I have found several questions asking for the meaning, but the thing that troubles me here is the grammar actually and i haven't found anything on that.

In Shakespeare's sentence "Deny thy father and refuse thy name, or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love and I'll no longer be a Capulet."

What is the grammar behind the construct "be but sworn"?

And how can what appears to be a passive (be sworn) of an intransitive verb (to swear) still have the meaning of an active (i swear)? Does the second person in the sentence remain the same throughout the sentence (deny thy father, Romeo...be sworn my love, Romeo), or does the interpellated person change (deny thy father, Romeo...be sworn (to Romeo), my love)? Or is 'my love' even an allegory for Romeo? Is the "but" here a preposition or an adverb?

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    I assume the sense is just be my sworn love (which by implication means both of them would swear an oath attesting that, but primarily Juliet). Personally I think this type of but = just = merely is more adverbial than conjunctional, but what do I know? Oct 20, 2014 at 0:37
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    agreed; sworn here is a verb used as an adjective (a common construct) and but is being used as an adverb.
    – j__m
    Oct 20, 2014 at 3:24
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    I'm no expert on the exact syntactic norms of Elizabethan English in general, and obviously we could expect significant deviations from that in theatrical/poetic contexts like this, but probably the answer is Yes. Consider a parliamentary candidate today, saying "I want to be your elected representative". There's nothing particularly weird about rephrasing that to "I want to be elected [as] your representative". I don't know, but I suspect Shakespeare would be much less likely to include as in that version - even if we ignore possible prosodic factors. Oct 20, 2014 at 12:53
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    @tchrist: I haven't addressed your beloved subjunctive at all. But so far as I'm concerned be there looks like an imperative ("Be nice and I'll give you a present"). The issue I'm musing over is simply that by today's syntax it would be possible to parse the implied subject of "sworn" as being either Juliet or "my love". Most likely that would have been the case several centuries ago too - we allow considerable latitude in poetry/theatre, where the language is often far removed from "everyday speech". Oct 20, 2014 at 13:29
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    possible duplicate of Specific usage of the word 'but' Dec 15, 2014 at 5:18

3 Answers 3


Transitive swear and Concessive Subjunctives

I don’t know why you think swear is intransitive; it is obviously used transitively here since it is love that would be sworn. If she can swear love, then swear has to be transitive: it has an object.

But had you checked a dictionary, you would have found numerous transitive senses for swear. Indeed, the OED gives no fewer than a dozen transitive senses and subsenses for this verb. For just as you can swear fidelity, so too can you also swear love.

Now that we have that out of the way, what remains is nothing fancier than commonplace sentences like these:

  • Do it and you’re a dead man.

  • Give it up and we’ll go home.

  • Stop over and we’ll talk about it.

  • Be kind to strangers and strangers will be kind in return.

This type of construction includes “be but sworn my love”. If Juliet swears his love, she attests to it as by promise or oath — upon which circumstance he pledges to renounce his own family.

Technically speaking, this is a concessive subjunctive construction, the same thing we find in frozen refrains and familiar aphorisms nestled in sentences like these:

  • Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.

  • Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile.

  • Come rain or come shine, the cows will still need a milking.

  • Take what you will of me, I will never complain.

As you see, the verb in concessive subjunctive clauses likes these takes a simple infinitive as far as its morphological inflection (or lack thereof) goes.

Shakespeare uses concessive subjunctive constructions quite frequently throughout his writings. In the selfsame play, we later in Act 3 Scene 1 find the following famous example from Mercutio perishing by the sword:

No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a
church-door; but ’tis enough, ’twill serve: ask for
me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.

Although Latin teachers go to some effort explaining Latin subjunctive inflections in concessive clauses, even in uninflected English this sort of thing still happens — at least as far as having concessive clauses goes.

These are really nothing fancy, as the first set of examples in the earlier section prove. Concessive clauses still happen in regular English outside of fossilized phrases like “Be that as it may”, and when they do, they take a bare infinitive in English.

Last and probably least, I believe I have by now also answered by way of earlier demonstration your remaining question as to but’s function in the love-sworn citation.

  • Good job little bear. Did this get me a hat?
    – Mitch
    Dec 15, 2014 at 3:58
  • Related. Also related.
    – tchrist
    Jan 1 at 4:16

Juliet may be speaking to the open air, but she is addressing Romeo. "Deny thy father and refuse thy name" is a request. The subject of this request is the implicit "you".

Juliet realizes that it's not likely that Romeo will give up the Montague name. That's all right. She has an alternate request.

if thou wilt not [refuse the name Montague], be but sworn my love and I'll no longer be a Capulet.

Juliet isn't quite suggesting that she herself swear anything. She's not (grammatically) requesting Romeo to swear. The "be sworn" is in the imperative mode and the passive voice. Juliet's telling Romeo to get sworn -- to have such an oath administered.

"Merely have someone take your oath that you are my love" pretty much does solve the whole wrong name problem. It implies a marriage ceremony, through which Juliet would cease to be a Capulet and become a Montague.

"Deny" and "refuse" are imperative and active voice. "Be sworn" is imperative and passive voice. The subject of all three verbs is the implicit "you", addressed to Romeo. The "but" modifies "be sworn", with the sense of "merely" or "only"


I would understand "be but sworn my love" as "be but my sworn love" meaning "Just swear that you love me". "love" I would understand as person who loves someone. "sworn": in Shakespeare's language here someone who has sworn to love is a "sworn love" or sworn lover. The problem with sworn is that here it has an active sense meaning having sworn.

I'm pondering how I could make it clearer. Be only my lover, one who has sworn to love me.

I am sure there are other views.

Romeo and Juliet, act 2, scene 2, line 33-36

Juliet, not knowing that Romeo hears her in the orchard

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?

Deny thy father, and refuse thy name:

Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,

And I'll no longer be a Capulet.

I've just read what sparknotes.com say: Or else, if you won't change your name, just swear you love me ...


An indication that Shakespeare uses the word love also for person who loves can be found in line 50:

ROMEO I take thee at thy word: Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized; 50 Henceforth I never will be Romeo.

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