What’s in a name

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of teaching a very nice group of A level students from Solihull. They were studying The Tempest and Translations (a 20th C play by Brian Friel). Friel’s play is a tense drama about the British mapping Ireland and anglicising the place names. It has a lot to say about the importance of naming, a subject which also interested Shakespeare.

In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet asks “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet;” She concludes that it is not a name which gives a thing its essential qualities. A name in fact is arbitrary; a rose would still smell sweet even if it were not called a rose. And Romeo would still be her true love even if he were not called Romeo. In Translations one of the Irish characters Owen is called Roland by the British but he says “It’s only a name. It’s the same me isn’t it?” seeming to agree with Juliet that changing a name does not change your identity.

If this is the case, why do we mind so much about our names?  What is your name? Do you mind if I call you something else? Probably you do. We jealously guard our names. Kates don’t want to be called Katie, or Cathy, or Kay or Katherine. My name is Elizabeth, everyone calls me Liz – which is fine – but please don’t call me Betty. But why should I mind, no matter what people call me, I will be the same ‘Liz’ won’t I?

I think it’s about ownership, I own my name, and I and only I have the right to change it. It is not my name but my control over my name that gives me power and identity. It’s fine for me to change my name, but not for you to change it for me.

That is why name calling is such a powerful insult, we feel if we lose control over their names we are no longer ourselves. Consider how Prospero in The Tempest uses names to get power over people. Prospero is a great name caller. He calls Caliban “slave”, “tortoise”, “filth”, “lying slave”, “hag seed” and “malice” and this just from one scene. What he does not call him, directly, is Caliban. Caliban has been denied control over his own name, and this is a powerful symbol of his oppression.

So although in Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare suggests that names are theoretically arbitrary, he also shows in The Tempest that names are used to define us and that if we don’t own our names we risk not owning ourselves. (Interestingly Romeo too hardly owns his name, Romeo because a symbol of the hated Montague’s and it is because Romeo is so much more than one young man’s name that his love is doomed.)

I am very intrigued by the philosophical debates that Shakespeare invites us to have about names, identity and language. I enjoyed discussing these themes with the students from Solihull. Next week I am going to talk more about language looking closely at a speech by Caliban and Miranda (or Prospero’s) claim that it is words which give actions purpose.

Are there lines from Shakespeare you find particularly intriguing? If so please share them and perhaps we can discuss them on this blog.

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Liz Woledge

    Humm the reader and scholar as Dr Frankenstein!? I quite like that, I am sure we have created a few monsters too over the years. We Humans love to make meaning don’t we? I think that’s partly why we enjoy literature to be honest, we get pleasure from the meaning making it invites us to do. ^liz

  • Liz Woledge

    Humm the reader and scholar as Dr Frankenstein!? I quite like that, I am sure we have created a few monsters too over the years. We Humans love to make meaning don’t we? I think that’s partly why we enjoy literature to be honest, we get pleasure from the meaning making it invites us to do. ^liz

  • C. LaPrade

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, Liz. That is, I like to think of conversation about Shakespeare’s collected works as a way of generating meaning. Textual variations simply mean there’s more to talk about. In a way, we, like Dr. Frankenstein, reanimate and reassemble Shakespeare’s parts in the manner Heminge and Condell imagine themselves stitching together “surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of injurious impostors” and offering them up “cur’d, and perfect of their limbes.” Not exactly a seasonally appropriate metaphor, I know, but it does emphasize again the way in which Shakespeare’s readers/audiences participate in the production of meaning, even if that production is, like Heminge’s and Condell’s, author focussed.

