I have a friend who recently wrote an essay for one of his classes on one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. I didn't know which of my many blogs to put it in, though, so I thought I'd just put it here since, after all, Romeo and Juliet is a play. The piece moved me so much, that I had to order roses for my wife (flowers are so much more affordable now than when we got married and I had to order ridiculous amounts of wedding flowers - look at those prices.)
Alas, enjoy the essay. It's wonderful.
The Beautiful Rose: Really, What's In A Name?
In William Shakespeare's famous play Romeo and Juliet, the central characters of the same name fall in love but cannot be together because their families are at odds. In a secret meeting together, Juliet wishes that she was not a member of her family so that she can be with Romeo without her family's disapproval. She wonders aloud to Romeo,
"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 inquiring on whether the sweet smell and an appeal of a rose depends on its name, just as her unfortunate romance with Romeo is doomed because of his family name. She tells Romeo to shed his last name so that they can love each other without worrying about their family feud.
Shakespeare's plays fall into one of two categories, comedies and tragedies. Comedies generally end with a wedding, flowers, and celebration, while tragedies end with the death of at least one central character. Romeo and Juliet falls into the tragedy category, as both lovers meet their deaths at the conclusion of the play. Shakespeare's use of roses and flower imagery in the above passage builds anticipation for a happy ending with a marriage that ultimately does not come to fruition.
Roses have been a symbol of love for centuries, long before the dramatization of Romeo and Juliet. People all over the world order roses to mark special occasions, decorate their days of engagement with wedding flowers (http://www.48longstems.com/wholesale-wedding-flowers.html), express their love, and show their feelings to others. The rose is a beautiful flower with a simple name, and yet, if Juliet's musing is correct, the beauty that people find in a fresh rose depends on the name that the English language has given it. If our language used another word to identify roses, the beauty we perceive in a rose bouquet may change significantly.
This question raises the greater linguistics inquiry regarding the relationship that words have with their associated symbols in the world. A great many cultures have words in their languages to identify roses, yet roses are a common symbol of love and admiration shared by many of these cultures. The argument can then be made that the particular word that a given language uses to identify roses is insignificant.
On the other hand, a counter-argument can be made that there are commonalities to the words used to identify roses in each language. This would point to a shared linguistic attribute that is somehow inherently a part of roses, regardless of the language in which they are found. A further counter-argument can be made that some cultures who identify roses in their languages do not share the same meaning as other cultures. A given culture might think of a rose as simply another flower, rather than identifying roses with weddings, ceremonies, love and affection.
Juliet's pondering is worth further consideration. The same question that she raises about roses is often raised regarding personal names. Would a famous movie star, platinum selling musician, or best-selling author have achieved the same success with a different name?
For most people, the question of whether roses are dependant on their name for their beauty is ultimately irrelevant. Engaged couples will continue to use wedding flowers to celebrate their special days of engagement. The secretly admired will continue to receive fresh roses from their secret admirers, and romantics will continue to send roses for their significant others, counting on the rose's established cultural symbolism to express their affections.