Mighty Red Pen

April 18, 2010

The whys and wherefores

Filed under: Lit review — mighty red pen @ 2:33 pm
Tags: ,

I did not expect that an advertisement for shower curtains would send me back to my lit. nerd roots, but there was something about this Bed, Bath & Beyond ad, with its play on the famous “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” line, that just did not sit right with me:

So when I first read it, I was all, well, isn’t that a cute little play on the quotation from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, because as we all know it’s Juliet saying the “wherefore art thous” to Romeo. Okay, it was facile . . . but amusing.

But something felt off to me. I thought maybe it was the “now” that they stuck in there, so I went back to the original text just to remind myself of what it said:

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.

Yeah, so there’s not a “now” in there, but even that little addition seemed like some playful creative license,  big whoop. But as I did a little more research (by no means exhaustive), there surfaced this little detail, which I confess I never really thought of: wherefore does not mean where, it means why. Juliet is not asking “Where are you, Romeo?” in this passage, she is asking, “Why are you a Montague, Romeo?”

Here’s what World Wide Words says:

Few people these days, in truth, can be quite sure what wherefore means. As a result, one of Shakespeare’s most quoted lines is often misunderstood. When Juliet asked, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”, she wasn’t checking to see if he was on the ground below her balcony but asking why he was the person he was, a member of the hated rival Montague family. It means “why”, not “where”.

Ohhhhhh! Suddenly, the idiom the whys and wherefores makes so much more sense!

So now here’s the thing: I know advertisers like to pun all the time (if I could count all the times I see an ad that’s a play on “Got Milk?”  . . . ), and I could see how the play on this quote would seem irresistable. And I’m often on the side of being a bit lenient where creative license in advertising is concerned.

And people love to use this phrase and do so incorrectly all the time. I’ve done it myself. So can the advertisers be blamed for seemingly assuming that wherefore means where? Or should they be held accountable for not bothering to find out that it means why, which basically renders this advertisement totally meaningless?

What do you think?



  1. Has anyone who is a creative writer not taken a Shakespeare class and learned that wherefore means not where but why? This is but lazy trespass upon well trod ground. It is a fie not only upon him and his children, but also upon his master who hires him, for he shames them all. His betters would best do him in and have some more deserved servant pen the tale for this noisy donkey.

    Comment by Alan Eggleston — May 3, 2010 @ 5:29 pm | Reply

  2. Everone who works with words, especially English and Literature majors, knows that “wherefore” means “why.”

    Comment by Dom Sarducci — October 28, 2011 @ 1:59 pm | Reply

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