Much Ado About a Name

0430be01a783e3a53b5362967176f7b3Stephen 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.’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. 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! 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.File:Portrait of King Sebastian at El Prado - Cristóvão de Morais - 1572.jpg

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? 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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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An Eglantine by any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet


I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;

Oberon– A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Oberon, the King of the Fairies,  is talking about where Titania, the Fairy Queen, is likely to sleep that night. He lists some sweet smelling herbs and flowers that grow there. Of course, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, he didn’t pick some random plants just because they were easy to rhyme. Each of these plants has layers of meanings.

Here’s a picture of Sir Patrick Stewart playing Oberon. You’re welcome.

It’s important to know that Shakespeare’s audience would not have considered fairies and elves to be imaginary creatures. Then as now, there were skeptics who did not believe in fairies or any other supernatural beings, but many people did and claimed to have interacted with them.

It is impossible to say whether or not Shakespeare believed in fairies but his dramatization of their realm had a deep and lasting effect on fairy lore right up to the present day. Whether or not he believed in them, is of small consideration, compared to how believable he made them to millions of others.

The inclusion of these flowers Wild Thyme, Oxlips, Violets, Woodbine, Musk-Roses, and Eglantine were a kind of offering to Titania, Queen of the Fairies, but more importantly, they were an offering to her representative here in the mundane realms Queen Elizabeth I.

The first of these is Wild Thyme (Thymus serpyllum).

Thyme originates from the Mediterranean and eventually became naturalized to England. It’s strong antiseptic properties made it a revered herb early on. It was used to embalm the dead by the Ancient Egyptians.  An association with death and transitions that continued all the way through to the Renaissance  when the souls of the murdered were thought to rest in Thyme blossoms. It is one of several fragrant herbs planted on graves in Wales.

It’s name comes to us from the Greek Thymos – meaning to fumigate. Fumigating was the process of applying fragrant smoke to specific parts of the body in order to heal it and drive out unclean spirits.

The Greeks and Romans associated Thyme with courage and soldiers wore it on their way to war. It’s invigorating nature was thought to be a beneficial food to those suffering from an overabundance of the melancholic (sad) temperament but bad for those of a choleric (hot-tempered) disposition. Here’s an image of a melancholy lass that could use some Thyme to pep her up.

Fairies were long associated with the herb and were thought to sleep and dance upon it. Those who wished to see fairies would rub their closed eyes with crushed Thyme. This lovely Thyme fairy was painted by Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973)


Oxlips (Primula elatior) were commonly confused with Cowslips and Primrose. The scent was thought to induce a pleasant sleep.

File:Primula elatior Prague 2012 1.jpg

They were among the first flowers to bloom in the Spring – as are Violets (Viola odorata).

File:Viola odorata fg01.JPG

According to Mrs.Grieves in her classic A Modern Herbal

Violets were mentioned frequently by Homer and Virgil. They were used by the Athenians ‘to moderate anger,’ to procure sleep and ‘to comfort and strengthen the heart.’ Pliny prescribes a liniment of Violet root and vinegar for gout and disorder of the spleen, and states that a garland or chaplet of Violets worn about the head will dispel the fumes of wine and prevent headache and dizziness.

The ancient Britons used the flowers as a cosmetic, and in a Celtic poem they are recommended to be employed steeped in goats’ milk to increase female beauty, and in the Anglo-Saxon translation of the Herbarium of Apuleius (tenth century), the herb V. purpureum is recommended ‘for new wounds and eke for old’ and for ‘hardness of the maw.”

Violets were a popular motif in the Tudor era. This 16th century shirt cuff is beautifully embroidered with little violets.

Shirts - 16th and 17th Century Living History

Woodbine is sometimes interpreted to be another name for Honeysuckle in Shakespeare’s work but that is disputed because Titania refers to them as two different plants later in the text.

Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms.
Fairies, begone, and be all ways away.
[Exeunt fairies]
So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle

Titania – A Midsummer Night’s dream

Woodbine may have been a generic term for any woody climber. Perhaps it is fragrant in Titania’s bower because (as Titania noted) it is entwined with Honeysuckle. It must be remembered that this is Titania’s personal bower. A place that has been denied to her consort, Oberon, because they are in the middle of a rampaging custody battle that has turned the natural and supernatural worlds topsy-turvy.

Titania, as Queen of the Fairies, is more than just the reigning monarch of nature spirits. She is a Goddess. She has to be because she is a Queen. She rules by divine right – her own. Elizabeth I and every other King and Queen, were deemed to be the divine made flesh. The “Divine Right of Kings” had created power struggles between Catholic monarchs and  Popes for centuries.

