The Platonic dialogue titled Cratylus is a long-standing puzzlement. Its theme is announced firmly and clearly in the first couple of lines; it will deal with the question whether names are natural or conventional—whether there is a truth or correctness in them which is the same for all, or whether they are a portion of the human voice that men agree to use in a certain way, and can change at will.

In addition to Socrates, the interlocutors are Hermogenes and Cratylus—though the latter is mute for the first fifty pages of the dialogue, and the former says nothing for the final fifteen pages. Hermogenes takes the view that names are simply conventional designations, Cratylus that they correspond with the nature of the person or thing to which they are applied. He adds that if they do not correspond, they are not names at all; and on this ground he has decided, much to his friend’s irritation, that Hermogenes is not properly his name but probably a name that corresponds with someone else who has more of the qualities of Hermes in him.

Is Cratylus kidding? Is he insulting his friend? Is he alluding, not very kindly, to his friend’s lack of money? Suppose fifty or a hundred people have the same name: is only one of them entitled to it? Socrates, according to Cratylus, is properly Socrates, and Cratylus just as properly Cratylus; only Hermogenes is not Hermogenes and would not be, even though everyone else in the world called him so. No wonder he asks, “What’s up?” and begs Socrates to help him out.

The fact is that neither of the two interlocutors is a very powerful spokesman for his point of view. Cratylus, when he finally gets to speak, is a little more forceful than Hermogenes, but both are generally content with the ritual responses of those who engage in discourse with Socrates: “Yes, indeed, Socrates,” and “I quite agree, Socrates,” etc. As for the position taken by Socrates, even though he does almost all the talking, it’s hard to define. Very often he is just playing with his simple-minded friends. He gets Hermogenes to admit practically all of Cratylus’ positions, then pulls the rug out from under him. He makes familiar fun of teachers of rhetoric, and gets in some by-blows against Heracleitus, to whose opinions Cratylus rather inclines. He often expresses amazement at his own profound wisdom—which encourages one to feel that there is a lot of covert satire in the dialogue, no doubt directed at persons or schools of thought long since passed out of our cognizance.

During his lecture, Socrates propounds a great many etymologies and interpretations of names that are, and have long been recognized as, childish—yet some of his ideas have been treated by philologists with great respect. One of his passing vagaries is to assign specific values to particular consonants, as for example to say that the letter “r” expresses motion and the letter “l” a placid, restful condition. But very little skepticism is required to think of disqualifying exceptions—words like rest, repose, and recline for the first instance, and leap, lunge, and gallop for the second.

To make his etymological points, Socrates rewrites freely the names he is explaining, breaks them into fanciful components, or yokes supposed components into dubious metaphorical assertions. (The “equations” that William Empson found in complex words are not unlike—are, if anything, more conservative than—the inventions devised by Socrates in the Cratylus to deconstruct familiar Greek concepts and expressions.) Yet even as Socrates indulges his fancy and flaunts his independence of evidence, he points out the obvious objections to his procedure, and seems to endorse them. When pressed to find an “essential” meaning for a word that seems not to have one, he blithely professes ignorance, or resorts to his all-purpose escape hatch, that the word in question must be a barbarian borrowing. Not surprisingly, the discussion breaks up in a state of general confusion.

Whether because of its virtues or its deficiencies, the Cratylus has a record of inspiring critical comment. Anne Barton’s book The Names of Comedy is one of several to take its start from Plato’s dialogue and lay its theoretical foundations on the division between Cratylus and Hermogenes. Her field is well chosen. Comedy, which (in different degrees) aims to present the manners and attitudes of common people in everyday situations, is an interesting place to see how names are assigned. Many if not most tragedies take their subjects from mythology or history, and emphasize the fact by retaining traditional names. Classical tragedies, whether by Racine or Shakespeare, plays based on known history, and heroic tragedies, generally offer the author few occasions to assign characters distinctive names. But comic writers have a wide range of names to draw on, from simple placard titles, to grotesque inventions, to alliterative or macaronic innuendoes, to the most ordinary of tags, such as Smith, Jones, and Robinson—which in particular circumstances can be exotic as well as funny.


Anne Barton has not extended her purview as far as her title seems to promise. She tells us a good deal about Greek and Roman practice in the naming of comic characters, and of English practice through the age of Jonson. But she takes very few examples from the French comic stage, early or late, and none from Italian or Spanish writers. Whether there is nothing of particular interest to be said about Continental practice from Lope de Vega to Marivaux to Goldoni and beyond the reader must guess for himself. To cover the entire field of comedy is obviously impossible, but to give major aspects of comic achievement the silent treatment can only make for an uneasy reader.

