase. Besides that, lovers use this when they anticipate their eventual failure in love.
It is uttered when Juliet stands on her balcony looking out to the garden, and Romeo waits in the shadows. She sorrowfully murmurs her feelings for the man she has chosen for her, and he is from an opposing tribe. She wishes Romeo were not being Romeo—but someone else from a different tribe.
In this speech, Juliet resents human habit of preferring words to forms. She rightfully thinks that articulatory symbols should not regulate human ‘existence’ and ‘will’. Romeo, Montague, Couplet, Rose, Juliet—all are substantial forms and changing their ‘names’ will not change their identity.
In this phrase, Shakespeare takes pity on for regulated-world of love against norm-regulated world of society. To Juliet, their love is impossible due to their family names. Hence, she asks Romeo to change his name, or else she would change hers. In Juliet’s view calling ‘Rose’ with any other word will not make it smell bad—making clear the importance of form and characteristics over names when she says, “What’s in a name?”
Following are the literary devices used in this phrase:
- Apostrophe: The phrase addresses someone, who is absent or dead.
- Soliloquy: Juliet shows her inner struggle as she speaks to herself.