The Senses of Names: Shakespeare and Early Modern Rhetorics and Culture

Par Anna Maria Cimitile
Publication en ligne le 22 mars 2016


‘The Senses of Names: Shakespeare and Early Modern Rhetorics and Culture (Anna Maria Cimitile) Michel de Montaigne distrusted what John Florio translated as “the vanitie of words”; Henry Peacham, on the other hand, perceived “the nigh and necessary conjunction” of eloquence and wisdom, “the only ornaments whereby a man’s life is beautified”. In their different views, the two writers equally deemed words to be changing ‘subjects’, ready, we may say, to respond to the Biblical command to “increase and multiply”.
Against the vagaries and excesses of words, names, especially proper names, would allegedly be the champions of fixity and identity within language. But how strong is their vocation to monumentalize? Or even to establish and guarantee filiation? What are the imports (textual, cultural) of an unkept promise to define, if names fail to do so? How many ‘senses’ (meanings, referents and trajectories) are there in a name? With respect to the early modern culture, how does the difference of literature intersect the political dimensions of the name, the appellation, the appellative? In The Tempest Shakespeare invented an unnamed island; what can we make of the extreme case of the absence of the name? The paper aims to address these and other questions through a discussion of examples drawn from the plays.

Texte intégral

Words, words, words…

1Names are part of the sense we ascribe to or read in things. When different nouns are used to refer to the same thing, concept or idea (something we can easily experience when working with different languages, as my example below will testify, and which we are also likely to come across when dealing with the literary space), they reveal different epistemological spaces. This is why attention to names and their etymologies proves a powerful tool for cultural analysis. The different words for ‘truth’ in Greek and Latin provide a good example of this: the Greek αλήθεια [aletheia](from the privative prefix α- and the verb λανθάνω[lanthano], which means ‘to keep secret’, ‘to be hidden’) intends ‘truth’ as an unveiling or discovering of the ‘thing’, whereas the Latin veritas originally meant ‘faith’. The ‘truth’ of the Greeks could be grasped by the use of reason, it was hidden and it needed disclosing, whereas the grasp of the Roman ‘truth’ did not require any questioning but involved instead an act of faith. The Roman translation of αλήθεια into veritas was a deviation from and distortion of the Greek way of thinking, one which influenced Western thought for centuries and at least until Heidegger recuperated the ancient Greek word in his philosophy.

2‘Senses’, however, may sometimes survive even beyond the languages, names and cultures that originally hosted them. The Greek notion of αλήθεια is found in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, where ‘truth’ (a word derived from the Old English) is intended as that which is to be disclosed. When her uncle Marcus asks the mutilated Lavinia to use a stick and with the help of her stumps and tongue-less mouth write on the sandy ground the names of her assaulters, he exorts her to do so in order to unveil the truth:

Marcus :
Cursed be that heart that forc’d us to this shift.
Write thou, good niece; and here display at last
What God will have discovered for revenge.
Heaven guide thy pen to print thy sorrows plain,
That we may know the traitors and the truth. (IV.1.72-76)1

3Truth is a most complex topic, and Shakespeare also turned to the ‘verity’ of Latin origin and sense to refer to it. The noun recurs ten times in his texts2 and is used in an interesting way in Coriolanus, where reference is made to the possibilities of truth – in the sense of ‘the true or real facts or circumstances’3 – to remain such, even when it may be tried by verbal actions that, answering to a desire to give the amplest possible testimony to it, push truth to the limits and risk its slippage into falsehood:

Menenius Agrippa:
 I tell thee, fellow,
Thy general is my lover. I have been
The book of his good acts, whence men have read
His name unparallel’d, haply amplified;
For I have ever verified my friends,
Of whom he’s chief, with all the size that verity
Would without lapsing suffer. Nay, sometimes,
Like to a bowl upon a subtle ground,
I have tumbled past the throw, and in his praise
Have almost stamp’d the leasing. (V.2.13-22)4

4Etymologies are not the only ‘truth’ of names, and the latter sometimes also signify by ‘detours’ of meaning. Those of us who are not versed in the philosophy of language perceive names as identifiers; a name refers to the named individual and confers to it what we perceive to be an unalterable uniqueness that will remain unchanged in time. At the same time, for an archaic and anachronistic desire to believe in the correspondence between name and thing, we like to think that the named thing or individual also confers to the name its character: as the name means or refers to something or someone with certain specific characteristics, it shares, to a certain extent, in the fixity of those. But the trajectories of names may be many and one example will suffice to reveal the fallacy of the notion of ‘immutability’ for the word and the thing alike.

5Consider the name ‘democracy’, for instance: one tends to intend by it the rule of the majority and the representation of all, with a sense that it is a just form of rule. But already Plato, referring to Athens, wrote about it in these terms: “the government of the Athenians is a democracy by the name, but it is actually an aristocracy, a government of the best with the approval of the many”5. Plato already detected a discrepancy between the name and the signified form of rule, and basically called ‘democracy’ a misnomer with respect to the Athenian state. Today Jacques Rancière goes back to the idiosyncracy of the name ‘democracy’ to comment on the status of democratic rule in the present and writes: “The contemporary way of stating the ‘democratic paradox’ is thus: democracy as a form of government is threatened by democracy as a form of social and political life and so the former must repress the latter”6. Rancière’s analysis seems to suggest that we must look to the ancient misleadings of the name, not to its etymology alone, in order to try to make sense of democracy and/in its aporias.

