Stephen Fry as Malvolio and Mark Rylance as Olivia in Twelfth Night
Shakespeare often used the name of a character to give us clues about how that character was likely to behave. The name of the pretentious tyrannical steward from Twelfth Night, “Malvolio,” simply means “bad person.” “Mal” means bad and “volio” is a way of making it sound pretentious and might be meant to sound like “vole” (a small rodent) or “Bad Rat.”
“Feste,” the name of the Fool in Twelfth Night, is a play on the words festival and feisty.
Here’s a festive fool feeling feisty
Nick Bottom the Weaver from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a multi-layered pun. It refers to a “bottom” or butt.
This man is undergoing an old fashioned medical procedure called “cupping” on his buttocks
Eventually Puck, the trickster, gives Bottom the head of an ass and he becomes a literal butt-head.
“Bottom” also refers to his social class. He is a peasant, a weaver, a “rude mechanical,” at the very bottom of the social order.
“Bottom” is also another word for a spindle – the spinning weight used to hand spin yarn off a distaff. Something a weaver would find very useful!
William-adolphe Bouguereau – The Spinner 1873
Some characters are named after historical figures. We all know how Antony and Cleopatra got their names.
Other figures are less well known to us. Sebastian was the name of a rash but honorable Portuguese king who led his troops into a battle against two other kings in 1578.
King Sebastian ignored the advice of his more seasoned generals, and they were all slaughtered, but Sebastian was admired because he was so brave on the battle field, and did not attempt to escape when he easily could have. It was known as the Battle of Three Kings because at the end of it all the kings were dead (and thousands of their troops) including King Sebastian.
So when an audience from Shakespeare’s time heard the name “Sebastian” they immediately thought of an honorable but impetuous young man.
In Twelfth Night, the character Sebastian survives a shipwreck by riding the mast like a surf board and gets rescued by, Antonio, a man with a reputation for piracy. They land on the strange shores of Illyria and Sebastian promptly charges off into town, gets into a fight, and then agrees to marry a woman he just met, who seems to have him confused with someone else. Well what else do you expect from someone named Sebastian?
Olivia persuading Sebastian that marrying her makes total sense and it’s super convenient. Look! She has a Friar all ready to go!
A name might also be used to indicate personality type or temperament. The Elizabethans believed that four fluids, called Humours, controlled the body, and could influence health and behavior. They corresponded to the four elements. Earth, water, air, and fire.
In A Midsummer Nights Dream the character Helena is an impetuous, passionate, young woman.
Helena by Arthur Rackham
“Helena” means “bright light” or “burning torch.” Fire is the element associated with the rash Humour Choler. When her friend Hermia confides that she is going to secretly flee Athens, Helena spills the beans in a desperate attempt to win back her ex, Demetrius, who is in love with Hermia.
Why would you tell your crush that his crush was leaving town so he could chase after her? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just wait and be there to console Demetrius later? Well, unfortunately, when we are worked up and desperate we don’t always do things that make sense. That’s the danger of acting out while in a choleric state. We do stupid stuff.
Helen Mirren as Hermia and Diana Rigg as Helena
“Demetrius” means “Lover of Earth.” Earth is the element of the Melancholic Humour and no character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is more melancholy than Demetrius.
Christian Bale doing his sullen best as Demetrius
Hermia’s name is a reference to the Greek God Hermes, also known as Mercury, or Quick Silver.
In alchemical practice mercury was considered a phlegmatic metal because of it’s natural liquid state.
Phlegm was one of the four Humours and it corresponded to the element water. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Hermia spends half the time crying – a very phlegmatic activity.
Hermia and Lysander in the forest
Her boyfriend Lysander is named after an Ancient Spartan General known for his sanguine (mellow, judicious) temperament. Sanguinity corresponded to blood and the element of air.
General Lysander being adored
Throughout the text you can find examples in the four lovers’ speech and behavior that aligns with the temperament implied in their name. Knowing that each of the lovers represents a particular Humour helps us to differentiate them. Shakespeare’s audiences would have understood these references the same way we understand what it means when a modern day character is referred to as psychotic, introverted, self-actualized etc….
Learning the historic and cultural associations behind any character’s name in Shakespeare’s plays is a valuable key to understanding their motives and behavior.
Ross Alexander, Jean Muir, Olivia De Havilland, Dick Powell as the four lovers.
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