Introducing …

When we read a play, it’s easy to forget how much knowledge this grants us.  One big example is the names of the characters.  The script may say “Enter Iago” and then Iago begins speaking, but how and when does the audience realize that this guy who just walked onstage is named Iago? It’s not Shakespeare’s problem, it’s every playwright’s problem.  Arguably it’s the problem of every writer of fiction, except for those I suppose that write their story from the perspective of an all-knowing third party (what’s that called, again?) What I’m wondering is, what tricks did Shakespeare use to accomplish this?  How long can you find between the time a character appears on stage, and is given a name?  Spear-carriers don’t count, of course. I thought of this while watching Othello.  Enter Roderigo, who on his second like addresses Iago directly.  But then Roderigo is not called by name until several exchanges later.  If the audience misses it the first time they’re given the pretty obvious one when he shouts to Brabantio, “Do you know my voice? It’s me, Roderigo!” In Hamlet it takes Francisco and Bernardo all of 7 lines to call each other by name.  Bernardo then tells the audience that Horatio and Marcellus should be around any moment, and then they enter. Romeo and Juliet’s interesting – Gregory is called by name in the opening line (by Sampson), but Sampson is actually never referred to by name at all. You get the idea, I hope, of what I’m getting at.  As a playwright do you think Shakespeare consciously thought, “Ok, how and when will I communicate the name of this character to the audience?” or did it just sort of fall out naturally, and however it happened that’s what stuck? We speak so often of him as an immortal poetic genius who planned out every beat of every meter, but what about the more trivial but necessary stuff?

5 thoughts on “Introducing …

  1. I think he must have given it some thought, although after writing ten or so plays he probably got in the habit of dropping character's names in the script.

  2. How long can you find between the time a character appears on stage, and is given a name?

    If by "given a name" you mean "given their real name", Viola has got to be the winner. First entrance in the second scene of the play (which many productions put first), name not revealed until the very last scene.

    Of course, she has a pseudonym for a lot of that time. Even then, though, she's a protagonist who manages to get through her entire first scene without being named at all…

  3. I think we have a winner, Micah! There is that one scene between Viola and the Captain where I suppose Shakespeare could have worked her name in, if he really wanted to (the Captain calls her just "Lady").

    I could wonder aloud whether this was deliberate on Shakespeare's part, to add mystery to this woman who just shows up washed ashore and assumes a new identity, but … what's the payoff, really? It's not like when we finally hear her name we gasp and say "Whatwhatwhat? She's *VIOLA*? That changes everything!"
    It is after all just a name.

  4. No question in my mind that it was important to Shakespeare to work characters' names into the script to let the audience know who was who. You can see him do it if you look carefully. When it was important, he made sure the character was named. When it was obvious who was speaking, perhaps the name was omitted. When the character's name was not important, it might not be mentioned. The bit about Viola is worthy of an entire article in Shakespeare Quarterly!

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