6Like truth, democracy, is a complex topic. As a name, it never occurs in Shakespeare’s texts. This may not be surprising, although the word was already in use in the first half of the sixteenth century7. Yet from time to time criticism has proposed a notion of a ‘democratic’ Shakespeare, in which the detour of the name is so extreme as to lead to a production of meaning even in absentia of the name itself. Michael D. Bristol, having acknowledged a certain equivalency between philosophy and democracy (a notion he takes from Cornelius Castoriadis), writes of how Hamlet may be seen as anticipating it in his monologues:

When the figure of Hamlet steps forward to address the urban collectivity in early modern London with orations like ‘what a piece of work is man’ or ‘to be or not to be’, he enacts this fundamental and radical connection between critical speculative thought and the democratic impulse8.

7Similarly, political science has taken an interest in Shakespeare and read it as a conduit of ideas about politics that may help us reflect on the questions of rule and power in the present, even on what we mean by ‘liberal democracy’; in this respect, Shakespeare’s early modern version of the ‘body politic’ (another expression nowhere to be found in the plays, although already present in a text composed before 1475 according to OED) has been seen as ‘perhaps the most vivid and enduring image in speech describing political community ever proposed’ and has been the catalyst of political scientists Bernard J. Dobski and Dustin A. Gish’s interest in the plays9. The two scholars have recently considered Shakespeare’s dramatic works as “illuminat[ing] the body politic as an essential means for bringing into being the preconditions and framework required for healthy political life, including liberal democracy, to flourish”10.

8Interesting deviations, through which original and revealing perspectives are sometimes cast on the world of the play and on its relation to early modern culture, are produced even when names signify in the most usual way in Shakespeare, i.e. with both the word and the referent as being present in the playtext and on stage. Consider the proper name. Proper names reveal filiations and belonging, and in Shakespeare’s plays they refer to the personal history in its imbrications with the collective history and with the making or unmaking of a nation. Royal power – and often its deviations – is the form of rule amply represented in the plays, and the names of Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, but also Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra refer to that ‘thick’ area where the private overlaps with the public. A reading of the peculiar use, in some plays, of the proper name can disclose a radical take on power, ideology and culture. Through a reading of some examples taken from Shakespeare’s rhetorical uses of the name, here I would therefore like to explore the possibilities of sense-making as well as the unexpected subversions which proper names bring about in the plays. I propose that we look to the routes names take – the senses they go by – and the uses to which they have been put that somehow contradict the defining logic of the name.

9The name is the question, then. Of course, names are also role-prescriptive in Shakespeare. Here, however, I am concerned with the ability to stray that is also a quality of names, with their flickering character and the imports of the detours of the name11. First of all, what happens when a proper name is pronounced for the first time in a play? What does the appearance of a new name import? By way of an answer, I should like to quote the opening passage from “Khora”, a text by the philosopher Jacques Derrida:

[W]hen a name comes, it immediately says more than the name: the other of the name and quite simply the other, whose irruption the name announces12.

10A name does not define nor domesticate anything, even when we think it does; it rather announces the otherness of the named one, the irruption of its foreignness on the scene of the already known. Shakespeare invents different ways for names to act in this sense. Othello oscillates between the identity given by his proper name – the self-respect of a valiant general, a public figure recognized by all by that name – and an appellative that makes him the exception and an outsider: the ‘Moor of Venice’, which announces the irruption of the foreign already in the title of the play. His is a progress towards becoming (verifying?) the common yet alien name, the ‘Moor’ with a capital letter, something he finally achieves in the last speech before killing himself13: as he recalls the valiant warrior he used to be, who “in Aleppo once” killed a Turk to defend a Venetian, Othello kills himself; his present self, who after his killing of Desdemona has lost the tie even with his proper name – “Where is this rash and most unfortunate man?”, asks Lodovico, to which his reply is “That’s he that was Othello? Here I am.” (V.2.280-281)14 – is thus compared to the “turban’d Turk” (another common noun with a capital initial) he once attacked:

Othello :
[…] Set you down this,
And say besides that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbanned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog
And smote him – thus!
 He stabs himself. (V.2.349-354)

11Othello’s jealousy or madness, indeed his distracted identity, is the result of his being caught between name and appellative, of his subjecting himself to the law of the name, in the singular, when in fact there is one name too many; of his responding to the appellative as if it were also his proper name15.

12Proper names were also a way for Shakespeare to experiment with absence in theatre. The Tempest is a play that revels in absences of different kinds and degrees. There Shakespeare invented two names for two figures who never appear on stage, yet are mentioned by the characters and may be said to have been the ‘prompters’ of action: ‘Sycorax’ and ‘Claribel’, referring respectively to Caliban’s mother, the ‘blue-ey’d hag’ from ‘Argiers’ who was first exiled on the island that is the setting of the play, and the King of Naples’ daughter, from whose wedding with the King of Tunis the courtly party are returning when they get caught in the magic tempest and shipwreck on the island. In the same play Shakespeare also experimented with the absence of the name and invented a nameless place, the island that is the setting of the action: in the middle of the Mediterranean or mare nostrum, a domesticated place by name (its Latin name means ‘situated in the middle of land’ and ‘our sea’), the island of redemption and of an inconclusive, failing ‘politics of friendship’ (at least as far as Antonio and Caliban, in their different ways, are concerned) has no name. One wonders if there may not be, in the absence of the name, a certain scepticism of the idea that ‘all’s well that ends well’… And it is possibly no coincidence that the same gloomy view is reiterated in the name-depriving appellative ‘thing of darkness’, which expropriates Caliban of any humanity – if he was ever thought to have some – and which is used by Prospero, at the end of the play, to acknowledge Caliban’s uncanny kinship with himself and his unresolvable presence on the island.

13That there may be ‘things’ that names cannot actually name is a conscious thought in Macbeth, where the unconceivable is also unnameable.

