Let’s take a quick look at some of the names we find in Measure for Measure…
My edition (as always I’m using the Pelican Shakespeare from Penguin Press) lists the Duke of Vienna’s name as Vincentio. Even though I can find no use of it within dialogue, let’s say for the moment that that’s his given name. It’s a latinate version of a name that already was derived from a word from Latin, “vincens” which meant “winning” or “conquering.” [Insert Charlie Sheen joke here.] One could see the duke (as the friar) doing metaphoric battle with the evils that stem from Angelo’s overzealous enforcement of sex laws, and in the end he does come out victorious (for his people, if not for himself).
For much of the play, the duke is in disguise as a friar. Now this character does have a name, Lodowick. From what I can find, Lodowick is usually found as a surname in South Wales, stemming from the latinized version of the Welsh name Llywelyn. Llywelyn has quite a wide range of meanings, from the combined names of two Celtic gods Lug and Belenus, to “leader” to “shining” to “lion-like.” Just about any of those works (though “lion-like” may be stretching it).
The person in whose hands the duke should have put Vienna is Escalus, and his name is a homophone for the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus. So this concept of culture and intelligence may be a subliminal message to the audience. Note, though, that this is not the first time Shakespeare has used the name: Prince Escalus was the ruler of Verona during the time Romeo and Juliet. At the end of that play, he has to admit that for “winking” (Romeo and Juliet, V.iii.304) at the feud, he too had lost a pair of relatives. This kind of lax government is what the duke is trying to repair at the beginning of the play, so I’ve got to wonder: Is this why the job is so explicitly not given to him, and why the play opens with the duke’s utterance of “Escalus.”
The deputy duke’s name is Angelo. This name brings with it a wicked double meaning. First, as we know, the character Angelo is not angelic, is no angel; so we’ve got irony there. However, an angel is “God’s messenger.” I think we can feel pretty safe in saying that Angelo saw himself bringing God’s will to decadent Vienna.
The constable’s name is Elbow, and it seems that up until this point, the law’s presence has been similarly flexible.
To “abhor” is to “To shrink with horror or repugnance from” (“abhor, v.1.a.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 12 October 2015.). So the executioner Abhorson is aptly named.
I couldn’t find any meaning for the name of the drunken (and ironically saved) death row inmate, Barnardine.
As I noted during our discussion of names in Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio comes from claudus, Latin for “lame, crippled.” From a purely 21st century perspective, Claudio is lame, but more importantly, he is crippled by his his short-sightedness (in both his inability to keep out of Julietta’s pants before their wedding day, as well as his seeing only his own situation and not Isabella’s dealings with Angelo [NOTE: I do not necessarily disagree with his actions; I’m just saying that his position in both cases can be seen as temporal rather than eternal]).
The name of Claudio’s pregnant fiancee, Julietta, has two main meanings, “Jove’s child” and “young, youthful.” For the discussion of Measure for Measure, I think we’re talking the latter not the former.
The name Lucio is from the Latin, meaning “Light; illumination.” Purely ironic, I would think.
Mistress Overdone, like Abhorson before her, is wonderfully named as a bawd, as she’s been “done” over and over and over…
Her tapster, Pompey, has a name that allows two characters (Escalus and Lucio) to make ancient Roman allusions (historically accurate by the former, not surprisingly inaccurate by the latter). He also has a last name, Bum, that allows for some semi-bawdy jokes.
The name of Froth, “a foolish gentleman” as described by my edition’s list of characters, has a fitting meaning for the average citizen in the diseased and decaying Vienna: “Extraneous or impure matter rising to the surface of liquids during boiling, etc.; scum” (“froth, n.1.c.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 12 October 2015.).
Angelo’s former fiancée, Mariana (as we touched upon in our follow-up discussion of names in All’s Well That Ends Well), has a name that 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.
And, finally, Isabella is the Latin version of Elizabeth, which was derived from the Hebrew meaning “God is my oath.” If it couldn’t get more perfect than that, remember back to our last play and our discussion of rings: Tib was a nickname for “Isabel,” and was shorthand for any woman or girl. Is our Isabella the prototypical woman: In Angelo’s eyes, the virgin who is unattainable, yet must be conquered? In the duke’s, the woman to become his bride and mother to his children?