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This article is taken from PN Review 141, Volume 28 Number 1, September - October 2001.

What's in a Name? Roger Scruton

An important part of every writer's task is to use proper names judiciously. Shakespeare's names - Ophelia, Prospero, Caliban, Portia, Bottom, Titania, Malvolio - summon character and plot, and also seem to light up regions of the human psyche, so that we can say, knowing what we mean and without other words to express it, 'I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be'. And what poem makes greater use of a name than the one from which I have just quoted? 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock': all the existential hesitation of the protagonist is foreshadowed in the title, which illustrates the deep-down impossibility of anyone called J. Alfred Prufrock uttering a plausible love song. Christopher Ricks shows this with characteristic élan in T.S. Eliot and Prejudice: '"I'm in love", "Who's the lucky man?", "J. Alfred Prufrock" - impossible.'

Shakespeare's genius is revealed not only in his choice of names, but in his ability to take the names prescribed by his sources, and make them become the characters who wear them: Antony and Cleopatra, for example, both so swelled with erotic recklessness by Shakespeare that it is not surprising if Dryden called his version of the story All for Love, and allowed the names to creep in later. With what fine sense of drama does the poet display the dying Antony through his name, while Cleopatra is eclipsed by a title:


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