  • Liz Woledge

    Now you have started a whole new topic!! I agree that authorial intention is really unknowable. Even if the words and the balance of the poetry were identical in all versions we would still be unable to determine what was in Shakespeare’s mind when he penned the lines, what he thought about the power of a name, or whether he thought about it very much at all. Although the words and the poetry differ in each of the quotations the debates one may have about their meaning are the same. ^liz

  • Liz Woledge

    Now you have started a whole new topic!! I agree that authorial intention is really unknowable. Even if the words and the balance of the poetry were identical in all versions we would still be unable to determine what was in Shakespeare’s mind when he penned the lines, what he thought about the power of a name, or whether he thought about it very much at all. Although the words and the poetry differ in each of the quotations the debates one may have about their meaning are the same. ^liz

  • C. LaPrade

    Perhaps even more interesting, though on an altogether different note, is the way in which the name Shakespeare alters our sense of what a playtext ought to contain: namely, beautiful poetry. The Juliet passage invoked above by Liz provides a case in point. None of the extant copies of Romeo and Juliet actually contain the version of the speech that has become familiar to modern audiences:

    ‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
    Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
    What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,
    Nor arm nor face, nor any other part
    Belonging to a man. O be some other name!
    What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
    By any other word would smell as sweet;
    So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,
    Retain that dear perfection which he owes
    Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
    And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
    Take all myself.

    (Act 2, scene 1, 79-92)

    This is, of course, the iconic version of this speech, more recognizable as the work of Shakespeare than perhaps any other passage in the plays. (Here, I’ve lifted the passage from Jill Levenson’s Oxford edition of the play.) But are these lines really the product of Shakespeare’s hand? For the sake of comparison, here are the Q1, Q2, and F1 versions of this speech. Q1 reads,

    Tis but thy name that is mine enemie.
    Whats Mountague? It is nor hand nor foote,
    Nor arme, nor face, nor any other part.
    Whats in a name? That which we call a Rose,
    By any other name would smell as sweet:
    So Romeo would, were he not Romeo cald,
    Retaine the diuine perfection he owes:
    Without that title Romeo part thy name,
    And for that name which is no part of thee,
    Take all I haue.

    And Q2,

    Tis but thy name that is my enemie:
    Thou art thy selfe, though not a Mountague,
    Whats Mountague? it is nor hand nor foote,
    Nor arme nor face, o be some other name
    Belonging to a man.
    Whats in a name that which we call a rose,
    By any other word would smell as sweete,
    So Romeo would wene he not Romeo cald,
    Retaine that deare perfection which he owes,
    Without that tytle, Romeo doffe thy name,
    And for thy name which is no part of thee,
    Take all my selfe.

    And, finally, F1,

    ‘Tis but thy name that is my Enemy:
    Thou art thy selfe, though not a Mountague,
    What’s Mountague? it is nor hand nor foote,
    Nor arme, nor face, O be some other name
    Belonging to a man.
    What? in a names that which we call a Rose,
    By any other word would smell as sweete,
    So Romeo would, were he not Romeo cal’d,
    Retaine that deare perfection which he owes,
    Without that title Romeo, doffe thy name,
    And for thy name which is not part of thee,
    Take all my selfe.

    Notably, it is only by combining the various instantiations of this passage that editors achieve the balance and symmetry that has become associated with Shakespeare’s verse. Ironically, this means that Shakespeare actually had very little to do with Juliet’s famous lines. Perhaps, then, we would be better off, as teachers and students of the Bard, underlining the collaborative nature of the theatre and of theatre studies and allowing the liveliness of performance (both textual and physical) to eclipse the notion of authorial intention as the locus of meaning? That is, perhaps Shakespeare’s name ought to carry less clout?

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  • Liz Woledge

    Yes I know two replies is a bit OTT but I got thinking about what you wrote about Wittgenstein saying “The limits of my language means the limits of my world”. This is something I am going to discuss in relation to The Tempest in next week’s blog. As I understand this quotation (Which I may misunderstand out of context) I am not sure I quite agree that if we cannot name or articulate something we cannot do it or feel it or experience it… but I will enjoy thinking about the conundrum. ^liz

  • Liz Woledge

    Yes I know two replies is a bit OTT but I got thinking about what you wrote about Wittgenstein saying “The limits of my language means the limits of my world”. This is something I am going to discuss in relation to The Tempest in next week’s blog. As I understand this quotation (Which I may misunderstand out of context) I am not sure I quite agree that if we cannot name or articulate something we cannot do it or feel it or experience it… but I will enjoy thinking about the conundrum. ^liz

  • Liz Woledge

    There is another line from that play about man being author of himself which is a slightly similar idea. I have often thought in relation to this that the way we think about ourselves has a lot to do with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

    I never thought about the power of creating user names but it’s true indeed lots of people create quite unique personalities for themselves on line often giving that self a new name.

