Wherefore “Wherefore?”

This is an old topic for regulars, but sometimes it’s nice to dust out the FAQs and revisit. Today on Twitter I saw one person correct a friend that “wherefore art thou” does not mean “where are you”, but that it means “why are you here, Romeo.” No it doesn’t, it means “why are you Romeo”, as in, “Why of all the eligible young guys in Verona did the love of my life have to be a member of the family my enemy is in a blood feud with?” In sending these folks the correct answer I consulted Clusty for some more examples, which I think explain it a bit better :

Wherefore speaks he this to her he hates? Wherefore doth Lysander deny your love? But wherefore didst thou kill my cousin? All this is comfort, wherefore weep I then? Wherefore hast thou accused him all this while?

And so on.  I don’t know about anybody else, but after seeing it regularly in its proper context I just see it as “why” and never think twice about it. The original Twitterer did seem to know that it means “why”, but was perhaps still thinking that there was some sort of location connection with the where/here stuff.  Nope.  “wherefore art thou” is straight 1:1 translation, wherefore=why, art=are, thou=you.  Why are you Romeo. Had she said “Wherefore art thou here, Romeo” then you’d be on to something, but it would fundamentally change the meaning of the speech.

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6 thoughts on “Wherefore “Wherefore?”

  1. That "wherefore" problem has driven me mad for years. I assume it confuses people because the most famous quote with it sounds to some as though Juliet may be searching for Romeo, and it includes the word "where." Still, as you pointed out, there are so many other examples with "wherefore" that most Shakespeare fans understand it as "why" without a second thought.

  2. My favorite Shakespeare vocabulary word is "quondam."

    Warwick: "And as for you youself, our quondam queen…"
    Hamlet: "Quondam queen…"
    Polonius: That's good. "Quondam queen" is good.

    Wait a minute, do I have that right? They all run together after my second Mai Tai.

  3. I remember posting about this a year or so ago. It bothers me plenty. I always explain it using the following word comparisons, or question and answer.

    Where? There…

    Why? Because = Wherefore? Therefore.

  4. I could explain this topic over and over, and yet I still find readers who assume that "wherefore" translates to "where". Julliet's sollioquy would be less candid had she actually known — and been looking for — Romeo.

    I think that it's great of you to take te time to refresh people of this!

    – J.

    (sorry for the double post!)

  5. I recently overheard my brother-in-law explaining to his wife, a non-native speaker, that Shakespeare is hard to read because of the language, like saying "wherefore" instead of "where." Had to put the kaibosh on THAT!

  6. Someone who knew only the line and the proper meaning of "wherefore," but who wasn't familiar with Juliet's soliloquy, could reasonably interpret the line to mean "Why are you here?" It would still be a much closer interpretation than the traditional mistake. The word "here" could be omitted in that sentence in early modern English without confusion, just as you could still omit "here" in that sentence in modern Germanic languages.

    -language geek

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