What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet.
History’s most famous quote about names is from William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
Shakespeare was baptized in Stratford-upon-Avon in England 452 years ago today. He was probably born sometime the previous week.
Shakespeare died April 23, 1616, 400 years ago last Saturday. Until May 1, Omaha’s Durham Museum is exhibiting a copy of the “First Folio,” the original 1623 compilation of Shakespeare’s plays.
Shakespeares lived near Stratford at least three centuries before William’s birth. Their surname was originally a medieval nickname. Shakelance and Shakeshaft are similar family names. These were perhaps nicknames for soldiers, for men easily angered or even for one who boasted about his lovemaking.
Though admired in his own day, before 1700 Shakespeare was just considered one of many good English playwrights. In the early 18th century, he gained his reputation as the greatest English writer. His plays were soon famous everywhere.
Despite his huge fame, Shakespeare hasn’t had as much impact on baby naming as might be expected. Of course, many of his characters, especially in plays based on English history, have names like Richard, Henry, Margaret and Eleanor. It would be hard to see any special influence on common traditional names like those.
Many of the other plays are set in Italy or ancient Rome or Greece. Character names like Benvolio, Theseus, Cymbeline, Titania, Andromache, Goneril and Volumnia may have sounded too exotic to give a real child.
Then some Shakespearean names are so identified with iconic tragic characters that it’s hard to bestow them on ordinary kids. It tempts fate to name a son Hamlet, Othello, Lear or Macbeth.
Still, Shakespeare’s had some influence. Two male Italian names established in the United States well before Italian immigration was common may owe popularity to Shakespeare.
Lorenzo is a young Venetian who elopes with Shylock’s daughter Jessica in “The Merchant of Venice.” Lorenzo was established as a first name in America by 1800. It later became very common because of Lorenzo Dow (1777-1834), a traveling evangelist with a rock-star-like fame for Americans in the 1820s.
Brave, strong, chivalrous and handsome, Orlando, hero of “As You Like It,” is one of Shakespeare’s most romantic characters. The 1850 census found 3,565 Orlandos, almost all with very English surnames such as Smith, Brown and Johnson.
Shakespeare’s women have been more successful at inspiring namesakes — parents are more willing to give fanciful romantic names to daughters.
In “The Taming of the Shrew,” Bianca pretends to be the demure opposite of her shrewish sister Kate until she catches a husband. In 1850, there were 70 American women named Bianca, none with obvious Italian ancestry.
The heroines of “Twelfth Night” are Olivia and Viola. In 1850 there were 1,240 Violas and 2,878 Olivias in the census. Though Viola peaked as a baby name in 1908 and is rare today, Olivia was No. 2 for American girls born in 2014.
Jessica is moneylender Shylock’s daughter in “The Merchant of Venice.” Jessica, which Shakespeare created (possibly by altering Jesca, a name found in early English Bible translations, to something looking more Italian), has been the most successful Shakespearean name of all. It was the most popular name for American girls born between 1985 and 1995.
Miranda, heroine of “The Tempest,” is another name invented by Shakespeare, probably from the Latin for “admirable.” There were 3,377 American Mirandas living in 1850. It’s been among the top 1,000 baby names since 1957, peaking at 57th in 1995.
Miranda got a greater honor in 1949 when the fifth of Uranus’ major moons was named for her. Astronomer John Herschel had named the planet’s two largest moons Titania and Oberon, after the fairy queen and king in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in 1852.
Today, 24 of Uranus’ 27 moons have been named after Shakespeare characters, including Bianca. At least around that planet, no other names would shine as bright.
Cleveland Evans is a Bellevue University psychology professor and author of “The Great Big Book of Baby Names.”
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Who is our Shakespeare?
Saturday was the day celebrated as William Shakespeare’s birthday and the 400th anniversary of his death.
That got us thinking: “Who is our Shakespeare?” Whose work 400 years from today still will be studied or performed?
Whether a contemporary playwright, poet, author, screenwriter or songwriter, who do you see having a lasting impact? Let us know by emailing us at Living@owh.com; please put Shakespeare in the subject line.