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Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Names in *As You Like It*

What's in a name? I know: wrong play. But it's a worthwhile question in As You Like It, a play that plays extensively on names.

The title alone links the play with another comedy whose heroine assumes male disguise: Twelfth Night, or What You Will – in other words (among many other meanings), What You Desire. When Rosalind, as Ganymede, decides to settle all the romantic confusions, she gives this promise to Silvius: “I will content you, if what pleases you contents you, and you shall be married tomorrow.”

Rosalind is borrowed from Thomas Lodge's novel Rosalynde: Euphues Golden Legacy (first published 1590 and reprinted many times) – a pastoral romance featuring many of the same plot elements and many of the same characters, with most of the same names.

In Lodge as well as Shakespeare, the name our heroine adopts is, as Rosalind proudly announces, that of “Jove's own page.” Ganymede was the most beautiful human being on earth, so Zeus (Jupiter or Jove in Latin) took on the form of an eagle and carried him off to Olympus. Ganymede served as cupbearer to the gods and, not surprisingly, as one of Zeus's amorous favorites.

Celia (whose name means “heavenly”) takes the name Aliena: foreigner, traveler, outsider, exile.

Orlando's name is borrowed from the Romance-Epic tradition that took the medieval Song of Roland, the hero of which is one of Charlemagne's knights, as the basis for explorations of love. The name Roland, in Italian, becomes Orlando. Matteo Maria Boiardo wrote Orlando Innamorato, Orlando in Love, near the end of the 1400s. Ludovico Ariosto took things even further with Orlando Furioso, Orlando Frenzied (by love), completing the work in 1532.

Touchstone, the jester, is one of Shakespeare's new contributions to the story. His name comes from the use of dark stones, such as slate, to determine the purity of softer precious metals, such as gold. When a line is drawn on a touchstone with a piece of gold, the color of the trace indicates the gold's quality and value. By extension, how one responds to the jesting of a “worthy fool” (as Jaques describes him) can be an indication of one's own worthiness.

The residents of the forest nearly all have names taken directly from pastoral literature, which is set in an idealized world of shepherds (pastores, in Latin) and shepherdesses. The genre was invented in ancient times and became fashionable again in the Renaissance, an era characterized by rediscovery of Greek and Roman culture. The names include Corin (a typical shepherd's name in the pastoral world), Silvius (literally, a dweller in the forest), and Phebe (another name for the chaste moon – otherwise known as Diana, the sister of Apollo, AKA Phoebus, god of the sun). The mythic Ganymede worked as a shepherd, despite his royal birth, before being carried off by Zeus.

The estranged brothers in the play are far more similar than different, if their names are any indication: Orlando and Oliver, Frederick and Ferdinand (Fred and Ferd, for short). If so, no wonder the “evil” brothers turn out to be not so evil after sudden conversions: Oliver is changed by Orlando's risking his own life and by Aliena's love; Frederick is persuaded by a holy man to abandon his plans to slaughter everybody in the forest.

We learn about Frederick's change of heart from the previously unknown Jaques de Boys, the middle brother between Oliver and Orlando. Why does this character get the same name as melancholy Jaques? A rush to finish the play in time for opening the show? A simple brain fart? Maybe. But I suspect that Shakespeare wants us to realize that the philosophical Jaques is also a middle brother: one who has received the education and social grooming that was denied Orlando, but who cannot inherit the family estate. So he has sold off what limited property was set aside for him and has spent his life attached to one court or another. As Rosalind/Ganymede tells Jaques: “A traveler! By my faith, you have great reason to be sad: I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men's; then, to have seen much and to have nothing, is to have rich eyes and poor hands.” But Rosalind speaks from the relative security of being an only child.

The rules of inheritance could lead to considerable unhappiness – and to understandable tension between siblings. Examples elsewhere in Shakespeare include Old Hamlet and Claudius, Edmund and Edgar in King Lear, Goneril and Regan and Cordelia in the same play. Rosalind and Celia are cousins, not siblings – which may help to explain their happier relationship. And since Orlando is simply the Italianate form of Roland, this youngest son has been marked as a favorite (like Cordelia): he's Sir Rowland Junior.

Photo: Matt Cummins as Silvius and Petrea Whittier as Phebe in Flatwater Shakespeare's As You Like ItPhoto Credit: Matt Ryerson.


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