Wherefore, Winter, Water

OK, now my rant against some crimes of context being committed against oft-used (but, apparently, little-understood) quotes from literature.

Sorry for the elementary Shakespeare lesson, here, but apparently it’s necessary: First and foremost, “Wherefore are thou Romeo?” means “WHY are you Romeo?” not “WHERE are you, Romeo?” I’d like to think this is common knowledge at this point, but alas, it’s still used as “where”—usually in car commercial parodies and jokes that aren’t funny.

It’s not tricky Shakespearean code-breaking, either. Shakespeare or no, it’s just what the damn word means.

(Although the worst experience I ever had with this phrase involved someone knowing the meaning but still not getting the point. It was during a community library lecture about subtext in Shakespeare. After a long talk regarding the interpretation of things not said outright, a woman in the audience raised her hand to contribute, obnoxiously, “It’s just like in Romeo and Juliet, when she says, ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?’ She’s not saying, ‘Where are you, Romeo?’ She’s saying ‘WHY are you Romeo?’” LADY. That’s not SUBTEXT. THAT’S ACTUALLY WHAT THE LINE MEANS. ARGH.)

For clarification, I like the contemporary example, “how come”—as in, “How come that lady so stupid, yo?” It doesn’t mean, “How do you come?” (hee), it, too, means “Why?” (Or, really, “How did she come to be so stupid?”)

(On another side note: Shakespeare is not “Old English.” It’s not even Middle English. People, Shakespeare wrote in modern English. It’s why we can understand him. Old English is a completely different language, and it sounds like this: “Tunwini settæ æfter Torohtrēdæ bēcun æfter bæurnæ: gebiddæs þēr sāulæ.” I say “sounds like” because what it actually looks like is the engraving on the One Ring to Rule Them All.)

Secondly, “Now is the winter of our discontent” IS NOT THE COMPLETE SENTENCE. There’s not even a comma there, just a line break. It’s “Now is the winter of our discontent / made glorious summer by this son of York.” It’s a happy line. Sure, the hunchback asshole’s going to come ruin everything, but still: happy happy.

And along those lines (but straying from Shakespeare), “Water water everywhere” is not a cheerful tagline for a tourism campaign. It’s about people DYING of THIRST in the middle of the OCEAN: “Water, water, every where / nor any drop to drink.Coleridge was not writing for the convention and visitor’s bureau, what with the killing of wildlife and getting stranded at sea and all. I mean, you’re allowed to yank partial quotes, but don’t ignore the context. Every time I see that as a headline, I think about taking a big swig of saltwater.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Wherefore, Winter, Water

  1. I blame the “Wherefore” misinterpretation on an improperly used comma and Bugs Bunny. “Wherefore art thou, Romeo.” “Here I am!” (cue laughter)

    And nobody knows what Old English really means any more. I just stumbled over an “Old English Text” font. Perfectly readable, it’s just that everybody uses “Old English” to mean “what the words looked like when they were writing things in England at some point before I was born”.

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