Misunderstood Shakespeare: “Star-cross’d Lovers”

Just like ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?”, this commonly misunderstood famous line comes ‘Romeo and Juliet’

I have witnessed so many people talking about Romeo and Juliet as “star-cross’d lovers” in the sense of their meeting and relationship being their destiny, and that the two were somehow fated to be together. 

This couldn’t be more wrong. 

The actual meaning of the term becomes clearer if one thinks of it in terms of the stars actually crossing them. 

Romeo and Juliet were never meant to be together. The fates were against them, right from the start, and it was never going to work out well. 

It’s important to remember that ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a tragedy, not a comedy or romance. In Shakespeare’s tragedies, the main characters always die. There are no happy endings. That’s a convention of the genre, and it is pointless to expect anything else. 

Not only that, but Shakespeare gives us the spoilers right there in the prologue, the opening speech of the play, which is where the phrase comes from. They’re going to die, and as they are laid to rest, so too will be buried the feud between their families, which is what made their love forbidden in the first place. 

The prologue to Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.

If, as some believe they do, the stars were to control one’s fortunes in life, the last thing you’d wish for is to be “star-crossed” in any way. 

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Misunderstood Shakespeare: “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”

Of all the lines written by Shakespeare, this is possibly the single most misunderstood by a 21st century audience.

While it might be a romantic notion for a lovesick teenager to look out her window— not a balcony, by the way— and wonder where her beloved might be, that’s all it is. That is not what is happening in this scene. 

In early modern English, “wherefore” meant “why”.

Juliet is not asking where Romeo is.  She is asking why, of all the families in Italy, did her new boyfriend have to belong to the family with which hers had been feuding? Why did he have to carry a name that would be an immovable obstacle to them both? 

She goes on to insist “that which we call a rose by any other name would be as sweet”— in other words, it’s not the name that makes someone what they are.  If Romeo were to change his identity, he would still be the same person. What his name is should not matter — what sort of person he is, and the fact that she loves him, is what should determine their compatibility. 

That’s why when you’re waiting for a friend or looking for your dog, it’s incorrect to ask “Wherefore art thou, Buddy?”
It may sound cute, but it will make your Shakespeare-loving friends cringe, at least on the inside. 

Birth of the Semicolon

A semi-colon forms part of a highly symbolic tattoo on my inner wrist. Like many others who bear the symbol on their skin, I chose it because I, too, have struggled with depression, mental illness, self-harm and suicide. It’s a reminder that “this” is not all there is, and it’s not the end of the story. 

As a punctuation mark, I am a big fan of the semicolon. It has the power to make someone wait momentarily, to hold a thought or their breath for a moment, and to anticipate what is to come next. It’s the symbol that tells the reader that there is more to come.

I really enjoyed this article by Celia Watson which discusses how the semicolon came to be.

And if you’re a grammar nerd like me, you’ll understand the appeal of Watson’s book on that wonderful, versatile little punctuation mark, simply titled ’Semicolon’, which I discovered via Stan Carey’s review

A Celebration of Reading

download.pngThe article titled The Birth of the Semicolon published in The Paris Review (August 1, 2019) by Cecilia Watson is not to be missed. Here is just the beginning to whet your appetite for arcane knowledge offering clues to the development of formal language.

The semicolon was born in Venice in 1494. It was meant to signify a pause of a length somewhere between that of the comma and that of the colon, and this heritage was reflected in its form, which combines half of each of those marks. It was born into a time period of writerly experimentation and invention, a time when there were no punctuation rules, and readers created and discarded novel punctuation marks regularly. Texts (both handwritten and printed) record the testing-out and tinkering-with of punctuation by the fifteenth-century literati known as the Italian humanists. The humanists put a premium on eloquence and excellence in writing…

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On Verbing

Most of the time, when people protest about the way the English language is abused, it’s a case of the language continuing to evolve as it has always done.

One such example is the practice of verbing, which takes the noun form of a word and transforms it into a verb form… like ‘verb’ and ‘verbing’. 

Just last week, I was talking with a friend about how annoying she finds it when people say “I’m going to action that.” I’m sure she sought me out for the conversation because I’m both a word nerd and an English teacher. 

“Action is a noun! A bloody noun! How can so many otherwise intelligent people get that wrong?”

“It grates on us because it’s recent,” I said. “We’ll get used to it.”

“No, I won’t! It’s just wrong!”

“You know Shakespeare did it?”

“What?” 

“Verbing. He did it all the time.”

“You and your Shakespeare. It’s like he’s the answer to everything.” 

“You know he invented the word ‘friending’, right?”

She rolled her eyes and walked away. She didn’t even flinch at my use of the term “verbing”, which is exactly the same thing as “actioning” in terms of the language. After all, ‘verb’ is a noun, too. 

It is the recent examples of verbing, such as “actioning” an idea, that we notice because we’re not used to hearing them yet. When Facebook was new, people complained the same way about “friending”, but these days nobody thinks twice about that. At some point in time, someone decided that it was okay to talk about bottling  fruit, or shelving books, and now those terms are just everyday language. 

It is also true, however, that some things people commonly say are, quite simply, wrong

My pet peeve is when my students are talking about sport or some other kind of competition, and they say “We versed Team X”. 

This is a common bastardisation of the Latin versus, which means ‘against’. It is commonly used for sporting matches and legal cases, and is generally abbreviated as v. or vs., as in Black v. White or Blue vs. Red. 

My first response is always to ask whey they wrote poetry about another team. “You played them. You opposed them. You clashed with them. You competed with them. You did not write poetry about them.” Then I explain how the different words work, and what they actually mean. 

The reason “versed” is wrong is because the words ‘versus’ and ‘verse’ have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Because ‘against’ is a preposition, it simply doesn’t make sense to say “We againsted them”. It is not verbing, by any stretch of the imagination. 

The first time we have that conversation, they look at me with confusion. Some have a glazed look of fear, like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. This never fails to entertain me. The second and third times, they roll their eyes.

Over time, the tedium of having the same grammar-nerdy conversation persuades them to start using the language correctly. They learn, I win, and so does the English language.