An A to Z of Names

... and a health warning or two

Research into Shakespeare’s names is too often geared to commentators not practitioners, to the library not the stage.   Here we’re concerned with what names meant to Shakespeare and his contemporaries and meant on the level of the imagination.  What associative thoughts they triggered in contemporary minds. 

Another way of looking at the subjectis to say his names are not instructors but quickeners.  For the resonances of the names to work upon us we need to investigate what those resonances might have been in Shakespeare’s time.  Yes, we can riffle the various modern dictionaries about Shakespeare’s names for their research and onamastics.  They are intriguing.  But maybe we can get a more useful buzz from contemporary dictionaries and references.  

Let's say the names weren't arbitrarily given but were intended as guides.  Fondly let’s imagine Shakespeare talking with a fellow-actor in the tiring house. “So, what have you got for me this week, Will?”  “Well, he’s a weaver....”  “Ye-es.”  “…and he’s an actor.”  “Okay.”  (This is imagined.)  “And he’s called Bottom.”  “Gotcha.  Sounds fun.”  So let us, in the twenty-first century, dig around and see what that name – and others - might have meant in the sixteenth and seventeenth.

Two health warnings:  this approach isn’t for the literal minded.  It calls for right-brain, not left-brain thinking.  Secondly, and on a not unrelated note, Shakespeare surely didn’t regard his characters’ names as straight-jackets for his actors.   They’re starting points.  They may even confound our expectations.  Lets hear it for Feeble - Feeble in Henry IV Part 2 (III ii) - who steps up to the mark and makes a surprising decision.  In one brave bound he is free of a lifetime of servitude to his name.  (And with what consequence?)   His apparently little drama can encapsulate the force a name has.  It's a drama that confounds our expectations.  That is theatre.

Let me end on a personal note.  Nowadays name-choices may often appear somewhat whimsical.  Perhaps parents merely ‘like the sound’ of a particular name.  Often there’s an impulse merely to be different.  I had a dear friend whose mother was apparently hard put to it to name her daughter in the late 1940s.  She’d thought of Katherine, she’d thought of Caroline, then she saw just the thing, there on the side of a box of peaches in the greengrocers in those times of rationing was the name: Maddalena.  History doesn’t relate if the mother was aware that Maddalena is akin to Magdalena (various towns in Italy taking up the corrupt spelling of the saint’s name), but she was surely impressed on some level that after years of austerity in post-war Britain exotic fruits were arriving on the scene.  Her daughter amongst them.   

Names are funny things....

Here are a few random entries from The A to Z, to whet your appetite...

NB - The whole A to Z contains well over 500 entries - nearly all of Shakespeare's fictional names and some of his historical and classical ones. 


....... AGUECHEEK, Sir Andrew (12N)  Suitor to Olivia.  S refers elsewhere to “an ague which hath made you lean” (JC IIii113). The ague was a violent or acute fever, especially malarial. ‘Ague’ was particularly applied to the cold or shivering stage of the disease, but there was a feverish stage too.  In S’s time the doctrine of ‘humours’ meant that a person’s susceptibility to a disease defined his or her character.  In short, your personality depended on the balance (or imbalance) of the four ‘humours’ in your body – earth, air, water and fire.  An imbalance might, yes, cause ill-health, but more to the point predisposed you to a particular way of being.   Aguecheek is not necessarily ill as such, but thin and nervy and perhaps prone to anxious shaking, though he can flare up too; in short, he is a feverish ‘type’.  The symptoms of an ‘ague’ may well be in the cheeks which could range from dry and sunken to flushed and pink.   His alliterative first name might even – fancifully - suggest a tendency to stammer.  (See Andrew)

......ANDREW   Andrew was not a particularly common English name in S’s time, ranking only in the early 20s during this period in the charts of Scott Smith-Bannister.  It had been much more current in the Middle Ages.  It may therefore have had an old-fashioned ring to it.  It is the name of the first disciple called by Jesus and the patron saint of Scotland.  

An ‘Andrew’ was a broadsword.  It was so called apparently from a sword-smith called Andrea Ferrara.  There is a story that he was a Spaniard who murdered his apprentice when he caught him spying on his smithing secrets.  He then fled to Scotland where his swords became legendary.  Others say he was Italian.  Or even a Scot called Andrew Ferrer who changed his name to impress his clients.  In all events he is mentioned in a play of Fletcher’s, The Chances, of 1617.  Camden says the name meant ‘manly or manful’.

