Researching on Shakespeare I came across many different explanations for what names of characters could mean. Perdita, in Winter’s Tale, means the lost one (terrible name for a child; bad omens); Prospero is for successful (hmm, in relation to The Tempest the meaning of his name is questionable); Leontes goes for brave lion, (or perhaps the enraged lion in Winter’s Tale); Miranda means adorable (The Tempest); Hermione is the messenger of God (mythological, fit for her destiny in Winter’s Tale); Ariel for the airy spirit, either boy or girl – interesting enough, although the Ariel from the Bible means the lion of God; and lastly Caliban, being an anagram for Cannibal. Today Romeo has become an adjective of a man whose expertise is to seduce.
Perhaps Shakespeare had real thoughts on how to name some of his characters, because a few were already named from the source (like Romeo and Juliet, for instance). Other characters from historical plays had to keep their names, obviously, like Prince Al (Henry V), Richards II and III, Henry IV, Antony and Cleopatra, etc. The questions I raise is that names aren’t that important, after all.
It is not our ethnicity that stamps us for being like this or like that, also not our gender, let alone our names. When babies are named, parents have high hopes for them, but that does not mean that their dreams are going to be fulfilled only for the child’s name. I mention it because I do find it a bit ridiculous that some scholars write papers and papers debating on what the names of the characters would mean exactly and how the names would influence their destinies. Actions, not names, make us who we are (characters, too).
I highly doubt that when Shakespeare, or most of other writers, named their characters that they searched for names that meant this or that in relation to the play’s plot. After the plot was invented/copied/updated, the characters were created for being this and wanting that. The naming could have occurred to the writer naturally or he could have needed further research (where a British writer looks for Persian names, for instance), but my point is that from my understanding, there is too much weight on the significance of characters’ names. The names don’t change the course of action.
Today I find matching a name with the characters’ personality somewhat cheesy. It is like matching the pink of the lipstick with the rouge powder of the cheeks, the belt, the purse, the shoes and the scarf. It might have been huge in older days, but today it is just tired and boring. The trend is even to wear a different colour for each fingernail. Why be so obvious? Wouldn’t it be great to watch a punk Miranda, instead of a loving one in The Tempest? Or a fearful and cornered Leontes, instead of a crazy and aggressive one in The Winter Tales? Perhaps a vegetarian and blond Caliban? A child interpreting Time, again in the Winter Tales? Who knows, an ugly, fat, stinking and poor Romeo? A monkey interpreting Ariel? Just kidding… I think it could be more fun to watch certain plays if the characters’ names weren’t so obvious.
My name is a variation of Lucios, which means “the illuminated”, but had Shakespeare thought of it when he named the character Luciana in The Comedy of Errors? Illuminated because she sees the reality: “If you did wed my sister for her wealth, then for her wealth’s sakes, use her with more kindness”? Yes, very illuminating!
The choice of names goes for titles of plays, too. Today (09.05.2013) I read in the newspaper that the ex-boxing world champion-turned actor, Mike Tyson, wished to play “that black guy in Shakespeare’s play”. I found it amusing because if any role is clear as water in the Bard’s canon, it is the part of Othello in relation to his skin colour, which can be debated as black or just olive. It could be that Mike Tyson had too many punches in the head and therefore doesn’t remember Othello’s name, or it could be that the title really isn’t that important. We should not underestimate how an ex-pugilist remembers a certain Shakespeare’s character. He might have no tradition with theatre whatsoever, but in the same way are the masses, people supposed to fill the theatres, not theatre experts, but “simple” people looking for culture and/or entertainment. Thinking of that Agatha Christie’s play, where there is a murder and everyone is a suspect in the house, I bet that most theatre-goers will have a correct guess and know what I am talking about without having to say The Mousetrap.
The other day I read in the Guardian “If Dench or Mirren ever appeared in The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman he Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union, many ticket-buyers wouldn’t even notice what the play was called” and I agree, although being a hobby writer it really hurts when someone knows your work, but forgets the title. Another strange situation is when someone knows me as the Brazilian-woman-who-loves-theatre-in-Beijing but forgets my name (makes me think about that song: “That’s not my name” by the Ting Tings).
My point in general is: names are fine, names are fun, names are important, but names are not essential, and in Shakespeare’s plays names can even have a meaning close to the personality of the character, but that does not rule anything out and does not seal any fate. My name is Luciana, but even if I changed it for any reason, I still would be the same person. One of my favourite plays is The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, by Dario Fo, where the lead character has no name. It is just Maniac and it is brilliant. What he does is of importance, not how he is named. There are thousands of examples of memorable characters, really stars, without proper names. Mother Courage, Prince Charming, Wizard of Oz. Maniac per se has many meanings, whereas Mother Courage describes a play based around her inner strength, Prince Charming is there only to charm princesses and Wizard of Oz is just a frightening wizard (or a fraud, better). So what? They are still memorable even without proper IDs and a whole list of disposable academic papers speculating this or that for names or titles, without knowing for sure what the writer had in mind. For me, this is waste of time. Give me the action and I will remember the characters for what they are and do, not for what they are named.