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.