What’s in a Name?

“What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title..” (Romeo and Juliet. Act 2, Scene 2)

Dazzled by the darts of love, Juliet speculates on the nature of names. Names are immaterial, yet, they can become insurmountable obstacles. They cannot be touched or seen, yet, they belong to a man and may mark his fate, even if, of course, they cannot change his essence, whatever it may be. Therefore, names matter. If if weren’t so, my mother wouldn’t have opposed so strongly to the one which was destined to me: Rosaria. I should have been named after my grandfather Rosario, and even if the its origin, Rose, may sound evocative and sweet, here it connotes the typical woman of the South of past tradition and my mother, a modern woman of the North, would have never accepted it. That name did not fit the image she had of her daughter, that’s why she chose Stefania. Fortunately, my grandfather, a mild, sensible man, didn’t mind, after all, I was the last of his many grandchildren and some of them had already been named after him.

Names are clearly evocative, they give an impression, often deceptive, of a person. That is why writers have always chosen carefully the names of their most important heroes or heroines. Think about Heathcliff, for example. It is a name that reflects its complex nature. He is heat, that is passionate, hot, but also destructive and dangerous. He is the fire that attracts you like a magnet, but if you touch it, you’ll get burnt. As for that cliff, it evokes harshness and danger again, in fact, waves move naturally towards cliffs and inevitably break. It is their fate. Would that character have worked likewise, had he been called, Jack, for instance?

I’ll leave Gwendolen to give the answer to this question in the “Importance of Being Earnest”:

“Jack? . . . No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed. It does not thrill. It produces absolutely no vibrations . . . I have known several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were more than usually plain. Besides, Jack is a notorious domesticity for John! And I pity any woman who is married to a man called John. She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment’s solitude.”

It is a no. Gwendolen believes that names reflect the essence of men, and she wishes that the appropriate title for her future husband should be Earnest:

“…my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.”

Of course he is a liar, with a charming name, of course.

Even Walter Shandy, in Laurence Sterne’s novel “Tristram Shandy”, believes that names are as important to a person’s character as noses are to a person’s appearance. As Dr Slop had flattened his child’s nose in performing a forceps delivery, Walter Shandy believes that a solution to compensate him from what he believes to be a clear mark of loss of masculinity, would be to give him a grand name like Hermes Trismegistus, that is, “Hermes the thrice-greatest”. So, he needs a name “three times the greatest” to make things even. Trismegistus was also the name a legendary character: the greatest king, lawgiver, philosopher, priest and engineer ever. After all, isn’t this what all parents dream for their children? A grand, successful future and a good name may be a good start. Unfortunately, Mr Shandy’s hopes are definitively crushed, as his child is accidentally christened Tristram, which comes from the French “triste”  and from the Latin “tristis,” that is “sad” in English, with a final effect which is not exactly what Walter Shandy had hoped, but, quite the reverse. Tristram himself believes that this event has radically changed the course of his fate. So, what’s in a name?

“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.”(L.M.Montgomery)

 

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Does conscience make cowards of us all?

Hamlet is a loser. He turns out to be completely inadequate to the call to action of his father’s ghost, who wants to be rightfully revenged by his son. Yet, he had accurately chosen the most effective words to describe how his brother Claudius had atrociously murdered him and the “horrible“consequences on his body in order to stir Hamlet’s sense of indignation. Eventually, as if he doubted his son’s inclination to action, the ghost even warns him saying: “If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not“. If. He was not wrong in mistrusting his son, in fact, once alone on stage and soon after a first flame of rage Hamlet hesitates and ponders :”The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite,That ever I was born to set it right!”

Can the words of a ghost, even if in the shape of a beloved father, be trusted thus becoming a murderer in turn? Can it be easily accepted that an uncle, a man who Hamlet had instinctively always despised, of course, but who had recently married his mother and become the King of Denmark, might be a criminal? He wants to do what is right, which means finding evidence to his father’s words and only then planning his revenge.

To set everything right he needs time, but time could be the worst enemy of action. At first he pretends to have become mad, in order to act more freely and then he organizes  “the mouse’s trap”, that is a play to be shown at court which displays the way his father had been murdered as the ghost had told him, thus being able to check his uncle’s response at the sight of the faithful reproduction on stage of his foul crime.

Claudius cannot disguise his agitation. He had been unmasked by that nephew he had always distrusted, but how could he know it? It doesn’t matter and runs away to find refuge in the quietness of the chapel in the castle. Now Hamlet has his proof, he could accomplish his father’s task and follows Claudius to the chapel determined to kill him. He is right behind his uncle’s back  while he is in the act of praying, when he hesitates again. Is it right to murder even a criminal, while the latter is purging his soul thus having the gates to heaven open , while his fathers fasts in hell as he died unconfessed? It is not.

His forced inaction arises a bitter sense of frustration that makes him lose focus. He kills Polonius by mistake and then violently takes it out on his mother for having yielded to his uncle and married him. He behaves as a headless fly in a jar and exactly in that moment the ghost re-appears to remind his son the true object of his revenge. But it is too late. Claudius is now aware of how dangerous that nephew might be for him and quickly entraps him in a final duel. Only on that occasion, when he realizes that there no way out and nothing to lose Hamlets eventually acts and kills Claudius.

Hence, Hamlet is a loser and maybe a coward too. However, the feeling of powerlessness that pervades him and causes the delay of any action has a name: conscience. That’s why:
“………………….. the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry

And lose the name of action.”

In short that means that the noble effort of following the principle of morality, trying to pursue what is right, pondering the consequences of any decision undertaken cannot but weaken our determination and expose ouselves to other’s resolutions. Hamlet once again embodies very well our sense of helplessness of this age which I perceive so “out of joint“.