 O horror! horror! horror!
Tongue nor heart cannot conceive, nor name thee! (II.3.62-3)16

14This is Macduff’s cry at the horrifying sight of the corpse of the murdered Duncan. Names falter at this point and ‘horror’ is for Macduff what it will be three centuries later for Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, the name of the unnameable. Macbeth, who has murdered the king, also sincerely participates in the horror of the discovery, as in the same scene, only a few lines later, he laments:

Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had liv’d a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There’s nothing serious in mortality;
All is but toys: renown, and grace, is dead;
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of. (II.3.89-94)

15I call it a ‘discovery’ and I define the exclamation as being ‘sincere’ because, although Macbeth is the murderer, it is as if he becomes aware of his crime only at a later moment, in ‘this instant’ (II.3.90) when he goes back to the room where the dead Duncan lies and sees the crime for the first time with the eyes of Macduff and the others, those who have come to wake the king. Macbeth does not feign his feelings here17.

16In the way proper names are employed in a text, we can read the accordance with or discordance from the epistemic space of the cultural context to which the text belongs. At times, Shakespeare overtly reproduces the early modern grid of correspondences in his use of the proper name, whereby the name and the named one are made to share the same qualities: in The Winter’s Tale Perdita has an Italianate name which refers to her having been lost to her parents. At other times, however, Shakespeare’s wordplay questions the correspondence between name and thing; in Richard III the ‘G’ prophecy shows the errors one falls prey to when believing in a certain coincidence between reality and the one – and only one – name it is thought to bear: George Duke of Clarence, Richard’s brother, is sentenced to death because the ‘truth’ of there being also a Richard of Gloucester as meant by the same initial ‘G’ is not seen nor heard in the world of the play, although the irony of the death sentence is evident to the audience18.

17In general, early modern writers were thrilled by but also suspicious of words, and this was because of the excess of signification – well rendered by the ‘G’ prophecy invented by Richard – which they may release. Michel de Montaigne, for example, rejected what he named the ‘vanitie of words’, which in the Essays he compared to idle and trivial talk:

Doe but heare one pronounce Metonymia, Metaphore, Allegory, Etimologie and other such trash-names of Grammer, would you not thinke, they meant some forme of a rare and strange language; They are titles and words that concerne your chamber-maides tittle-tattle19.

18The French writer saw figurative language as foolish talk and intended the excess of meaning as something to be distrusted. He therefore defined rhetorics as ‘a false, a couzening and deceitfull arte’ and rhetoricians as men who “professe to deceiue and beguile, not our eies, but our iudgement; and to bastardize and corrupt the essence of things”20. Shakespeare, on the contrary, showed his attunement with the more positive reception of rhetorics which was also widespread in early modern English culture, and often made words exceed their ‘proper’ space21.

19He found ways to do the same with names. The repetition of the proper name was one way in which Shakespeare played with language. I want to suggest that the specific textual strategy of the repetition of the name can be read in relation with the visions of life and theatre that the playwright produced in his texts; as the latter touch upon all aspects of one or the other, from politics and ideology to the idea of a tragic sense that is intrinsic to human life, the recurrence of proper names goes beyond the pleasing wordplay of a ‘comedy of errors’ to become a means of historical and political investigation and of metadramatic reflection. From Hamlet to Richard III to Julius Caesar, the reiteration of the same name creates deviations which are always tragic in their outcomes. The uncanny doubling of identities effected by the repetition of the same name brings about a universal ruin, and at least in one case it unveils the disconcerting political and ideological implications of mistaking one for the other: in Julius Caesar Cinna the poet is killed by the mob because he has the same name as Cinna the conspirator; there the poetic is mistaken for the political, a fatal error that will cost the poetic its existence. In Shakespeare, the ambivalence of language (in all the diverse forms it can take) necessarily turns political. The play of words is never innocent, nor is it an indifferent experiment with the potentialities of language; it does not remain at the level of language, but rather turns into a political statement the moment it is performed. Cinna the poet cannot make his voice heard, he cannot persuade the mob of the truth, i.e. of the fact that he has nothing to do with the political and rebellious actions of the conspirators; indeed, his proclamation that he is a poet makes him look even more the political conspirator in the eyes of the mob. The death by assassination of Cinna the poet charges the political with being blind and deaf to the truth; it reveals that the political fight is an easy prey to equivocations, paradoxically so because it believes in the uniqueness of its cause and of the proper name ‘Cinna’, and in the coincidence of name and thing or person:

I am not Cinna the conspirator.Fourth plebeian:
It is no matter, his name’s Cinna. Pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going.

20By furious nominalism, the poetic, or what makes words travellers of sense, and real ‘vagabonds’ of meaning, to recall the beautiful definition by Virginia Woolf, is killed alongside the poet in this tragedy; the propriety of the proper name is brought to its extreme consequences. I read the Cinna episode as a clever if impious way, on Shakespeare’s part, to state that political extremisms – beyond any evaluation of whether their cause may be a just or unjust one – fixated as they are on the singular idea, are always, paradoxically, in danger of equivocation, and as such they can only lead to tragedy. This is the radical political meaning of the episode.

21In the oscillation between the desired fixity of the name and the detours Shakespeare makes it suffer, sense makes its political statements. Poststructuralism taught us that history, politics and the agency of people, the daily acts of the members of a community, should be read as textual constructions23. At the same time literature, in its unique way, keeps us alert to the ‘linguistic’ essence of the political (the political being by no means belittled by this). In Shakespeare, the play with words and names produces subversive senses, political and otherwise, at both a conscious and an unconscious level24. A good place for a discussion of this is the tragedy of Richard III.

