Names and Meanings (this could be a spaghetti western)

Occasionally, when situations merit, I like to take a look at the names used in the plays, to see if there are any deeper meanings or character insights to be gleaned by Shakespeare’s choice of monikers. With a play like Troilus and Cressida, it’s pretty much a non-starter (as it’s based on quasi-history or established Canon, thus unlikely to include any Shakespeare-created names). But what about All’s Well That Ends Well? What do we find there?

Actually, not a whole heckuvalot. Let me ‘splain…

There aren’t an overwhelming number of names used.

Let’s start with the many unnamed (or mostly unnamed):

  • the Countess of Rossillion: nameless.
  • the King of France: nameless.
  • the Duke of Florence: nameless.
  • the Widow: nameless.
    the First, Second, Third and Fourth Lords, First and Second Gentlemen, and First and Second Soldiers/Captains: all nameless (though, depending on the edition, the Soldiers/Captains may have the name Dumaine)…
  • not to mention the nameless servant and the nameless steward
  • two of the Widow’s accompanying women have names (Mariana and Violenta), but they are used only in stage directions, not in dialogue (and one of the names–Violenta–only appears in some texts’ stage direction, but not all).
    Of these, it’s of note that Mariana’s name comes from a combination of Mary–as in the Virgin Mary–and Ana, which is derived from Anna, which in turn is derived from the Hebrew Hannah, who in some traditions was the mother of the Virgin Mary
    Violenta–not Violeta, which is more common–coming from the French adjective violent which had meanings of “impetuous, unrestrained” as well as “overpowering” but also from the Latin violentus which is where we get the common current meaning of “operating with destructive force.”
    So these two women are two ends of a (please note I said “a” and not “the“) female spectrum: the Virgin Mary and a she-devil.
  • The Clown in some texts, Lavatch in the Penguin Shakespeare I’m using: the name appears only once in dialogue. Lavatch is the Anglicized version of the name that appears in some other editions: Lavache. In French, vache has two meanings: as a noun, it means “cow” or “cowhide”; as an adjective, it means “nasty, mean”… Cowhide is tough and rough, and nasty and mean is, well, nasty and mean. Pretty fitting given Lavatch’s less-than-jolly demeanor.

Now for the other (named) characters…

Like Lavatch, Lafew is also an Anglicization, this time of the French Lafeu. In French, feu also has two meanings: as a noun, it can mean “fire” or “stove burner”; as an adjective, it means “late” as in recently deceased. Lafew is an old guy, but, as Parolles can attest, he’s still got some fire burning inside.

Speaking of Parolles, his name seems to conjure the French word paroles, which means “word” or “speech,” and in some contexts “promise.” Parolles is all talk and no action (and if we want to link that last meaning, it’s ironic since Parolles is not very likely to keep any promise).

Bertram is derived from the German, meaning “bright raven,” and its Latin version Beltramo is the name used in The Decameron.

The Widow’s daughter is named Diana. There’s some disagreement on this, but some feel that the name is derived from Indo-European meaning “heavenly” or “divine.” In classical mythology, Diana was the Roman analogue for the Greek goddess Artemis, the goddess of the moon, hunting, forests, and childbirth. Both can be stretched and manipulated to work within the context of the play. Chaste even to the end (heavenly), Diana assists Helena in the hunting of Bertram (who is as changeable as the moon), and their scheme seems to look forward to a birth after the events of the play.

And finally, Helena. In Greek, helene meant “torch.” The name, of course, is a version of the Greek Helen (remember last month’s Troilus and Cressida?). However, in early Christianity, the name Helena was rarely a reference to that mythological/historical figure, but rather to a fourth century saint, Saint Helena who supposedly found the True Cross during a pilgrimage to the holy places in Palestine, and who was also the mother of Roman emperor Constantine. Our Helena, too, goes on a pilgrimage–I would say to find True Love, but in my head all I hear is the priest in The Princess Bride: “T-wooo Wove.”

[note: the title of this piece is a reference to The Man With No Name… since we have so many characters without names…]

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