What’s in a name?

After responding to question 6 for acts I and II of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I was inspired to delve deeper into the names Shakespeare assigned his characters and why he would do so. With help from Behindthename.com I was able to find etymology for most of the characters we’ve been introduced to so far.

Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream uses many ancient Greek names for prominent characters. I’m sure when Shakespeare’s plays were first hitting the stage in England most viewers were familiar with the stories and characters from ancient Greek myths. Unlike myself, much of his audience probably understood the intention behind names like king Theseus (which could possibly be derived from the Greek tithemi, meaning to set) who braved the legendary Greek labyrinth Crete. Theseus’ namesake is woven straight into his character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (explained by how he won over the heart of Hippolyta in act I), but through my quick research I found that this was not the case with most other characters. In fact, I discovered that Shakespeare himself had not only popularized but invented Latinized versions of many Greek names for use in his plays.

Hippolyta’s name is an example of Shakespeare creating a Latin version of the original Greek name Hippolyte (which was the feminized version of Hippolytos who, in Greek legend was the son of Theseus and the love-object of his step-mother Phaedra). It wasn’t until my interest in etymology lead me to these sources that I uncovered the layers behind character names. 

I bet that Shakespeare anticipated an underlying knowledge of Greek and even roman mythology amongst his intended audience, hence why he used and altered names of kings, gods and popular mythological characters. The intertwined relationships between the origins of the names themselves (like Hippolyta and Theseus) work well to compliment the relationships between the characters. While I may not be well-versed in Shakespeare, I do know that a lot of his plays unfold messy (and at times, disturbing) relationships for the pleasure of his audience. I wonder if the etymology and mythology behind the names Theseus and Hippolyta foreshadow an unsuccessful or perhaps insestuous marriage! 

And as far as foreshadowing goes, Hermia’s name (another Shakespeare original) was probably taken from the Greek god Hermes who is associated with speed and good luck; will Hermia encounter a stroke of speedy good-luck despite the effects of the love-potion given to Lysander in act II, or is Shakespeare potentially going for an ironic association? Irony is certainly a likely contender considering the etymology of Demetrius, which is a Latinized form of the goddess Demeter (it is revealed by Helen in act II that she feels she has taken on a male-role in the pursuit of Demetrius; could his femininely inspired name be a play on the stance of his character?)

We will just have to stay tuned to A Midsummer Night’s Dream to find out just how much Shakespeare considered etymology and Greek mythology in the naming of his characters!


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3 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Samantha Grove

    I really like this post! I always find it interesting how we can see so many symbols in something as short as a name. I'm excited to see if your educated guess about the foreshadowing is correct! Also, I wonder how the fairies names play into this scheme and what your take on them would be?

    Reply
  2. ssomer

    I really thought this was a great topic for the blog. It is really so interesting how important names can be. I find the information you discovered so fascinating. I wonder what Shakespeare's intent really was with these names. Can it be just a coincidence that Demetrius comes from the godess Demeter? He just happens to take the female role within the play when it comes to being sought after by Helena? It is actually quite comical and I look forward to seeing how it all plays out.

    Reply
  3. Cyrus Mulready

    You make a good point, Julian, that Shakespeare's audience had some familiarity with the names and people of mythology alluded to in the play. In the case of Theseus and Hippolyta this is clear, but I like your suggestion that there might be other names that are significant in this way, as well. Do you see anything within the language of the play itself that shows an awareness of these connections (beyond the names)? And, moreover, is there something to be said about the deeper meaning of these Greek allusions in the play?

    Reply

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