Sunday, March 5, 2017

Would Another Name Smell as Sweet?

‘Good name in Man, & woman (deere my Lord)
Is the immediate Jewell of their Soules;’
- The Tragedie of Othello, the Moore of Venice, III.iii

Naming something gives us power, a sense of ownership and relationship. A name is a definition and identity. That definition and relationship differs with everyone, but without a name there is no starting point. As an experiment, try to think of something for which there is no word, no name in your language. It is impossible. If a name does not exist, we invent one. Even if the name is a title. If someone is only a title, Prime Minister, then she is defined by her position and we have certain expectations. Lisa, however, is someone else completely different. Given our previous relationship with Lisa, we treat and define Lisa differently from Prime Minister Lisa, and even more so than the Prime Minister.

The power of names is important in theatre, often symbolic, and Shakespeare, whether or not he fully consciously understood their power (there is evidence enough to suggest he did) uses names to control, or at least influence, how his audience relates to his characters. We are going to look at four naming conventions Shakespeare used in his plays: full names, last names and titles, and first names. In a later blog, we will examine how this affects the feelings and definitions engendered in The Tragedie of Macbeth.

First off, let’s examine full names. Shakespeare’s audience would have been fully aware of the historical figures and their full names in his history plays. For this reason, here we will pass over the History Plays to examine his intentional use of full names. This is not to say that a character’s full name is always (if ever) used, but in some way or another, the audience is aware of the character’s full name. For example, in As You Like It, Orlando is the son of Roland du Boys. Ergo, his full name is Orlando du Boys. (This also means that we know his brothers’ full names as well). Nobody ever calls him Orlando du Boys. While there are interesting characters in the play, we follow the story of Orlando and Rosalind.

There are only a few examples that are given outright, or at least emphasized in the plays: Romeo Montague, Juliet Capulet, Titus Andronicus. Knowing a character’s full name gives the audience a more complete picture of the character. We know Romeo to be a Montague, and we hear a lot about ‘the Montagues’ throughout the play, leaving everyone with expectations. Then we meet Romeo, and while he is under the umbrella of ‘Montague’ we come to associate unique characteristics with him and he becomes a more rounded person. His friends Benvolio and Mercutio have no last names (although we know Mercutio to be related to the Capulets). Romeo’s father and mother are only Lord and Lady Montague. Who in this family do we care about? The same question can be asked of Juliet Capulet. Among those we see her with, with whom do we identify? Perhaps this is one reason this story has resounded so much, because we feel there is a possibility to know these characters better than most. Of all of Shakespeare’s characters, fans could say to be more emotional about these two characters than any others. Tourism has grown in Verona thank to this couple (and clever marketing) in a way that has not been inspired by any of Shakespeare’s other creations.

‘Retaine that deare perfection which he owes,
Without that title Romeo, doffe thy name…’
- The Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet, II.ii

Although he does not have the following that the young lovers do, Titus Andronicus elicits a maximum of empathy from the audience for the pain and travails he suffers. We follow his journey on a visceral level that many modern sensibilities do not wish to recognize. The catharsis at the end comes only with a strong identification with the protagonist. We know his family are Andronici, and their suffering means more to us than other instances of cruelty in the play. Hardly anyone weeps for Aaron, Tamora or her sons. This cannot be explained away simply because they are the ‘baddies’ in this play. Richard III and the Macbeths do some awful things, but through their relationship with the audience, theirs are the stories we follow and on some level identify with. How they are named will influence the relationship we have with them.
Other instances of knowing a character’s full name allow the audience to draw a sketch or make assumptions of a character.  There is a long tradition of naming characters after their professions or other attributes, and Shakespeare was not immune to it: Nick Bottome, Peter Quince, Mistress Quickly, Mistress Overdone, Flute the Bellows-mender, Snout the Tinker, Snug the Joiner, Starveling the Tailor among others. These appellations tell us almost everything we need to know about the characters, drawing conclusions and snap judgments from clich├ęs. This kind of name puts a distance between the audience and the characters by not allowing the audience to think too much about them. The exception in this group is Nick Bottome, the Weaver. We know his name and his profession, and he is one of the most loved of Shakespeare’s creations.

Last names are used quite frequently. Sometimes place names or titles are substituted for last names. Gloucester, Albany, Clarence – as these usually come from titles the expectation is one of rank, or a ubiquitous knowledge of historical figures who held those titles, or of the person currently inhabiting that position. These titles engage groupthink, much like the professions of lower characters. This person is like everyone else with this name and we can reasonably project that others of his kind in the world would behave as he does.

Whereas titles can sometimes function as last names, also last names can also function as title. Fathers and heads of households often carry the family name and they are meant to define that family. These characters, however, never garner our affection. There is a distance. The position is one to be respected and familiarity between the character and the audience is held to a minimum. [This does not hold in the history plays because, again, a known historical figure would already be familiar to the audience and Shakespeare was canny enough to exploit those sentiments.]

First names are the most commonly used by Shakespeare. Many of the famous characters are known only by them: Hamlet, Ophelia, Othello, Iago, Rosalind, Prospero, Claudius, Gertrude, Benedick, Beatrice, Petruchio, Kate, Mercutio, Malvolio, Olivia, Viola, Orsino, Feste, Cordelia, Regan, Gonerill and on and on. First names offer the quickest familiarity, especially in a place and time when only close friends referred to each other by their given names. There is an immediate affinity between us and them because we feel like we are allowed to know them in an intimate way.

There is a difference between knowing someone’s full name, and using it. To know it is to have a fuller picture of that individual. To use it constantly is to create a personal distance. When you can only refer to a character by the first name, it gently forces a kind of intimacy. We feel a friendship with these characters and seek to replace empathy with sympathy. Even the antagonists become closer to the audience when we use their first names. We can find some kind of connection rather then pushing them away completely.

After reading his plays these conventions work on us in a subconscious way. In a later blog post, we will take a look at how this affects our relationships to the characters in The Tragedie of Macbeth.

- Andy Kirtland, Managing Director, The New Renaissance Theatre Company