Wherefore art though balcony?
April 15, 2022 3:23 PM   Subscribe

Ask a random person on the street to describe the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, and it is likely they will have an answer. Visitors to Verona can visit the famous balcony itself. This is bit surprising, since no balcony [time-walled Atlantic] appears anywhere in Shakespeare, at least in this universe. Juliet comes to a window in the play. The word seems to have been printed for the first time in English two years after Shakespeare's death. It was a common word in what is now Italy, but if Shakespear knew about it, he never wrote it down. A likely origin is Thomas Ottway's very popular play from 1680, The History and fall of Gaius Marius, which liberally borrows from Shakespeare and other sources and prominently features a balcony. (via You're Wrong About)
posted by eotvos (23 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Very interesting, never knew this! Thank you for posting it.
posted by tiny frying pan at 3:50 PM on April 15, 2022

Also, if you see Juliet putting her hand to her forehead as she desperately searches for Romeo, let her know that wherefore means why, not where.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 3:56 PM on April 15, 2022 [8 favorites]

It's all Bug Bunny's fault! (DailyMotion, starting at 4:26) He also gets the "wherefore" wrong.
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:05 PM on April 15, 2022 [5 favorites]

I like the "translation": Why did you have to be Romeo?
posted by bonehead at 4:10 PM on April 15, 2022

Or, "Why'd yez hadda be a fuggin' Montague, ferchrissakes??"
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:17 PM on April 15, 2022 [3 favorites]

You coulda had all this, but OHHHH NO. You just had to go and take and be Romeo, I GUESS.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:23 PM on April 15, 2022 [3 favorites]

I haven't listened to this yet to be able to vet it, but it sounds relevant to this thread's interests.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:26 PM on April 15, 2022

but it sounds relevant to this thread's interests.

It’s the via link in the post, in fact.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:33 PM on April 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

It was interesting when she said it was a "false memory" because it's not really a false memory if we've all seen it happen. It's still an interesting story though. I could imagine a story where that particular play never makes it to the stage & instead a different Romeo & Juliet rip off makes it to the stage & they come up with a completely different staging that then becomes the standard. But when you think about it, on a stage how would you show someone at a window without it just looking better as a balcony.
posted by bleep at 6:28 PM on April 15, 2022 [2 favorites]

I was pleased but not entirely surprised at the news that apparently Thomas Coryate brought the word to England and to English: Coryate is probably the most influential person on your daily life that you have never heard of but who is still known by name (I mean, whoever invented agriculture casts a longer shadow, but there is an unrecoverable name).

Coryate (or Coryat) was a provincial in the court of King James and was often viewed as the target of wit and jests by the more sophisticated courtiers around him. Realizing that his innate level of wit would never mark him as being As Good As, he set out one day to walk to Italy, which he then did. And when returned, he wrote a book entitled Coryate’s Crudités: Hastily gobled up in Five Moneth's Travels. In this, he covered his curious experiences, recounted the sights and sites of antiquity he visited, and brought back words for a lot of things that were untried innovations in the backwaters of Britain: the fork, the umbrella, and the balcony (apparently). Unfortunately, even in the book he could not escape buttmonkey status, and it was prefaced with dozens of mocking panegyrics from the poets of the age (Donne and Jonson among them), at which Coryate likely had to grit his teeth into what one imagines would be a very forced smile.

There’s a good argument that his trip may be the first recorded instance of someone travelling for reasons that were not war or commerce or religious pilgrimage. He just went to look at things, and then wrote about them afterwards. He definitely invented the Grand Tour, which every aristocratic Englishman for the next three centuries or so was expected to do as a young man. He also invented the travelogue and probably tourism at a conceptual level.

His name, as I say, is largely unremembered now. After he returned from Italy and wrote his book, he still found himself the mocked member of the court, so for his second trip, he walked to India. As I recall, some other Englishman traveller (who got there and back in a more conventional fashion, by ship) encountered Coryate there, took home news of his disposition to King James, and later returned to Coryate with the heartbreaking report of the king’s assessment of Coryate’s new achievement: “Is that fool still living?”

It seems this report broke Coryate in a way that walking across continents did not, and he died not long after. His grave’s location is unknown.

Thanks for coming to my TED talk.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:55 PM on April 15, 2022 [44 favorites]

It was interesting when she said it was a "false memory" because it's not really a false memory if we've all seen it happen.

It's a false memory for those of us who saw the original production, but remember it wrong because we've seen so many productions over the past few centuries.
posted by betweenthebars at 7:38 PM on April 15, 2022 [9 favorites]

Or for those of us who read it and didn’t notice it wasn’t in the script.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:16 PM on April 15, 2022

Shakespeare famously has few stage directions. The sets are not usually described. I don’t know where the word would appear except in dialogue, and the dialogue clearly describes Romeo looking up and seeing Juliet in an open window. You can see the second story terrace — or whatever you want to call it — where this would have been staged in reproductions of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

I also bristled at the phrase “false memory” in the podcast. It’s been routinely staged as a balcony for well over 300 years and the claim is that the play doesn’t have a balcony in it? At this point it’s fair to say that Romeo & Juliet is a play that features a balcony and to say that the word doesn’t appear in the text is a huge so what.
posted by chrchr at 12:25 AM on April 16, 2022 [10 favorites]

Romeo, must why?
posted by chavenet at 1:50 AM on April 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

Also, Shakespeare had never been out of England. He never saw Verona, Cyprus, Rome ancient or of the 16th century, etc. Ditto Egypt. Visitors to Verona do not see the famous balcony because the play is total fiction. The balcony was built as a tourist trap. And it works!
posted by tmdonahue at 5:56 AM on April 16, 2022 [4 favorites]

I agree with chrchr that this is a whole lot of nothing.