It was the kind of topic that would have caused intense, hushed, and extremely dangerous theological discussions. Where does the divine authority of a ruler end and the Pope’s begin? Henry VIII put all such speculation to an end when he founded his own Church of England and installed himself at the head of it.

Elizabeth followed her father’s lead, and upon her ascension re-instituted the Church of England, and declared herself divine. It would have been odd at the time if she had not.

File:Elizabeth I in coronation robes.jpg

Shakespeare’s acting troupe, The High Chamberlain’s Men, worked directly for the Queen, and later as, The King’s Men, worked for King James. As the Queen’s employee it behooved him to include flattering homages to the Queen whenever possible. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream she seems to be in three places at once, as Titania, as Hippolyta, the warrior Queen of the Amazons, and as Hermia, the rebellious daughter who refuses to wed according to her father’s dictates.

However it is Titania, the Goddess, who we are supposed to see Elizabeth I represented in the most strongly. The reign of Elizabeth I was more than a mere dynasty. It was a cult. She was considered to be the personification of the Greek Goddess of Justice, Astraea, which is a topic which deserves it’s own post.

Elizabeth I, like any Goddess, had flora and fauna as part of her iconography. Her animal was the ermine.

Her flowers were the Rose and Eglantine. So – coming back to Oberon’s description of Titania’s bower we read.

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;

All roses were special to Elizabeth I because she was an English Queen. The Tudor rose was (and still is) the emblem of England.

File:Tudor Rose.svg

Musk roses (Rosa moschata) were a particular kind of climbing rose that connoted sexual ripeness and receptivity because they did, indeed, smell like musk.

File:Rosa moschata.jpg

Eglantine (Rosa rubiginosa), however, was the personal emblem of Elizabeth herself. It’s insertion at the very end of the list is meant to help us make the association between Elizabeth and Titania and to make sure that she saw it too.

“Eglantine” is the French word for Sweet Briar or Briar Rose which today can mean any number of old fashioned bramble roses. This lovely personification of Eglantine was painted by Walter crane in 1906.

The word eglantine derives from the Latin “aculeus” which means “spiny” or “thorny.” It’s symbolic meaning is “I wound to heal” which is a somewhat Machiavellian motto for a monarch. Here is an image of Elizabeth I from 1588 after the English defeat of the Spanish Armada which was seen as proof that the English, did indeed, have a Goddess on their side. She is surrounded by Tudor roses to our left and Eglantine to our right.

Shakespeare, with his list of carefully selected fragrant flora, has created a bower fit for a Queen.

Titania Sleeping by Arthur Rackham 1908





Shakespeare as an Interactive Puzzle

13010730_10210188495253956_7882215736669764664_nAs I write this blog teenagers all over the world are preparing to wrestle with Shakespeare’s words. They have been handed a copy of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, or Julius Caesar and they are dreading opening it.

How did this happen? How did one of the most compelling writers of the English language become an exercise in frustration and boredom?

It’s not for lack of effort on the teacher’s part. They have done everything they could to make Shakespeare a less painful chore – even to the point of using aids such as “No Fear Shakespeare” which demystify some of the words used but unfortunately flatten the metaphors, neuter the puns, and make the plots mind numbingly dull.

It doesn’t have to be this way! We are, for the most part, teaching Shakespeare completely wrong. We are teaching it as if it was in a form of English that any English speaker should be able to understand if given a few hints. Even though any casual observer to an English Lit 101 class could tell you that few, if any, of those adept English speakers can get past the first lines of Romeo and Juliet unaided.

Sampson Gregory, o’ my word, we’ll not carry coals.

Gregory – No, for then we should be colliers.

SampsonI mean, an we be in choler, we’ll draw.

GregoryAy, while you live, draw your neck out o’ the collar.

SampsonI strike quickly, being moved.

GregoryBut thou art not quickly moved to strike.

The above lines would have been fast paced comedy to Shakespeare’s audience. He’s making several puntastic references to servitude, yoked oxen, venomous snakes, hot tempers, hard labor, fighting and sex. It is two young men who belong to the same house daring each other to start an illegal fight against some young men from an opposing house

If you happen to be fluent in Early Modern English then Shakespeare’s text creates a collage of cascading images that pull you in immediately. You can practically feel the blood beating in the over-heated temples of the young men.

Lets take the same lines and provide some visual and cultural context.

