Re–smelling Romeo’s rose.

By Dilshan Boange The works of William Shakespeare are foundational to the discourse(s) of English literature. The works of the ‘bard of Avon’ have stood the test of time to be treasured as carrying ‘eternal truths’ that explore human nature and the ways of the world, and thereby deliver sagely teachings couched in the beauty of poetic language. Many are the lines from his plays that are still quoted in an everyday situation in the manner of an aphorism; and it is one such Shakespearean line that I wish to make the focus of this article. In Romeo and Juliet we find one of the most well known stories of tragic young lovers. This play also contains one of the most quoted lines by the Bard –“What’s in a name, that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet?” In discussing the relevance of this particular line as an aphorism to apply in situations in life it would be important to consider how it seems to negate the function of a name. Certainly the sentiment expressed by the lovelorn teenage Romeo in afore quote would not be applauded by modern day marketers who thrive on ‘brand’ value. And a name is very much the basis for branding, in that sense. The discussion I would like to build on is how the line written by Shakespeare intended to portray the mindset of the young and naïve Romeo is generally attributed to be an advocacy of the Bard himself in layman interpretations. Yes, Shakespeare wrote the line, but does that suggest it is his own belief and applies as absolutism? It is in exploring the relevance of such a line as this that one can look at certain postmodernist literary criticism, such as the French theorist Roland Barthes’s concept of ‘The Death of the Author’, which can be applied to unravel greater interpretive scope of a text. Barthes propounded in his essay “The Death of the Author” that a text can be divorced of its author and allow the reader a greater autonomy to interpret what the text may mean to him. This means to say that as a ‘reader’ one can and should feel free to allow the meanings of the text to take shape in the course of reading, rather than feeling it is only the creator of the text (the author) who has the right to interpret it and that the reader’s role is to unravel the meanings, intentions and ‘message(s)’ of the author embedded in the text and its narrative. Thereby in classical criticism if an interpretation of a text by a reader may not seem to be the very intention that the author intended to convey then such interpretations would be declared as ‘invalid’. In contrast postmodern textual analysis/criticism offers much greater space for the reader to explore possible ‘meanings’ of a text, regardless of whether or not they were intended by the ‘author’. Often when one quotes Shakespeare (or any other writer or speaker for that matter) it is done with reference to the source. The name (and possibly even the work) is mentioned. This is of course ethically required by norms in order to avoid being seen like a fraud who claimed credit for another’s creation. But on another level the mentioning of the source and especially if it is a name held in great esteem in society the name acts as a certificate to authoritatively assert the validity of applying the quoted line to explain an idea or argument. It is after all ‘the words of Shakespeare’ one could say and build ground to justify ones stance and find sufficient safety and shielding from critical attacks. In the essay “What is an author” the French intellectual Michele Foucault charts the origins of the role of the author in European society and how the ‘author’ over time gained a position of eminence in society and thereby becomes an ‘authority’. The name of the author, his presence, and the authority he wields over the text he creates is called by Foucault as the ‘author function’.

When one quotes the line “What’s in a name…” is it to assert one’s views with the backing of Shakespearean thought? To strengthen one’s position in an argument and make the other yield by impressing on him that he is up against the words of Shakespeare? But in such an instance does one question the relevance of such a notion? Is it universally relevant and applicable? One of the aspects to focus on is that the flower is an item of ‘materiality’ and its fragrance (and possibly the attributes of its appearance and texture of petals) is what is most valuable. And if one cares to give thought to the ‘context’ in which the line is used in the play, the relevance and application of a line such as “What’s in a name…” could become more evident. The line was used by Romeo, and is meant to demonstrate the nature of his psychology. Romeo is after all a teenager who is tormented by the fact that his sweetheart Juliet is of the house Capulet, the sworn enemies of his own family, the house of Montague, and thus wishes the burden of the ‘politics’ that comes with the ‘name’ be made to vanish. A character in a work of literature needs to be given certain autonomy to unfold in the course of the narrative and need not necessarily reflect views and beliefs of the author himself. Therefore it is the beliefs and mindset of the love stricken teenage Romeo that comes out through the line of “What’s in a name…” If one were to divorce the name ‘Shakespeare’ (and the authority that comes with it) as the one who wrote it, and looked at the text (the quote) for its possible ‘truths’ and what relevance it holds, then maybe the absurdity of accrediting that line a ground of absoluteness would be very apparent. In connection with this line of discussion I feel it is very significant to cite a perspective of the Czech born postmodernist writer Milan Kundera who in his quasi-biographical novel “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” speaks of the importance of a ‘naming’ and also ‘renaming’ in a ‘political landscape’. Kundera deals with the subject of identity in a significant way in a number of his works and in “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” speaks of how a ‘name’ is very much political and can by no means be negated as insignificant. Kundera believes that a name presents continuity with the past, and therefore to replace or supplant one name with another is a ‘political’ act. In an age of innocence, storm tossed amidst emotions of unrelenting love and unyielding social prejudices, the young Romeo certainly wanted naught but the sweet scent of his flower, Juliet. And to him a name would be as the same as another or even possibly equal to namelessness. But beyond the world of flora and fauna in the world of power and ideologies perhaps Romeo’s ‘truths’ in the lines “What’s in a name…” may find stringent limitations.