The Name Game

In many plays, we get little (and sometimes big) clues to character by the names Shakespeare chooses. Hamlet? Not so much.

Many of the names have no set definition (or even derivation), like Guildenstern and Polonius.

Some have dubious meanings, cited online but not really well-supported, like Fortinbras–possibly meaning “strong in arm.” It works, but it’s not widespread in its acceptance.

Others, like Rosencrantz, are derivations (in this case, from the Germanic rosenkranz, or “wreath” which is interesting but not of any obvious enlightenment).

Gertrude is from the Germanic, meaning “spear of strength” (ger “spear” / thrud “strength”). Can we take this as a subtle statement of Gertrude’s role in the adultery with Claudius, or even the murder of old Hamlet?

And speaking of Hamlet, it seems to come from the Germanic, meaning “house” or “home.” One online source refers to the Danish name Amleth, which has a supposed meaning of “foolish or dull,” but what can we glean from that?

The rest of the names come from either Greek or Latin:

  • Claudius
    from Latin claudus meaning “lame, crippled;” and there was a Roman emperor with the name
  • Laertes
    in Greek myth, Laertes was the father of Odysseus
  • Ophelia
    seems to be derived from Greek (ophelos) meaning “help”
  • Horatio
    Possibly derived from Latin hora “hour, time, season”

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