Shakespeare’s contemporaries took very different meanings from many of the words we use today. If words are fluid over the passage of time, names are more so. Who stops to think of the connotations of Romeo or Juliet, Bottom or Titania? Prospero is Prospero is Prospero to us. As are Hamlet, Ophelia or Polonius....
There again, some of his names have entered so much into daily language that we talk of a Romeo or a Falstaff, say, in order to describe types of people. What chance have those names of reverberating in their own right and enlightening us about the author’s take on the characters when he created them? Yet names, in the hand of a writer, represent conscious and precise signifiers.
This is an attempt to look at what, yes, an audience going to a performance of a new Shakespeare play – and how exciting is that thought? - might have made of the names as they heard them being revealed before them. ‘Heard,’ for this, remember, was when there were no glossy programmes or even printed cast lists so far as we know. But, even more to the point, what might an actor make of the name Shakespeare had given the character he was to play? What did Shakespeare have in mind when he gave a character a name? What was he telling his actors and his audience? In short, what did those names conjure up in Shakespeare’s time?
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