A rose is a rose is a rose… On Richard III

22It is in its appearing and functioning ‘against itself’, as it were, in opposition to its vocation to define, monumentalize, and establish filiations, that the name reveals its most interesting properties. In Richard III Richard is an unnameable – in the sense of horrible and monstrous – creature. Yet in the play the name ‘Richard’ is repeated over and over again, to produce a verbal ‘spectacle’ of the monstrosity ascribed to the character. More than that, the reiteration of the name occurs with reference to different characters: “Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard kill’d him” (IV.4.43)25. The line is part of Margaret’s address to Queen Elizabeth; the first ‘Richard’ refers to the younger of the two Princes in the Tower, Richard Duke of York26; the second refers to Richard III. The doubling of the name produces an echo between the identity that the play associates with ‘Richard’ (the historical figure of Richard of Gloucester, King of England from 1483 to 1485 and the referent of the Shakespearean ‘Richard III’) and other identities by the same name. What are we to make of this? Is there just one proper name ‘Richard’ or are there many homonyms27? Does the way we intend the ‘Richards’ in the play make any difference to our perception of the space of tragedy? How should we read the repetition of the proper name in the text?

23Richard III is a play rich in rhetorical devices. Repetition is its recursive trope. Brian Vickers listed the different forms of repetition in the text and identified ploce (the repetition of a word within the same clause or line) as “one of the [play’s] most used figures of stress”28. He read Shakespeare’s use of rhetoric as part of a culture that ascribed great relevance to figurative speech for its emotional and intellectual effects, an idea early modern rhetoricians shared with ancient Greek and Latin writers: “All rhetorical devices were thought of as deviations made from the norm of ‘plain’ communication (strictly conceived) for some emotional or structural purpose”29. Indeed, Henry Peacham’s The Garden of Eloquence (1577), George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie (1589) and John Hoskins’s Directions for Speech and Style (1599), to name three texts from the early modern period which had a fairly wide circulation at the time, all advise orators about the appropriateness of a relation between rhetorical figures and states of mind or feeling. More specifically, when discussing the repetition of a single word, early modern treatises advised that it should always be of ‘a word of importance’ (this was, for example, Peacham’s advice as to the right use of diaphora). In Richard III, alongside the repetition of the proper name, we find the recurrence of the words ‘blood’, ‘kill’d’, and ‘dead’. My question is therefore the following: if the early modern texts proposed that “[r]hetoric re-enacts feeling”30, can we say that there are also meanings, viewpoints, visions of the world that are revealed by specific tropes and figures, by the rhetorical devices of a text? Can we infer a vision of history and power from the repetitions of Richard III, more specifically from the repetition of proper names in the play?

24The name is the question. The noun ‘name’ recurs more than six hundred times in the Shakespeare concordance, Richard III being the play with the greatest number of instances. In the text, the recurrence of the protagonist’s proper name has the function of confusing readers and spectators as to its referent: in a play of disquieting mirrors and shadows – the ‘doubling’ effects of which are even notoriously brought together by Richard in his second soliloquy, when he commands: “Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass, / That I may see my shadow as I pass” (I.2.267-8) – the name ‘Richard’ proliferates to disrupt the identity the proper name should guarantee. The unnameable (monstrous, deformed, evil) names too much, and too many; in the Wars of the Roses – wars of indifference by definition – it crosses boundaries and limits, to the point of con-fusion between the two parties involved, the York and the Lancaster. How is power affected by this proliferation of the name?

25Richard III is a play about power. In his opening monologue Richard notoriously declares his plan to set the present and long awaited-for “weak, piping time of peace” (I.1.24) to chaos again. His wicked, and wickedly pronounced, intention comes at the moment in time when the Wars of the Roses have been won by the York family and England is under the rule of Richard’s brother, King Edward IV; the desire to usurp the place that is not rightly his sets Richard to subtle action. The play shows him as he pursues his ends and up to his final defeat at the battle of Bosworth. Repetitions, deviations and the masquerade are the modalities of Richard’s acting, performed to conquer the throne and absolute power; they are also the modalities through which the text produces this story31. In the play, names and appellatives are alternatively empowering and disabling instruments of power. Sometimes they are controversially so in devious and subtle ways. In Lady Anne’s reply to the kneeling, if already murderous, wooer Richard of Gloucester: “Arise, dissembler” (I.2.188), there is not only the request that Richard stand up from his genuflecting position, but also her consent to, if not her order for, all his future actions. In her cue there is revealed the duplicitous space of the appellation,which, as a devious speech act, empowers even as it degrades: the definition ‘dissembler’, coming after ‘Arise’, almost seems an exhortation to Richard to gain power as and because he is a ‘dissembler’.

26Elsewhere in the play names and appellatives question the orders of power. If blood-ties and filiation are the natural claims to succession, and the family is the unit that sanctions that naturalness, the play questions the legitimacy of inheriting power by way of family bonds. This becomes evident if we look to the way families are described in the play. The House of York, for example, is far from being a closed organism: King Edward IV’s wife was a widow, with children from her first husband; Richard refers to her as ‘widow’ and ‘Lady Grey’, the latter being a name which verbally materializes the presence of that other family in the family of York and makes it sound almost scandalous, in a way that is by far more effective than the actual presence on stage of the Queen’s sons, the characters of Grey and Dorset, and of her brother Rivers. Through the appellations that Richard uses to refer to Queen Elizabeth, the play seems to obliquely interrogate the relationship between the alleged ‘naturalness’ of families and the notion of the legitimacy of power, and to question that very notion of legitimacy with respect to royal succession – or indeed with respect to the acquisition of the royal appellative (‘Queen Elizabeth’). In using names other than ‘Queen Elizabeth’ when addressing the king’s wife, Richard points to the artificiality of marriage and alerts us to marriage’s inappropriateness to reinforce legitimate claims to royal power; when he calls Queen Elizabeth either a “widow” or “Lady Grey”, the pronounced names remind the audience of her former social status, almost as if she was to be forever identified with it, even after her marriage with the king32. The appellations invalidate the legitimacy of the present royal couple and their right to create a family whose ‘naturalness’ would grant the legitimacy of the inheritance of the throne. Or, rather, those appellations reveal the artificiality of marriage, which can contain non-rightful situations, such as Lady Grey’s marriage with the king, under cover of legitimacy33.

