Towards the end of his career, Shakespeare wrote a string of plays that make a feature of the relationship between an ageing patriarch and a daughter who is coming into adulthood. These young women are all possessed of a clear-eyed intelligence and a healing spirit. Their father always has to come to terms with relinquishing them to the princely young men they love, though the girls’ own degree of agency in this aspect of the plot varies hugely from play to play.
Their circumstances differ in all kinds of ways, but these daughters have one other point in common, which is their being named for some specific aspect of their function in the play. Unlike the cruder aptronyms of the earlier medieval (Everyman) or later Restoration (Sir Fopling Flutter) periods, and not quite as heavy handed as those of his contemporary Ben Jonson (Sir Epicure Mammon), when Shakespeare names his characters after distinguishing features they tend to be more whimsically descriptive. Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch, for example, save a lot of work in puzzling out appropriate defining features for casting. His late ingénue heroines, however, are not named after physical characteristics or personality traits, but for something that might be most closely defined as how they have experienced the world of their play. Some of the names are more subtle than others.
Marina in Pericles is so called because she is born on a ship out in the open ocean. There are some nice metaphorical things too, about the way she can be thought to represent the sea’s elusive bounty, which might be rendered to the searcher like a blessing or snatched away in a moment.
Perdita in The Winter’s Tale is lost. Abandoned as a baby, and so named at the request of a ghostly vision of her mother, her family and kingdom spend the later part of the play hoping she will be found. Her redemptive aspects are made all the more obvious by her name.
Cymbeline is based around one of Shakespeare’s favourite plot lines – a woman falsely thought to be unfaithful. In its only printed form, in the Folio, her name is printed as Imogen, but in the words of the introduction to the RSC edition, “The heroine is called ‘Innogen’ in both Holinshed’s Chronicles and Simon Forman’s notes on the play… ‘Imogen’ did not exist as a name at this time… this very strongly suggests that Folio’s ‘Imogen’ was a minim scribal or compositorial error for ‘Innogen’.” Innogen means innocent one, which is the driving factor of this princess’ strand of the plot.
Miranda in The Tempest is a woefully underwritten part, but her name gives a little hint as to what kind of person she may be. Miranda means ‘admirable’, but with greater layers of meaning than we would assume in our modern usage of the word. It means possessing the appropriate admired qualities, that is, being refined and learned, in the manner of a Renaissance ideal. Prospero reminds her of her education when he speaks of how, raising her himself here on the island of their exile:
Have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit
Than other princes can that have more time
For vainer hours and tutors not so careful. (I.2.172-4)
Ferdinand makes a little joke about the multiple meanings of her name when he calls her ‘admired Miranda’, ‘admired’ also meaning loved in a courting context. When she and her fiancé are revealed together in the final act, what they have been doing to pass the time together is – playing chess. Instead of the insipid naïfs who usually inhabit this role, I would dearly love to see a properly bookish Miranda on stage, the product of years of careful tutoring in logic, philosophy and alchemy.
These form a cluster of Shakespeare’s last plays, but he may have been thinking along these lines a little earlier. In King Lear it is emphasised that Cordelia is the King’s youngest daughter. She shows a spine in the famous opening scene, then disappears for most of the play. When she returns we hear word that she has been leading an army, but only see her in the role of loving daughter and then dead body, with no sense of her former grit. It would be easy to write her off as having withered into a submissive fantasy, but a little clue in her name suggests that we may be supposed to think of her as something more vigorous.
In King John the opening scenes are largely concerned with setting up the character referred to as ‘Bastard’. He is revealed to be the bastard son of King Richard I. This king was famously known as Richard the Lionheart, or Richard Coeur de Lion. In the Folio, this name is rendered as Cordelion. In conversation between his mother, brother and reputed son, Richard is referred to twice as Cordelion and once as Cordelian.
The feminised version of the name is obviously Cordelia, which I would never have picked up on if it hadn’t been printed this way in regard to King Richard. When I know Cordelia means ‘lionheart’ I find her a lot more engaging as a character. True, she is already named thus in Holinshed, but Shakespeare often changed the names of his characters from his sources, so I like to think the fact that he didn’t here shows the name to be an inspiration, or at least a deliberate point of note.
A Lionheart for a heroine is exactly what King Lear could use more of.