Sampson Gregory, o’ my word, we’ll not carry coals.

Coal was the main system of heat in cities during Shakespeare’s time. Here’s an illustration of 16th century coal miners.

Gregory – No, for then we should be colliers.

This is an image of a coal carrier or collier. They were at the bottom of the social ladder and had hard lives bringing coal to others so that they would have heat.

When Sampson says they will not be coal carriers he is daring Gregory to a fight by saying that it’s not their job to just to bear burdens and let others get the glory of a fight. Gregory agrees with him and says no, they are not colliers like the unfortunate lass pictured above, but he is also making a pun on the word “collar” or one who wears a collar in servitude like an ox.

SampsonI mean, an we be in choler, we’ll draw.

Here Sampson is making a reference to the medical and psychological beliefs of the age. Medical theory had remained essentially unchanged since Hippocrates, an Ancient Greek physician (460-370 BCE), recorded it.

For millennia people believed there were four temperaments or “Humours.”

“Choler” – short for “Choleric” – was thought to correspond to the element of fire. Someone in choler was hot tempered, quick to anger. One of the ways to cure someone of excess choler was to draw blood from them.

Sampson is saying that really, attacking those other men with blades drawn, is the healthiest choice under the circumstances. Note that the figure marked “colerick” above has his blade drawn. Here is an illustration of someone having their blood let for medicinal purposes.

GregoryAy, while you live, draw your neck out o’ the collar.
Gregory agrees with Sampson again and replies with a pun that has at least 3 meanings.

1. Take off that fancy ruff you are wearing around your neck and lets fight.
2. Remove the yoke of your servitude to your masters and lets fight.
3. Stop screwing around (remove your penis from where ever you were sticking it) and lets fight.

SampsonI strike quickly, being moved.

At first glance this line is straight forward. He’s ready to fight once he’s motivated to do so. An image of a venomous striking snake comes to mind also, a commonly used metaphor in Shakespeare’s day for quick action, but there are deeper meanings still.
Democritus, an Ancient Greek philosopher, was one of the first in recorded history to posit the existence of something like atoms.

He believed sensations occurred via the agencies of tiny objects called idols which would move towards the sensory organs and strike them, which moved those atoms to strike against the soul, which then perceived the image. It was part of a larger discussion on what eventually became the science of physics. Back then here was a lot of disagreement over whether or not an open space, a void, where these “atoms” could move, did indeed exist. These atoms would not strike against the soul unless they were moved.

Finally there is a reference to the Ancient Greek Phalanx, a military formation, which once it began to move would strike. As opposed to other military formations such as archers, or engines, like cannons.

These Ancient Greek ideas would have been accessible to any reasonably educated person of the day and by educated I don’t mean they had to have gone to college. The Ancient Greeks were commonly read and discussed during the Elizabethan era. The reasons behind this are fascinating in their own right but deserve to be the subject of an entire course so I won’t go into anymore depth about that here.

Suffice it to say that the Elizabethans loved word play. There was no such thing as “correct spelling” or a universally accepted system of grammar. reading a text or watching a play was a game where the writer did everything they could to make the audience work out all the meanings, in jokes, and cultural references contained in the words.

Many Elizabethan writers did this but Shakespeare was, and still is, the master of this form of wordplay. This is why people who get hooked on Shakespeare never get bored. The layers of references seem to be bottomless. But back to our hot-headed lads.

GregoryBut thou art not quickly moved to strike.

Here Gregory is saying – fine buddy, put up or shut up. There may be more meanings here but you get the idea. Unfortunately a No Fear interpretation reduces the entire exchange to two young men just itching for a fight. It misses the incredible depth of wit that Shakespeare’s audiences would have heard.

There are several reasons that perfectly competent English speakers can’t just open up a Shakespeare text and learn it. It’s understandable when those of us in the 21st century aren’t hip to Democritus, but most of us have no clue what “choleric” means, or what a collier is. So we are shutout in the first two lines.

Shakespeare needs to be taught as an interactive puzzle. Fortunately in the digital age we have the answers to these multi-layered riddles at our fingertips. Instead of opening a butchered No Fear text we should be opening our internet browsers. We should be taking meandering paths through whatever rabbit hole Shakespeare leads us to. We should assume that each word, each phrase, has multiple meanings and that we need to see visuals to help the words stick. Shakespeare intended for his audience to have to figure out what he meant. It’s an active process. We must strike when we are moved.

Sampson and Gregory on the right picking a fight