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"What's in a name?" - Maguire's Brave Journey Across Shakespeare's Names

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No lover of Shakespeare - on page or on stage - will fail to recognise the wordplay or pun on the proper names of Shakespeare's characters. Simple, Feeble, Quickly, Pistol spring to mind - just to recall Falstaff's company. Some names in Shakespeare accurately characterise the name-bearer, some are ironically inappropriate.

Laurie Maguire's Shakespeare's Names is an excellent commentary on Shakespeare's choice of some of the subtle names in the canon. Even though Maguire dwells less on the punning effect of many of Shakespeare's names, she delves in a deep analytical, etymological, philosophical and mythological exploration of some names, like Helen and Katherina.

It is difficult to explain the author's criteria of choice of the names in this book but the outcome speaks of the immense research undertaken. The book starts with a philosophical and biblical survey of naming practice in general and recalls our ancestral Adam and Eve.

Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers seem to be particularly worried about names and their significance. The 1989 Canadian production of a bilingual Romeo and Juliet reveals much about the onomastic and pragmatic potential of the play, as Maguire reveals.

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It is amazing how much superstition there has always been about names. "Say you got a new boat and you had to give it a name - would you call it the Titanic? Would you?", says Miranda to the superstition-denying Jason in David Crystal's play Living On (1998). But even superstitions are bound to change over time... Helen(a) is one of the 50 most frequent names in England, Wales and the USA, mentions Maguire. In the Renaissance England, however, it had all the pejorative connotations you can construe. The "Spartan strumpet"... - the embodiment of destructive sexuality. A wrong etymology associated "Helen" with "hell". Maguire engages in an enlightening discussion of Shakespeare's Helens (All's Well that Ends Well, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Troilus and Cressida) and the diminutive form, Nell (Mistress Quickly in the Henry plays, The Comedy of Errors, Troilus and Cressida). The author reveals Shakespeare's exploitation of "Helen" and his attempts to detach the name from the original referent and "liberate his Helens".

Expanding on the onomastic potential of diminutive forms, Maguire explores the duality and anonymity implicit in the identity of Katherina whom Petruchio dubs Kate. Other Kates are discussed but the focus is on Katherina. Duality in name and identity breeds anonymity, argues the author. A broad perspective into anonymity is taken in Maguire's analysis of the Oxford Shakespeare Company production of The Taming of the Shrew in 2006.

The duality of name, language and identity is carried further into the interpretation of the place name Ephesus (Epidamnus in Shakespeare's source). Focusing on the deep-rooted duality which linguistically, historically, biblically and geographically characterises the play and its setting, Maguire expands on the duality of women in the play. The author offers a fascinating commentary on the complex binarity of female nature as expressed in Adriana and Luciana, the women not often getting the literary attention deserved.

"Can women play 'two parts in one', being both 'divine' (goddess) and 'diviner' (witch)?"

The book can be obtained from the Oxford University Press shop as well as other stores. Although one wishes the book were longer to include a discussion of other Shakespearean names, it is, nonetheless, a reader-friendly delight to academics, students and Shakespeare nuts alike.