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ICOS 2008 Conference Abstract

Ethnic, Class, and Occupational Identities in Shakespeare's Names

G Smith
Eastern Washington University, United States

The clarity of ethnic, class, and occupational identities in Shakespeare’s names contributes significantly to the verisimilitude of his art. In contrast to Ben Jonson, and other theatrical rivals, Shakespeare used relatively few names that are obviously descriptive—such as Frugal, Tradewell, or Stargaze in Jonson’s The City Madam. Shakespeare’s naming shows that his imagination was focused on stage action rather than on references that might appear in print. He designated a large percentage of characters actually appearing on stage in terms of social groups, e.g., “Certaine Commoners” (Julius Caesar), and identified minor individuals to clarify functional roles (“Messenger”) or for wordplay, e.g., “Cobbler” (Julius Caesar). Shakespeare drew very clear distinctions in social class in his uses of socially distinctive names and formal titles. He also made ethnic differences clear in the names where ethnicity seems unimportant to the action (e.g., the spelling of Alonso in The Tempest), but he seems deliberately to have avoided common ethnic associations when the names are mentioned frequently by other characters and ethnicity is a major theme—e.g., Aaron (Titus Andronicus), Othello (Othello), and Shylock (The Merchant of Venice). By avoiding names that are specifically associative with ethnic minorities, Shakespeare lends these major ethnic characters greater individuality and dignity.

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