“What’s in a name?” It must be the most famous rhetorical question in literary history.
Practically every article ever written about names has been headlined by Juliet’s speculation in Shakespeare’s play ‘The most excellent and lamentable tragedy of Romeo and Juliet’. There’s no other quotation that is so universally recognized, nor so widely misconstrued.
Taken on face value, Juliet’s view about names is clear enough. Names, she seems to say, are artificial and meaningless conventions; they are merely labels we attach to things and of no significance in themselves. After all, a rose by any other name…you can finish the line.
And so confusion begins. The words are commonly ascribed to Shakespeare in that they are said to represent his sentiments about names. It has to be remembered he wrote them for Juliet – an infatuated, lovelorn 13-year-old girl in hopeless denial. They are her words, not Shakespeare’s. Taken out of their dramatic context the significance of her words is lost.
Far from being the dismissive “so what” observation about names it is usually taken for, Juliet’s question goes to the very core of Shakespeare’s most poignant tragedy.
It is a defiantly futile challenge to fate from a desperate young girl.
Juliet and her lover Romeo are tormented by their names; their love is thwarted by a bitter feud between their families, the Capulets and the Montagues. Not surprisingly then, Juliet is completely obsessed with names. Immediately before she utters her famous line she says to Romeo: ‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy; and pleads with him: “O, be some other name!”
The immutable fact of their names and Juliet’s headstrong defiance of their explosive significance is a splendid piece dramatic irony used by Shakespeare to ratchet up the play’s narrative tension. Juliet’s astoundingly naive question signals to the audience that our young heroine is heedless of the disaster that is so clearly hurtling towards her.
What’s in a name? For Juliet, anguish and death; for Shakespeare, the essence of a tragedy; for businesses, as we shall discuss, consequences no less dramatic for those who fall victim to the Juliet syndrome and take names lightly.
Vice President Hubert Humphrey put it well: “In real life, unlike in Shakespeare, the sweetness of the rose depends upon the name it bears. Things are not only what they are. They are, in very important respects, what they seem to be.”