Dusting off your Shakespeare for Valentine’s Day sounds like a great idea. The Bard’s famous words are tried and tested — they’ve been working for four hundred years. But are you sure you know what they mean? And are you sure that’s what you want to say?
1. “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?”
Juliet has just returned to her room after the best dance of her life, she’s standing on a balcony gazing out into the night, and she misses Romeo already. It would make sense if she were wondering where her prince was wandering. Only she’s not.
Wherefore isn’t an old-timey way of saying where. It’s the old-timey way of saying why. Big difference. Juliet wants to know why her Romeo has to be Romeo Montague, sworn enemy of her family, instead of Romeo Smith, handsome guy who showed up at the neighborhood party with no strings attached. In retrospect it might have been better if she’d asked where, though. If she’d known he was hiding under the balcony, she might not have said all those embarrassing private thoughts out loud.
2. “If music be the food of love, play on…”
No, don’t! At least, not yet. This quote from Twelfth Night sounds a little different in context:
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
The speaker, Duke Orsino, is desperately in love with the uninterested Lady Olivia, and hopes that music will actually kill his attraction to her if he hears enough of it. Not exactly a compliment to the object of your affections.
Also, you’ve picked a dummy to quote. At this point in the play Orsino is still making everyone around him feel a bit sick with all his sighing and moping about—and he’s going to realize at the end that he’s in love with someone else! This quote isn’t what you want to prove your undying devotion.
3. “Star-crossed lovers”
Given that Romeo and Juliet are the archetypal “star-crossed lovers,” it’s easy to understand how some came to interpret the phrase to mean fated, destined, meant to be. As in, “John and I are so compatible! We’re like star-crossed lovers!”
No, you’re not. Or at least, you’d better hope you’re not, because then things aren’t going to work out for you very well. Romeo and Juliet weren’t “star-crossed” in the sense that they were bound to fall in love. They’re star-crossed because the astrological signs that determine their futures are not lining up. Fate is not a fan. You’re in serious trouble.
4. Sonnet 20
A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion…
If you’ve quoted Sonnet 20, you’ve just called the object of your affections both beautiful and loyal. Winning combo. Great stuff. She’ll be charmed.
Not quite (if she knows her Shakespeare, at any rate). The problem is that the poem you’ve just read her was most likely written about a man, and if she’s paying attention, there are some things that might tip her off. For one, you’ve called her a “man in hue.” You’ve also told her that nature started out intending to make her a woman, but changed her mind and added one thing.
5. Sonnet 18
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Probably not. Even if the object of your affections is willing to overlook the fact that you seem to have gone for the first love poem that popped into your head, you still have to consider the fact that some readers think this poem is more about itself than your beloved. You’re declaring that beauty fades over time (“And every fair from fair sometime declines”), but that it’s okay. Even if your love ends up old and ugly, this poem will still be gorgeous. And immortal.
Hark! Are there any we missed?