27The sense of history that the play puts forward is similarly forged by the specific use of proper names. Richard III tells of the last phase in the Wars of the Roses, of Richard of Gloucester’s bloody and oblique ascent to power, and of his final defeat at the hands of the future king Henry VII, who in the play represents, if only briefly and at the end of the text, the good order of power in opposition to Richard’s evil power. The play has traditionally been read as unfolding a teleological history, where each event takes place along a linear and progressive route that leads towards a resolutive end. Such reading locates Richard’s evil power within the chain of events, sees it as a part assimilable to the Hegelian negative moment of antithesis, necessary for progression but superseded in the eventual synthesis. This linear structure is certainly present in the play; at the same time, however, the reiteration of the names in the representation of the Wars puts forward a history that unrolls as repetition, where the distinct terms of good and evil echo each other and become one the reflection of the other. In the reiterated scheme of the repetition of proper names Richard III shows the Wars of the Roses to be nothing but a series of battles of doubles. The text puts it in these terms, through the litany-like accounts of Margaret34, an important character in the play for a definition of “history”:

Plantagenet doth quit Plantagenet:
Edward, for Edward, pays a dying debt. (IV.4.20-21)

28The use of the same name, ‘Plantagenet’, reveals that factions are but one family and that families are made up of factions. In one blow, the line deconstructs two tenets of the representation of the patriarchal and royal order, i.e. that the family is a closed, well-defined unit, and that opposing factions have nothing to do with one another.

Later on in the same scene Margaret laments:
I had an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
I had a husband, till a Richard kill’d him:
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard kill’d him. (IV.4.40-43)

Thy Edward he is dead, that kill’d my Edward;
Thy other Edward dead, to quit my Edward; (IV.4.63-64)

29The lines in the first quotation are addressed to Queen Elizabeth, those in the second to Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York35. History is the history of doubles, which also recur in Margaret’s curses in Act 1, when she invokes justice against Elizabeth:

Edward thy son, that now is Prince of Wales,
For Edward my son, that was Prince of Wales, (I.3.199-200)

30Margaret presents the characters as doubles; the names echo each other from one side of the war to the other and create a play of mirror reflections where no one is the ‘original’36. If it was a historical fact that the name of Richard recurred on both sides of the war, York and Lancaster being both offsprings of the same family, both descending from Edward III, King of England, it is Shakespeare’s literary space that stresses that point, that finds rhetorical ways to put it in relief; in this manner it establishes a disturbing and to an extent uncanny relation between the doubling of the names and the tragedy of the political events.

31Margaret’s speeches gather together the different but similar functions of doubling, reflection, repetition. As the doubles are recalled to have fought each other in the recounted past, the war for power can almost be read as being a war to gain originality. That past fight proved to be hopeless; the Wars of the Roses look like a sequence made out of one event endlessly repeating itself, where there is no place for originality. Margaret’s speeches resort to the proper name, which should be a marker of singularity, to insist instead on repetitive doubles and give a sense of the specularity between the factions involved in the conflict. When the proper name is the same for more than one person, it becomes a common name and questions the singularity of the bearers too. ‘Floating signifier’ from one character to the other, in Richard III the proper name levels the subjects, undermines their self-identity, effaces the differences. It is not surprising that the interchangeability of proper names in the play has been dismissed as a negative trait by some critics and found to be ‘misleading’37.

32Borrowing from psychoanalytical readings of literary texts, we could read the proliferation of proper names as an attempt to substitute something else, possibly the only, single name which is missing; as Julia Kristeva writes: “[t]he series of names attempts to fill the space left empty by the lack of a sole name. Paternal name, or Name of God”38. From Kristeva’s psychoanalytical point of view, the accumulation replaces the name of the Father, or the lost origin. But it will not bring it back to presence again; the accumulation reproduces that origin only in a fragmented form, scattering it in the countless pieces that are the names. The repeated proper names of Richard III can be read as the multiplication that substitutes a lacking origin, and Kristeva’s words could well apply to the play:

The amassing of names ... achieves first this impossible naming of the One, then its pulverizing, finally its reversal toward the dark region of the unnameable Thing39.

33The origin is always already missing, it is a ‘Lost Thing’ which was never there and can only be present as absence; its place is a void. The origin is unnameable – unpresentable – unless it is presented in deadly and deadening forms. But what is the ‘Lost Thing’ in Richard III?

34Richard III lacks the origin of power, authority, unity of the state; it has no ‘King’. In the opening pun on sun-son of York – another instance of the excesses of appellative names – the sun is weakened by Richard’s shadow, and so is its analogue on earth, who is almost absent in the play; the king appears only a few times on stage, and when he does he is either a corpse (Henry VI), or sick before he dies (Edward IV), or a child on his way to his deadly prison (Edward V), or a ‘cripple’ (in body and soul) who already feels that his power is doomed (Richard himself). The King is presented as a powerless figure; of him it is said that he is “sickly, weak and melancholy” (1.1.136). The ‘good King’ will only briefly appear at the end of the play, when Richmond arrives to restore the order that was upset by Richard. The Wars of the Roses, as a fight to kill the King and take his place, become somehow disquieting when that place is repeatedly presented as a wretched site: if power is not in the place where we would expect to find it, and the kingdoes not even retain an appearance of power, thenthe struggle for the throne is a struggle for the ruins. In Richard III the ‘King’ is a void and the throne only a place of decay and death. The run for power leads to powerlessness; even the evil Richard succumbs to this fate and dies after he has conquered the throne, once he is king.