On the other hand a ‘Merry Andrew’ was a clown or a buffoon, though the first recorded use of this sense in the OED isn’t until the second half of the seventeenth century.  This is not to say it wasn’t used in speech before.  Indeed in one speech- designation for Dogberry in Much Ado we have ‘Andrew’, possibly for ‘Merry Andrew’ and then ‘[Will] Kempe’ for the same character for the rest of the scene.  The OED questioningly cites Dr Andrew Boorde (died 1549) to whom several jest-books were attributed as the inspiration for the phrase.  

In MOV (Ii27) we have mention of the “wealthy Andrew”.  The ship St Andrew was famously captured from the Spanish after running aground in Cadiz harbour in the raid of 1596.  Indeed she seemed to have got a reputation for foundering on sand.

......JULIET (R&J)  The name is used in this form in S’s principal source (Brooke) and other sources have it as Julietta and Giulietta.  It may refer to the fact she was born in July; the Nurse refers to Lammastide as the time of her birth which celebrated the first fruits of the harvest (Lammas means ‘loaf-mass’).  This ‘feast’ is now August 1st but was, under the Julian calendar, in July. 

How different is the association of her name nowadays - just as Romeo’s name in popular culture has been distorted to that of a 'professional lover' or Lothario.  Every year apparently thousands of forlorn letters are received in Verona addressed simply to her.  An army of the city’s secretaries reply to them.  Would S’s Juliet in fact make a good agony aunt?  I don’t see it.  She surely is the prime mover of the play, a way away from being anyone’s victim except, arguably, her own. Interestingly she is older in S's sources (eighteen in Bandello, but sixteen in Painter), whilehe has her as turning fourteen.  (In England young marriages were pretty rare, though legally twelve was the marriageable age for girls.  Indeed Christopher Marlowe had a sister, Jane, who married at twelve and died a year later in childbirth.  Marina in Pericles is fourteen, Miranda in Tempest fifteen.)

                 (M4M)  Claudio’s betrothed  The name appears to be S’s invention for this character.  

In Italian Giulietta is a diminutive of Giulia.  Mistress Overdone calls her “Madam Julietta” (I ii 71) – a term of address reserved for a French wife coupled with a diminutive, which may therefore be doubly patronising, not to say insulting.  Or it may be expressive of her status.  Take your pick.  In English as a diminutive of Julia, it was extremely rare.

It is worth noting that the month of July was, in S’s time, pronounced with the stress on the first syllable of the word, rather than the second as nowadays. Thomas Morley’s madrigal “April is in my mistress’ face” (1594) bears this out: “… and July [sounded like the modern name ‘Julie’] in her eyes hath place.”  It was traditionally the month of abundance; the ‘gilly-flower’, for example, was so called after the month when it (and so much else) burgeons.  This aspect of nature was therefore inescapably brought to mind in the sounding of the name.  Both the characters that S so names are very much associated with actual or potential generation.  The month could, of course, also bring impending disaster in the form of terrible harvests, of which there were almost as many as abundant ones.  One particular danger in summer months before harvesting was, ironically, starvation.  Also long-stored grain could attract mould, giving rise to ergotism whose symptoms, in extreme cases, were gangrene, cramps, fits, physical jerks, hallucinations. and convulsions (see Anthony).  July was a month full of promise and fecundity maybe but it was also associated medically with heat and so passion and madness. Cures for love-sickness involved blood-letting which shouldn’t be administered, it was advised, in summer time especially July and August.

......POLONIUS (Hamlet)  A lord.   In the early German version of Hamlet, this character is called Corambus and, in the 1st Quarto, Corambis.  ‘Polonius’ is a definite choice S made at some point, away from his source material.   

