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)

 

Love Game

Romeo-and-Juliet

Each age has always had its own set of rules for courting, for sure. Certainly nowadays, the equality of the sexes, the crush of old taboos, Sex and the City, why not, have utterly affected our behaviour in playing modern love games, as the roles are no longer fixed and immutable.  In the past, the man led the “minuet” of courting and the lady followed him in the dance.

Hawei's_Dorigen_During the Middle ages and Renaissance,for example, the body of conventions which governed the relation of aristocratic lovers was called “courtly love “: a sort of idealized and sometimes even illicit kind of love in which the knight consecrated himself to a woman often superior in rank or even married – the prototypes are Lancelot and Queen Genevieve – who deliberately displayed a certain indifference in order to preserve her reputation. The ” mistress”  was certainly beautiful, pure like an angel, distant ; therefore the essence of pleasure in this love game stood in the craving and pain of the lover who, despite his many attempts, believed the object of his desire unattainable. In short: a woman should play hard to get.

romeo-juliet-baz-luhrmann-1_largeHence, when Juliet  innocently reveals her feelings for Romeo, who “bescreened in night” ungentlemanly lets her profess her love for him, suddenly she finds herself in an unknown, dangerous land where distance has become closeness. Furthemore, she had ended her speech with an ambiguous and dangerous:” take all myself” (soul, body or both?). All the rules of courtly love have been crushed and she is unprepared to play the new game. ” What will Romeo think of me now?” she thinks and blushes. Well, Romeo is a smart guy and he likes playing the role of the bold lover. He wishes somehow to reassure Juliet for his temerity and apparently doesn’t seem to give consequence to what he has just heard, but his words reveal that he is well aware of the change of scenario, especially when he addresses her.

Romeo-Juliet-romeo-and-juliet-5125592-992-424Before hearing Juliet’s words, Romeo had called her “angel“, that is perfectly in line with the given canons. The first time he speaks to her, she becomes “saint“, therefore preserving the requested idea of unattainability, but after a while Romeo names her “maid“, which is still good, because he surely means: virgin, untouched, but undoubtedly a “maid” is more accessible than a “saint”. It ‘s only when Romeo,  in one of his wordy metaphors, refers to her as “merchandise”  that a very alarmed Juliet understands that this love match is unfair and decides not to “dwell on form” . She urges Romeo to speak clearly and swear love to her, only in this way the match will be more even. Juliet is only looking for a sincere, direct  “I love you too” but at this point Romeo doesn’t seem so confident without the courtly lover repertoire, he babbles some nonsense like “Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow,That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops….”  and it is only when a disappointed Juliet pretends to go away that Romeo somehow gives the answer she is awaiting for. Game over.