‘A rose by any other name‘ is a quotation from Shakespeare’s play Romeo & Juliet in act 2 scene 2, spoken by Juliet to herself whilst on her balcony, but overheard by Romeo.
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
Juliet is a highly intelligent girl and this monologue is one of the most profound observations in all of Shakespeare. We use the phrase today to indicate that things are what they are, no matter what name you give them. It is at the heart of the tragedy because the names Montegue and Capulet are extremely important in the world of this play, but Juliet cuts through that by suggesting that whichever one of those you are is unimportant – whether you are called Montague or Capulet you are still the same person, and that’s what matters. She says that even if the rose has a different name it would still have its wonderful scent. She also asks in the same soliloquy, ‘what’s in a name?’ which is making the same point. It is the emphasis on names rather than the quality of people that leads to tragedy in this play.
Juliet has met Romeo at her father’s party and thinks he has gone home, but he is lingering in her garden, watching the balcony of her bedroom. She comes out and he overhears her speaking. It’s then that he shows himself to her and the action between them begins, leading to their secret marriage and their deaths.
The two leading families – the Montagues and the Capulets – are engaged in an ancient feud. They move in entirely different circles and avoid each other. Romeo and Juliet’s generation are slightly more flexible, as are some older members of the families, shown by Romeo’s gatecrashing Capulet’s party and Capulet welcoming him and his friends.
But any thought of intermarriage would be taboo. So when Romeo and Juliet meet and fall in love, it’s dynamite. And it becomes even more explosive when they marry, and before long they find themselves in a corner from which there is no escape.
The action hurtles from their initial encounter to their tragic deaths, something that would not have happened were it not for this ancient feud connected with the names of people bearing the names of Montague and Capulet.
And so, the actual flower with its sweet smell is the important thing and the name ‘rose’ is unimportant – without that, it would smell just as sweet. But in the situation of these two unfortunate young people, it is not the two young people but their names that prove to be more important.
Their parents, the heads of the two families, come to understand that when they see what the useless, futile feud, based on their names, has led to and they resolve to end it. Which is a fitting end to the tragedy.