35The name of king is not a name for power in this play; as a name it is hollowed, deprived of its meaning: ‘king’ does not signify ‘power’. Yet events revolve around the name of king as if it retained the power with which the name is commonly associated. This is the subtle originality of the play: the action seems to be prompted by a recognition of the usual association: the name of ‘king’ stands for the ‘thing’ ‘power’. An incongruence therefore exists between what is presented – the king as a void of power – and what is understood and sets history in motion – the king is power40. How are we to read the discrepancy with respect to early modern culture and politics? I think it is a willed strategy, on the part of the playwright, to present, in this oblique way which very much resembles the way of Richard III himself, the ‘passion’ of power or, rather, of the signs of power, the dissemination/dispersal of the role of king through the repetition of the same names.

36Connected to the role of king is the father-figure. This is also absent in Richard III. In A Speech to the Lords and Commons of the Parliament at White-Hall (1610), James I affirmed that “Kings are also compared to Fathers of families: for a King is trewly Parens patriæ, the politique father of his people”41. But if the Tudor-Stuart state used the parallel to preserve a respected position for both figures, Richard III invalidates the power of both king and father. The play lacks paternal figures. The corpse of Henry VI in 1.2 declares the death of both the father and the king: Lady Anne is the only mourner of his death, and the exclusive presence of a daughter-in-law at his funeral displaces the role of father for Henry VI. While still alive, Edward IV is not presented as a father, and his children appear only later, after his death and as orphans. Richard himself has no living father, and one of the only three times when he mentions him in the play is in the swearing: “My father’s death— ” (IV.4.375)42.

37Most uncannily, the void which is the place of the absent father is filled with mirror images. The Duchess of York laments her children’s death in this way:

I have bewept a worthy husband’s death,
And liv’d with looking on his images:
But now two mirrors of his princely semblance
Are crack’d in pieces by malignant death;
And I, for comfort, have but one false glass,
That grieves me when I see my shame in him. (II.2.49-54)

38A ‘glass’ kills two ‘mirrors’ of the father: parricide takes place again, but here it is deferred to a realm of doubles, of images. The oedipal murder is displaced, moved to a region of surfaces, and the text disperses uniqueness in mirror reflections.

39The language in Richard III makes it the scene of reflections; the repetition of proper names is part of a larger setting, where characters, power, fights, history, involve or are present as ‘mirrors’43. The play of reflections is echoed in the repetitive language of the dialogues; both contribute to create a vision of history that is disturbing, violent, and subversive in its repetitiveness. For Simon Palfrey, repeated or echoing words “invariably embody a play’s most profound struggles over history, identity, knowledge”44. In Richard III the repetition of proper names states/creates a dissemination-qua-fragmentation of power.

40It was Virginia Woolf who called words “irreclaimable vagabonds”: “words hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or confines them to one attitude, for it is their nature to change”45. Names are a special category of words; identification – of a singularity or of a generic or shared quality – is their main feature. In the examples I have discussed Shakespeare uses names in such a way as to unfix and destabilise singularities, and indeed to refuse to name and identify. He delves into the culture of his time and embraces its episteme, but does so not without also, at the same time, finding ways to subvert it or to reveal its contradictions; thus he gives us his sense of politics, life, language, and of the tragic (in a cross-generic way) relation that knots them together.


1  William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, edited by Jonathan Bate, London, Routledge, The Arden Shakespeare Third Series, 1995.

2  The plural form ‘verities’ also appears once, in Macbeth, III.1.8. See Shakespeare, Macbeth, edited by Kenneth Muir, London and New York, Routledge, The Arden Shakespeare, 1984.

3  “verity, n.”, 2.a., OED Online, September 2015. Oxford University Press. Accessed 25 September 2015.

4  William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, edited by Philip Brockbank, London and New York, Routledge, The Arden Shakespeare, 1976.

5  Plato, Menexenus, 238c-d. Quoted in Jacques Rancière, “Does Democracy Mean Something ?”, in Jacques Rancière, Dissensus : On Politics and Aesthetics, edited and translated by Steven Corcoran, London, Continuum, 2010, p. 45-61, p. 45.

6  Jacques Rancière, art. cit., p. 47. Rancière calls it “the paradox of democracy” (p. 45). Democratic rule has been for some time a contested space. Jacques Derrida also discussed its aporia in The Politics of Friendship (1994). And, that ‘democracy’ is the name of a complex and besides vulnerable space may also be inferred from Gayatri C. Spivak’s writings, as she points to democracy as being the only system of government that is hospitable to all kinds and ways of thinking, and considers this to be the reason why it is always threatened.

7  OED has even a first instance dating back to earlier than 1500, where, interestingly enough for my discussion here, it has a negative connotation of disorder, a sense OED reports to have been not uncommon for the word.

8  Michael D. Bristol, Big-time Shakespeare, London, Routledge, 1996, p. 180.

9  See Bernard J. Dobski and Dustin A. Gish, “Shakespeare, the Body Politic, and Liberal Democracy”, Perspectives on Political Science 41, 2012, p. 181-89. The quotation is on p. 181.

10  Ibid., p. 181. Dobski and Gish also write : “Through his works, Shakespeare helps us to think about both parts and wholes in a political context and about the proper relationship between the parts and the whole” (p. 181). Shakespeare’s texts, which alternatively address different forms of power, with an insistence on royal power, have also been discussed in relation to other forms of rule : see for example Andrew Hadfield, Shakespeare and Republicanism, Cambridge, Cambridge U. P., 2005 and, for a reading of radicalism in Shakespeare, Chris Fitter, ‘“Mock not Flesh and Blood⁄With Solemn Reverence’ : Recovering Radical Shakespeare”, Literature Compass 9/6, 2012, p. 420-30. Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy : Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and Its Contemporaries (1984), 3rd ed., Houndmills, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, is the pathbreaking study that, by looking to the genre of Jacobean tragedy, pointed to its critical challenging of authority.

