Saturday, June 18, 2011

Apple #530: Shakespeare: A Rose by Any Other Name

I've been thinking about Shakespeare lately. It seems like we as a culture don't talk about him as much as we used to. Maybe that's not actually true, but it seems so to me. References to his works are everywhere in our daily speech, but it seems as though they go unrecognized as belonging to him.

Yeah, this guy. The one who looks like he's got about fifteen puns up his sleeve and he's not afraid to use them.
(Image from The Life of Luxury)

So I thought I'd try a little experiment. I thought I'd dip a toe every once in a while into the vast ocean that is Shakespeare's works, pluck out a line or two, perhaps a quatrain, and mull over it a bit. Nothing extravagant, nothing raging-extensive, just a cogitation or two now and then.

Since I have roses on the brain these days, I thought I'd start with this one:

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
(Romeo and Juliet II, ii, 1-2)

This rose is called Lynn Anderson.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Juliet has fallen in love with Romeo, but there's that dang business of how he's a Montague, whose family is in a feud with hers. She's engaging in a bit of rationalization here, telling herself that just as a rose wouldn't smell any different if you called it something else, Romeo as a person wouldn't be any different if his last name were something else.
    • Well, there's a problem with her analogy, but I don't want to get into all that because I'd wind up expounding on the whole play and the meaning of choice and love and identity, and you really don't want to read what would essentially be an undergraduate paper about the entire play.
    • All I want to do here is answer Juliet's question about names and roses.

    This rose is called Marina.
    (Photo by the Apple Lady)

    • The word rose, meaning the flower, is descended from all kinds of European words those words came from Middle Eastern words that name the flower. The spellings get as far afield from rose as gul and wrodon. So, yes, Juliet's statement about the rose is, on the surface, correct: the name has changed over the centuries and across cultures, but it's still the same flower.
    • What I find especially interesting, though, is that the original root word (actually it's a stem, not a complete word) is thought to be wrdho- which means "thorn or bramble." Doesn't refer to the pretty part of the plant at all but to the thorny, dangerous part.
    • I find that very interesting because we like to focus on the love and romance and gushiness of the play (e.g. the blossom of the rose), but there's also a whole lot of murder and suicide in there. Thorns. Dangerous parts.

    Romeo, played by Dicaprio, shoots and kills Tybalt for stabbing and killing his friend Mercutio.
    (Screenshot from Romeo + Juliet from Artist Direct)

    • This little pursuit got me curious about other names in this play. What does Montague mean, since Juliet is asking what's in his last name and all? How about Capulet?
    • Romeo, rather boringly, means "citizen of Rome" or else "pilgrim to Rome." So he's either from there or he's on his way there. What's interesting about this is that the play is set in Verona. So the first name says he's an out-of-towner.
    • Montague is the Anglicized version of Montecchio. That was actually a family name and a place name in Italy in the time period in which the play is set. Montecchio, too, is not Verona, and no family named Montecchi ever apparently lived in Verona. So he's doubly from out of town. But what does the word mean, exactly?
    • It was easier to find out the meaning of the English version of the name. Strictly speaking, though, Montague is not an English name. It's actually French. It means "pointed hill or mountain."

    This is the castle in Montecchio, which is in Tuscany, Italy. A pointy castle on a (somewhat pointy) hill. Is it just me, or is it getting phallic in here?
     (photo from Castello di Montecchio Vesponi)

    • Putting the two names together, Romeo Montague, we get "Out-of-towner Roman on a pointy mountain." While that's specific, it's a bit bland and not that helpful. But if we get a little flexible with the definitions we uncovered, we get "Phallic exotic Roman guy."

    Romeo and Juliet in the balcony scene, as painted by -- I swear I am not making this up -- artist Frank Dicksee.
    (Image from Romeo and

    • Let's see what happens with Juliet Capulet.
    • Her first name is easy. Juliet means "youthful." Specifically it means you're so youthful, your beard is still downy. Since the bearded thing doesn't apply to girls, we'll just stick with "youthful."
    • Some sources say that it could also be the feminine form of Julius, which doesn't tell us much, or it also means Jupiter's child. Jupiter was the Roman god version of the Greek god Zeus, who was the main dude of all the Greek gods.
    • Just because you're Jupiter's child doesn't always mean you have it easy, but a lot of his children did turn out to be gods or goddesses in their own right. So we could shorten this to "lucky."
    • I don't know if I'd call the Juliet in this play "lucky." Though she does get lucky.... Ahem. This is a family blog.

    Album cover for the soundtrack to Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 movie. Which my high school English teacher showed us in class.
    (Photo from Elysium Sound)

    • Moving along, her last name is more difficult.
    • Capulet is the Anglicized version of the Italian name Capuleti. Like Montecchio, Capuleti was both a region and a political faction in Italy in the time period in which the play is supposed to be set.
    • I couldn't find out anything about the origins of Capuleti, but going in the other direction, not into Italian but deeper into English, it took a while but I discovered that Webster's 1913 dictionary says that capulet is another version of the word capellet.
    • Capellet is a farming term which means a swelling on the knobby part of the elbow, or on a horse, on the hock's heel. The swelling is brought about by the animal knocking its knees or elbows while lying down.
    • My family used to have an English setter who was pretty bony and whenever he'd thwump himself down onto the floor, and it made such a loud noise, I wondered if it ever bonked his elbows or knees. In fact, he could have been doing that right along, giving himself capellets. Or capulets.
    • So to recap, Juliet Capulet means "youthful one who bruises her elbows or knees from the force of lying down." Oh dear. Maybe that "getting lucky" meaning is apt after all.

      No bruises visible on the elbow there. Maybe there are some on the other elbow.
      (Claire Danes and Leonardo Dicaprio in Romeo + Juliet. Screenshot from

      • We could thus rename the play Phallic Exotic Roman Guy and Youthful Girl Who Bruises Her Elbows Getting Lucky. Except that would be awkward. Let's just call it Romeo and Juliet.

      Screenshot from Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 movie of the play with Olivia Hussey and Michael York.
      (photo from fanpop)

      Online Etymology Dictionary, rose
      Wikipedia, Characters in Romeo and Juliet
      Olin H. Moore, The Origins of the Legend of Romeo and Juliet in Italy, Speculum, July 1930
      The Free Dictionary, Capulet and Capellet
      Webster's 1913 Dictionary, capulet and Capellet
      Think Baby Names, Juliet meaning and name origin and Romeo and Montague
      Nickelodeon Parents Connect, Baby Names, Meaning of Juliet and Romeo
      Greek-Gods.Info, Mates and Children of Zeus

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