As with his other plays, Shakespeare borrowed from earlier sources for Romeo and Juliet, and one of those sources, Luigi de Porto's Giulietta e Romeo, does use the word "balcony." De Porto also used the name Laurence for the friar and introduced the characters Tybalt and Mercutio to the story. That was published in Venice in 1531, well before the 1597 premier of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare may not have been to Venice, but he could have had access to this text or have heard about it - he seems to have borrowed at least some from it. Even if the word "balcony" does not appear in the Shakespeare texts we have, he could certainly have envisioned one and it could have been there in the first production. As mentioned earlier, there aren't a lot of stage directions in the published plays.

if Shakespear knew about it, he never wrote it down
I'm not writing this to pick on the OP, who started this interesting discussion. Most people don't know this, but Shakespeare didn't write his plays down and send them to the printer, as would happen today. Texts we use for Shakespeare's plays come from a lot of sources, but texts written down by Shakespeare and sent by him for publication are not among them. Sometimes these were written down by actors who performed in the plays (one edition of Hamlet is believed to be written by actors who had small parts because those are the parts with the most detail). Some of these are believed to have been pirated by audience members (not very accurately before recording equipment). A lot of the published versions were written down by printers who had no rights to them (and who Shakespeare sometimes complained about). Scholars consider these bad editions - I had a professor in grad school who was complaining about a production of Hamlet he went to that used one because it was shorter. There's even a name for these unauthorized editions - bad quartos. The first printed edition of Romeo and Juliet is in a bad quarto (1597). Shakespeare never wrote out a "finished" version of a play and had it published. The good published versions are believed to be taken from Shakespeare's "foul papers" - his working manuscripts. Aside from a few pages of a play about Thomas Moore that Shakespeare may have helped with, none of Shakespeare's foul papers still exist.

This is not the same as the ridiculous argument that Shakespeare didn't actually write the plays. Stephen Greenblatt has referred to scholars who claim that as the creation scientists of literary scholarship.

Anyway, it's been literally decades since I was working on Shakespeare for an English PhD and I'm not in that world anymore, but these are the basics and my long-winded way of agreeing that the absence of the word "balcony" is interesting, but doesn't prove anything about the first productions of the play.

(Also, if you can, try to watch the 1968 Romeo and Juliet, directed by Frank Zeffirelli. I watched it a few months ago, and it is wonderful. It looks like you can rent it on Amazon Prime.)
posted by FencingGal at 6:22 AM on April 16, 2022 [11 favorites]

Also, Shakespeare had never been out of England.

Your point that the plays are fiction and not studies of foreign places and times is important to this discussion and well taken, but it is not known whether Shakespeare ever left England. There's a period of seven years, referred to as Shakespeare's "lost years" that there is no historical record for. There's a lot of speculation about that time, but nobody knows what he was doing. So he may have been to Verona, but I'll assume not to ancient Rome.
posted by FencingGal at 6:30 AM on April 16, 2022 [4 favorites]

Shakespeare had never been out of England

...that we know of. We don't know what he got up to during the Lost Years (1578-82; 1585-92). There are a bunch of educated guesses out there, but we don't know.

Shakespeare writes soldiers like someone who knows them really well, and one theory is that he might have served for a short time (as men of his age and social class often did). If so, that service might well have taken him out of the country.

It's also not out of the question that he might have travelled a bit: as a messenger, or a tutor to someone's kids. He probably wasn't wealthy enough to have travelled privately as a tourist. Proponents of the "secret Catholic" theory will tell you he might have been a pilgrim.

The point is, we don't know. So many of the statements we make about Shakespeare, especially about his life, need to be qualified with "probably" or "possibly" or "as far as we know" or "a current theory is"... because, unless it's documented or otherwise attested in-period, often the best we're doing is guessing.
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:31 AM on April 16, 2022 [3 favorites]

If we have unlocked wherefore from its verbogenic portents then I'm much more confident in my use of howbut as to mean why.
posted by NoThisIsPatrick at 9:26 AM on April 16, 2022

Obviously Shakespeare and Jesus were visiting a monastery in India together.
posted by clawsoon at 9:27 AM on April 16, 2022 [4 favorites]

This all makes me wonder which random sitcom writer is going to be plucked from obscurity 300 years from now.
posted by clawsoon at 9:31 AM on April 16, 2022

actors who had small parts because those are the parts with the most detail

An explanation I often used when dating.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:38 PM on April 16, 2022 [4 favorites]

This all makes me wonder which random sitcom writer is going to be plucked from obscurity 300 years from now.
If you cannot understand my argument, and declare "It's Greek to me," you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger; if your wish is farther to the thought; if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool's paradise -why, be that as it may, the more fool you , for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then - to give the devil his due - if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then - by Jove! O Lord! Tut tut! For goodness' sake! What the dickens! But me no buts! - it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.
Bernard Levin

Performed by Christopher Gaze, Bard on the Beach artistic director.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:14 PM on April 16, 2022 [7 favorites]

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