Polonia was the medieval name for Poland; and so Polonius is ‘The Pole’.  The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest country in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the dominant power in its region.  Poland and Lithuania combined under a common monarch in 1569 and the precise agreement between the two countries foreshadowed many of our modern ideas of a constitutional monarchy.  It was further unusual in that it – somewhat scandalously in the eyes of ‘right-thinking’ English subjects - elected its king.  He was, one might say, hired like a manager therefore, rather than ruling as of right.  This might well have been anathema to views of kingship held by S and his contemporaries.  Certainly the Polish experiment (dating from that union of 1569) probably seemed to outsiders a recipe for politicking and back-stair intrigue.   Indeed in the play the mob reportedly call for Laertes to be king, as though they are claiming some sort of say in the ‘election’ of their monarch.  Furthermore to add - for S’s contemporaries – perplexity and even alarm to wariness, the Commonwealth allowed a degree of religious tolerance and multi-ethnicity.

There was an admired Polish author and statesman (Laurentius Grimalius Goslicius) who wrote a Latin treatise on government which was translated anonymously in 1598.  S used this in Hamlet and possibly Measure for Measure. ‘The Pole’ would have been seen as synonymous with a career-politician.  This Pole was hardly Machiavellian but someone theorising about what, it might seem to our modern minds, should have come naturally.  In his mind he was de-mystifying governance.  In the minds of many others of his contemporaries he must have been seen as playing with fire and quite possibly a dangerous schemer - a rocker of the boat called Status Quo..  

Interestingly his children have quasi-Greek names: Laertes and Ophelia.  It may be worth pondering why.  Our understanding of the Greeks as the founders of modern civilisation was not necessarily shared by S’s contemporaries who saw them as the devious, duplicitous defeaters of Troy.  (A view that stays with us in such phrases as: ‘beware of Greeks bearing gifts’.)

.....SIR  The title of knight was one granted by the monarch and was then enjoyed for life.  Elizabeth was fairly parsimonious in handing out such titles.  Grants might also be made by a general during a military campaign on behalf of the monarch.  Indeed both the Earl of Leicester (in the Netherlands) and Essex (in Ireland) did this, the latter to Elizabeth's annoyance.  James, especially in the later part of his reign, was considerably more generous than Elizabeth. in bestowing knighthoods.   As well as being used for knights and baronets, this was a common prefix for a cleric used in speech and so not necessarily implying knighthood.   It carried the implication that the so-titled was in holy orders, having matriculated at a university.  It was particularly used in deference by the ‘lower orders’ to anyone they considered ‘above’ them; especially it seems to their parson.  (Ironically, nowadays Anglican priests who are knighted by the Queen aren’t referred to by the title.)

.....STEPHANO (Tempest)  Butler.  The character has a full-square Englishness in spite of his Italian sounding name.  Stephen was a middlingly common name in the late sixteenth century (ranking 26th in Smith-Bannister’s lists), which according to Camden meant quite simply “A Crowne”.  Although the name is spelt ‘Stephano’ in the First Folio it is too closely related to Florio’s definition of a ‘Stefano’ in his Worlde of Wordes for that to be ignoredThat word was apparently Neapolitan, probably referring to a stock commedia dell’arte character.  Florio says of it that it “hath been used in jest for a man’s bellie, panch, gut, crawer or mawe.  Also a garland, chaplet or coronet”, so neatly encapsulating what S seems to have had in mind for this greedy man who would set himself up as a king.  The name appears to be pronounced with two stresses – on the first and last syllables.  

We might bear in mind that King Stephen (reigned 1135-54) had a bad press.  Recently he has been rehabilitated as a too-caring individual, but he was in the past perceived as a weak king of England.  (A contemporary said of him “he was adept at the martial arts but in other respects little more than a simpleton”.)   Much of his reign was regarded as ‘the Anarchy, when “Christ and his Angels slept”.  

The name, like that of Prospero, appears in Jonson’s Everyman in His Humour in which S acted.  Stephano there is described in the dramatis personae as ‘a country gull’.

                         (MOV) Portia’s messenger.   He introduces himself by this name, spelt ‘Stephano’ in First Folio where, if the verse line is a regular iambic pentameter (and there seems no reason it isn't), the stress is on the second syllable of his name.  This may exclude him from Florio’s definition above.  

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What's included?

Naming (3300 words)

Shakespeare's Acting (2400 words)

His Use of Names (including Thee and You) (1400 words)

Degrees in Society (5300 words)

The A to Z of NAMES (92,000 words; over 500 entries)

Named by Shakespeare
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