“I am undone: there is no living, none, if Bertram be away.”
Those are the words of low-born Helena in Shakespeare’s “All’s Well that Ends Well,” part of this year’s Shakespeare on the Green programming. The next performance is 8 p.m. Friday on the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus.
In “All’s Well,” Helena loves Bertram, Count of Roussillon. She cures the King of France of a debilitating illness with knowledge learned from her late physician father, on the condition she can choose one of his courtiers as her husband.
The king forces Bertram to marry Helena. Disgusted at Helena’s lower class origin, Bertram runs off to Italy. There, he tries to seduce Diana. Helena follows Bertram to Italy, disguises herself as Diana and tricks Bertram into going to bed with her.
When Bertram discovers that Helena is pregnant, he accepts their marriage, declaring, “I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.”
The name Bertram is derived from ancient Germanic beraht-hramn, or “bright raven.” In Germanic myth, ravens were sacred to the god Odin.
The first famous Bertram was St. Bertram of Ilam, a hermit living near Stafford, England, in the early eighth century. Later legends claim he was a Prince of Mercia who fell in love with an Irish princess, becoming a hermit after she and their infant son were devoured by a pack of wolves.
Bertram was regularly used in medieval England. Surnames Bartram and Buttrum derive from it. Bertram became rare after 1400, retaining some use in Northumberland, England’s northernmost county.
The 1850 U.S. census, the first to record names of all residents, includes 60 Bertrams. The 1851 British census, when the two nations had about the same population, listed 72.
The Victorian era love for medieval names revived Bertram. It was much more common in Britain. By 1910, there were 6,401 Bertrams in the U.S., while England’s 1911 census found 21,819. England’s population at that point was 36 million; the U.S. had more than 92 million people.
In 1880, when Social Security’s yearly baby name data starts, Bertram ranked 405th in the U.S. At its 1923 high point, it had risen slightly higher, to 394th. Bertram fell from the top 1,000 names in 1971.
There are three famous American Bertrams of note:
- Bertram Boltwood (1870-1927), the chemist who first measured the age of rocks by observing the rate of uranium’s decay into lead.
- Psychologist Bertram Forer (1914-2000) discovered the “Barnum effect,” where people given false “personality test” results made up of broad statements like “You have a great need for other people to like and admire you” claim the test is highly accurate.
- The most famous Bertram to Nebraskans likely is New York architect Bertram Goodhue (1869-1924), designer of the State Capitol building’s striking tower.
Today, most famous Bertrams are fictional. Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse) was one of the founders of the 1960s advertising agency featured in the hit television series “Mad Men” from 2007 to 2015.
Bertram Kibbler (Brain Posehn) was a socially inept geologist featured in several seasons of “The Big Bang Theory.”
Kids today know Bertram Winkle (Kevin Chamberlin), the cantankerous, lazy, opera-loving butler on the Disney Channel’s “Jessie” (2011-15).
The name Bertram, however, is now exceedingly rare. Only five were born in the U.S. in 2018. Perhaps in a couple of decades, avant-garde parents will notice that it ends with the same sound as the super-popular Liam, and revive it.
Until then, Bertram is a name only Shakespeare’s Helena could love.