11  For a different but related analysis of the various uses of names in Shakespeare, see Marvin Spevack, “Beyond Individualism : Names and Namelessness in Shakespeare”, Huntington Library Quarterly 56.4, 1993, p. 383-398. In particular, Spevack discusses the desire to be nameless as an aspiration to a condition of freedom. For an insightful, poststructuralist reading of the name in Romeo and Juliet see Catherine Belsey, “The Name of the Rose in Romeo and Juliet”, Yearbook of English Studies 23, 1993, p. 126-142 ; see also Laurie Maguire, Shakespeare’s Names, Oxford, OUP, 2007. New Textualism reads the variations of the names of characters in the early editions of Shakespeare as bearing ideological implications ; as Gabriel Egan writes : “In particular, the variation in the names given to a single character in early editions of Shakespeare is diagnosed by New Textualists as an early modern anticipation of the instability of human personality discovered by modernism and post-modernism.” Gabriel Egan, “The Presentist Threat to Editions of Shakespeare”, in Cary DiPietro and Hugh Grady, eds, Shakespeare and the Urgency of the Now : Criticism and Theory in the 21st Century, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, p. 38-59, p. 45.

12  Jacques Derrida, “Khora” (1993), in Jacques Derrida, On the name, translated by David Wood, John P. Leavey Jr, and Ian McLeod, Stanford, Stanford U. P., 1995, p. 89.

13  For a reading of the name of Othello see Joel Fineman, “The Sound of O in Othello : The Real of the Tragedy of Desire”, in Joel Fineman, The Subjectivity Effect in Western Literary Tradition : Essays Towards the Release of Shakespeare’s Will, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 1991, p. 143-164.

14  William Shakespeare, Othello, edited by E. A. J. Honigmann, Walton-on-Thames, Thomas Nelson and Sons, The Arden Shakespeare Third Series, 1996.

15  Of course, it may be argued that the name ‘Othello’ already contains hints of the infernal destiny of the character, as Stanley Cavell pointed out in “Othello and the Stake of the Other”. In Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare, Cambridge, CUP, 1987, p. 125-142.

16  William Shakespeare, Macbeth, edited by Kenneth Muir, London and New York, Routledge, The Arden Shakespeare, 1962 and 1984.

17  About this passage, A. C. Bradley already wrote : “It is meant to deceive, but it utters at the same time his profoundest feeling” (A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy : Lectures on ‘Hamlet’, ‘Othello’, ‘King Lear’, ‘Macbeth’, 2nd edition, London, Macmillan and Co., 1905, 359. To which Kenneth Muir added, in his note to the Arden edition of the text : “Macbeth was unconscious of the truth of his words” – note to II.3.89-94).

18  The ‘G’ of the prophecy has also been persuasively read as having many more referents than Clarence and Richard by Yan Brailowsky, “What’s in a Name ? The ‘G’ Prophecy and the Voice of God in Shakespeare’s Richard III”, in Line Cottegnies et al, Les Voix de Dieux : Littérature et prophétie en Angleterre et en France à l’âge baroque, Paris, Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2008, p. 35-46.

19  Michel de Montaigne, “Of the vanitie of Wordes”, Essayesdone into English… by Iohn Florio… London : Printed by Melch. Bradwood for Edward Blount and William Barret, 1613, 167. EEBO digital copy. The Essais first came out in French in 1580 ; Florio’s English translation first appeared in 1603.

20  Ibid., p. 165.

21  Therefore, despite Puttenham’s warning, in The Art of English Poesie, against amphibologies – speeches “which might be constred two or three wayes” – Renaissance rhetoric also considered ambivalence as a positive quality of speech ; the examination of a question in utramque partem, or the taking into account of its two points of view or parts, was regularly taught. For the acknowledgement of ambivalence as essential to meaning in early modern writing see, among the others, Joel B. Altman, The Tudor Play of Mind : Rhetorical Inquiry and the Development of Elizabethan Drama, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1978.

22  William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, edited by David Daniell, Walton-on-Thames, Thomas Nelson, The Arden Shakespeare Third Series, 1998.

23  Catherine Belsey writes : “Poststructuralism proposes that the distinctions we make are not necessarily given by the world around us, but are instead produced by the symbolizing systems we learn.” C. Belsey, Poststructuralism : A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, OUP, 2002, p. 7. See also the reading of history offered by Hayden White or the insightful analyses of modernity by Michel Foucault.

24  For the ‘unconscious of the text’, I refer to Jonathan Culler, “Textual Self-Consciousness and the Textual Unconscious”, Style 18, 1984, p. 369-376.

25  William Shakespeare, King Richard III, edited by Antony Hammond, London and New York, Routledge, The Arden Shakespeare, 1981. All further quotations are from this edition.

26  The two young brothers were imprisoned in the Tower of London and disappeared after that. Shakespeare assumes that they were killed by order of their uncle Richard of Gloucester.

27  I am adapting the formulation of the question of the name in philosophy : “On the one hand, it is tempting to infer the uniqueness of the name, on syntactic grounds, from the uniqueness of the proper noun [arguably the same noun recurs in different names] … On the other hand, there is pressure from semantics to recognize multiple homonyms (or else large-scale ambiguity).” Sam Cumming, ‘Names’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta, ed., Accessed 28 April 2015.

28  Brian Vickers, “Shakespeare’s Use of Rhetoric” (1971), in Vivian Salmon and Edwina Burness, eds, A Reader in the Language of Shakespearean Drama, John Benjamins, 1987, p. 391-406, p. 396. In the play he also detected other rhetorical figures involving an effect of repetition, such as those that create symmetrical structure (anaphora, parison, isocolon, epistrophe, antimetabole) and forms of repetition of individual words, differentiated according to the position of the word : antimetabole again, and epizeuxis, epanalepsis, anadiplosis, climax, polyptoton, as well as the four types of pun that also involve repetition : paronomasia, antanaclasis, syllepsis, asteismus.