    Finally I’d like to thank my mother and father for the conformist and ordinary ‘Elizabeth’ they gave me. ^liz

  • Liz Woledge

    There is another line from that play about man being author of himself which is a slightly similar idea. I have often thought in relation to this that the way we think about ourselves has a lot to do with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

    I never thought about the power of creating user names but it’s true indeed lots of people create quite unique personalities for themselves on line often giving that self a new name.

    Finally I’d like to thank my mother and father for the conformist and ordinary ‘Elizabeth’ they gave me. ^liz

  • Liz Woledge

    Yes true, perhaps a name can function as a disguise. Cesario is more of a disguise than any costume can be. For Shakespeare words had a lot of power to shape a person. Consider Othello – who may have been played by a white actor undisguised as any other race (I don’t think anyone is certain to what extent they used costume or make-up for this role). It is the words that make him different not his looks.

  • Liz Woledge

    I suppose Andrew, that the distinction is between what Shakespeare has Juliet think and what we assume Shakespeare thought. We may consider Juliet’s assumption that names can be easily changed, naive – as you say, in the play she cannot simply have Romeo ‘doff his name’ and become an acceptable and accepted partner for her. But the fact that names are theoretically arbitrary does not mean they are in practice. I think Juliet misses an essential difference between a rose and a person. ^liz

  • Liz Woledge

    Yes true, perhaps a name can function as a disguise. Cesario is more of a disguise than any costume can be. For Shakespeare words had a lot of power to shape a person. Consider Othello – who may have been played by a white actor undisguised as any other race (I don’t think anyone is certain to what extent they used costume or make-up for this role). It is the words that make him different not his looks.

  • Liz Woledge

    I suppose Andrew, that the distinction is between what Shakespeare has Juliet think and what we assume Shakespeare thought. We may consider Juliet’s assumption that names can be easily changed, naive – as you say, in the play she cannot simply have Romeo ‘doff his name’ and become an acceptable and accepted partner for her. But the fact that names are theoretically arbitrary does not mean they are in practice. I think Juliet misses an essential difference between a rose and a person. ^liz

  • Elizabeth

    Yes true, perhaps a name can function as a disguise. Cesario is more of a disguise than any costume can be. For Shakespeare words had a lot of power to shape a person. Consider Othello – who may have been played by a white actor undisguised as any other race (I don’t think anyone is certain to what extent they used costume or make-up for this role). It is the words that make him different not his looks.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TIXT6IP5TPICIDPS7ERSFRLYGI Andrew

    “in Romeo And Juliet Shakespeare suggests that names are theoretically arbitrary”

    Hmm… not sure about that. He gives the speech to a 13 year old girl but doesn’t the action of the play demonstrate that she is wrong and that names do matter? As Wittgenstein said “The limits of my language means the limits of my world”; I don’t know the Brian Friel play but I think Shakespeare would agree with him that the knowable world is the nameable world so if you rename it you redefine it.

  • Duncan

    Oops. For ‘Rosalind’ read ‘Ganymede’.

  • Duncan

    This is fascinating stuff. You can also relate this to characters who deliberately change name in order to have ownership over a disguise, the obvious examples being Aliena, Rosalind and Cesario.

    Although Hamlet isn’t renamed, he does object to being relabelled as Claudius’ son.

    Puck has more than one name: he’s also known as Robin Goodfellow because he’s a somewhat shady character.

    Perdita has a very apt name that somehow defines her character. At least until she’s found!

  • http://twitter.com/ibc4 Ian Collings

    Cominius, in Coriolanus, speaks of the title character thus (Cor. V.i.13-15):
    He was a kind of nothing, titleless,
    Till he had forged himself a name i’th’ fire
    Of burning Rome.

    It reminded me, when I first heard it, of the struggles that writers have in naming characters.
    How powerful this line is – then – to have one character speak of another’s own control of his naming.

    Similar to the pains we take to create our new online identities when prompted to enter ‘a username’?
    And on a grander scale, when parents name their children. Such ownership, such control, such responsibility.

    No wonder people make fun of those people that come up with names that do not confirm or sound silly.

    Lovely topic, lovely blog.

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