29  Ibid., p. 394.

30  Ibid., p. 398.

31  I have discussed the implications of the rhetorical devices used in Richard III for its representation of power in Anna Maria Cimitile, “The Obliquity of Power in Richard III”, in Shakespearean Orders : Language, Representation and Epistemic Subversions, Napoli, Liguori, 2000, p. 83-138.

32  See, for instance, I.1.109, and I.1.64. In the notes to I.1.153 and I.1.154 Antony Hammond writes that Elizabeth was not actually married to Edward ; if this historical note may ‘explain’ Richard’s language, it also at the same time shows that the ‘perverse’ features of naturalness as exposed by Richard were already ‘unnaturally’ accepted as natural by the culture of the time. The ‘overflowing’ character of families is also exposed in the references to ‘Mistress Shore’, who, alluded to as being the king’s mistress in the play, could equally be seen as an illegitimate member of the king’s family.

33  As the appellations seem to reveal the contempt that Richard has for the Queen, and as in his pronouncing them we tend to read one more aspect of his ill nature, they become part of a construction of Richard as evil that encapsulates what they say about marriage and the hypocrisy underlying the given reception of marriage. In other words, Richard’s wickedness functions as a mask in the play ; it covers the radicality of a perspective that would otherwise be very upsetting for the established order. To read the different take on power advanced in the play, we should therefore read through the mask or masquerade of evil of Richard III.

34  Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482), queen consort of King Henry VI and a leader of the Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses. In stage performances of the play her appearances have often been treated as those of a ghost, or at least a character from another time and epoch ; this was for example the case in Sam Mendes’s Richard III, The Bridge Project 2011, with Kevin Spacey in the leading role and Gemma Jones as Queen Margaret.

35  They refer to the past of the wars, as the play presents the moment when the fight shifts from being a feud between two Houses to a war within the same family, where Richard fights his own relatives to conquer power. Indeed, the background to the Wars between two families is present only in Margaret’s accounts, and in a few other recollections from other characters.

36  The same names also recur within the same faction : Elizabeth is daughter to Elizabeth, and Lord Hastings meets Hastings in III.2 – a sign that indifferentiation is the rule everywhere in the play.

37 See for instance Hammond, “Appendix II : Longer Notes”, in Shakespeare, King Richard III, p. 338.

38  Julia Kristeva, Black Sun : Depression and Melancholia, translated by Leon S. Roudiez, New York, Columbia U. P., 1989 [Paris, 1987], p. 163. Kristeva refers the comment to the proliferation of proper names in ‘El Desdichado’ [‘The Unlucky’], a sonnet by Gerard de Nérval. In her psychoanalytical approach, she reads Nerval’s sonnet as an attempt to veil, with a sequence of proper names, the void of the (Lacanian) Thing he mourns.

39  Ibid., p. 164.

40  The king is powerless ; but this remains invisible, unless we look at the ‘facts’ of the text with a different eye, with that oblique gaze which seems to be the manner of the text itself. Instead in Richard II the presentation of royal power seems to be more explicit in its putting it in question, in its undermining it through an interrogation of the relation between language and power, the name of king and the king. That play evokes an image of hollowness for the king’s power, and associates the king’s place with death : “within the hollow crown / That rounds the mortal temples of a king / Keeps Death his court” (III.2.160-162 in Shakespeare, King Richard II, edited by Peter Ure, London, Methuen, The Arden Shakespeare, 1961, fifth edition [reprinted Routledge, 1988]).

41  James I, “A Speach to the Lords and Commons of the Parliament at White-Hall, On Wednesday the XXI. of March. Anno 1609”, The Political Works of James I. Reprinted from the Edition of 1616, with an Introduction by Charles Howard McIlwain, Cambridge, Harvard U. P., 1918, p. 307.

42  The first time Richard refers to his father is in I.3.174, in a speech where, to Margaret’s lamentation that he and the House of York have usurped her kingdom and joy, he replies that her situation is the enactment of the curses that his father laid on her. The curses occur in 3 Henry VI, I.3.164-166, where York pronounces them just before he dies, stabbed by Queen Margaret and Clifford. Even in this intertextual instance in Richard III, the father-figure is evoked in the moment of his death. Coppélia Kahn, “The Shadow of the Male : Masculine Identity in the History Plays”, in Man’s Estate : Masculine Identity in Shakespeare,Berkeley, University of California Press, 1981, p. 47-81, discusses the “breakdown of all filial bonds in Richard III” (p. 49). It could be argued that in the play the absence of familial bonds corresponds to the absence of the paternal figure in the first place.

43  Michael Neill also read Richard III as a play of mirrors (see Michael Neill, ‘Shakespeare’s Halle of Mirrors : Play, Politics, and Psychology in Richard III’, Shakespeare Studies VIII, 1975, 99-129). Neill analyzed the play as metadrama, singling out all the instances where the text seems to reflect on its status and uses the language of theatre to speak of politics. The references to mirrors and reflections in the text are read as part of the metadiscourse of the play.

44  Simon Palfrey, Doing Shakespeare, London, Thomson Learning, 2005, p. 62.

45  Virginia Woolf, ‘Craftsmanship’, BBC broadcast, 1937.

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Par Anna Maria Cimitile, «The Senses of Names: Shakespeare and Early Modern Rhetorics and Culture», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], Shakespeare en devenir, N°10 - 2016, mis à jour le : 22/03/2016, URL :

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Anna Maria Cimitile is Associate Professor of English Literature at the Università degli studi di Napoli “L’Orientale”. Her areas of research include Shakespeare and revisions of Shakespeare, postcolonial literatures in English. She is author of Shakespearean Orders: Language, Representation and Epistemic Subversions (2000), Emergenze: Il fantasma della schiavitù da Coleridge a D’Aguiar (2005), and of articles and essays on Shakespeare, postcolonial and cultural studies, women’s writing. She is ...