Another question that emerges from a historical survey is the validity of the two-way contrast set up by the Cratylus dialogue. For Plato, names are either natural or conventional, in accordance with the nature of the person to whom they are assigned, or else they are arbitrary. (It is perhaps a fortunate thing that Socrates never laid eyes on anything like the New York telephone directory.) But on the stage, where every personage has only the character and only the name assigned him by the playwright, nothing is natural, the only question is how directly or indirectly do the personage and his name serve the playwright’s artificial intent. Placard names like Lady Sneerwell, Master Truewit, and Tribulation Wholesome blazon an explicit directive across their foreheads as patently as in a Bunyan allegory. One knows at a glance the main attribute of the personage, and for the duration of the play—whether for better or worse—it does not and will not change.

That is the cratylic extreme of the naming process; but before we come to the other extreme, whatever form it may take, there are all sorts of intermediate alternatives. Beatrice and Benedick don’t have names particularly expressive of their characters, but the alliterative “b”s of their names convey to a suggestible audience that they are destined for each other. The names are not the essence of the persons, neither are they altogether arbitrary and neutral; the audience, responding to the lightest of hints, and then building on it, contributes the meaning. Again, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are neutral names such as one would expect to find around a Danish court—quite as conventional as Horatio, Laertes, or Claudio—but their trisyllabic conjunction appeals to us as distinctive, and comically so. They make a peripheral statement of some comic complexity, which defines mostly Hamlet’s position, but they are not really cratylic names, nor yet the opposite.

Hermogenean or cratylic, in what sense does the name of Miss Prism in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest fit either category? She suggests angularity, pedantry, prissiness, and the pursing of the lips for whatever purpose, but there’s no mesh fine enough to assemble these remote suggestions into an essence or a person. The ladies’ maids in Congreve’s The Way of the World have delightful names—Mincing and Foible—but they are neither straight nor neutral, they are angled and mannered. So it’s my impression that the immense variety of comic names sometimes o’erflows Anne Barton’s measure, or, rather, Plato’s. She seems, like Socrates, to hanker a bit shamefacedly after the cratylic position that names express essences; but, like Socrates, in the end she shies away from it. She recognizes the prevalence, in Restoration comedy, of those placard names in which the wits of the period delighted—Sparkish and Pinchwife, Mrs. Loveit and Lady Wishfort—but because they are so obvious she can’t find very much to do with them. And so we find ourselves being edged almost imperceptibly into thinking about other genres where there are more curious crannies to explore.

From the comedies of Shakespeare it’s only a step to the tragedies, where there are onomastic mysteries aplenty. No fewer than five of the personages of Othello, for instance, have names from which syllables of evil omen or negative connotation can be picked out: Tohello, Desdemona, Cassio, Emil(l)ia, and Iago=ego. Here we are back with Socrates, picking words apart into their component syllables and adding or altering letters to make them serve an explosive diversity in interpretive insinuations. In fact, Cassio is by no means an ass; Emilia is far from an ill person; ego (apart from the fact that it wasn’t an English word in Shakespeare’s time) doesn’t necessarily imply anything evil. As for Desdemona, an audience that is asked to figure out whether she’s a Christian demon or a classical daimon, and how that relates to the nobly affecting figure we see being strangled on stage, is being burdened with an almost schizophrenic set of directives.


Studying the way Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists name characters as a key to interpreting their plays doesn’t seem entirely productive. (Socrates concluded long ago that we’re better off going after things themselves than approaching them through their names.) In the body of her book Anne Barton is most effective as a chronicler of varying practices, especially when they are mixed or transitional. Most of the morality plays use for “serious” characters straight placard names like Virtuous Life, Mercy, and Good Fame; but for vices and rogues they turn to Tom Tosspot, Rafe Roister, or other homely nicknames, including those of well-known local ne’er-do-wells. Efforts to deal with the stiffness of placard names, sometimes by wordplay, sometimes by directly rebaptizing a character who has seen the light, are striking evidence of strain.

Later, the curiously mixed practice of Thomas Middleton is highlighted when seen in the context of a growing naturalism in the naming of characters. Sometimes Middleton’s virtuous characters are distinguished by not having emphatically virtuous names. Or again, a character known first as “Jack” or “wittol” converts at the end of Act II of A Chaste Maid in Cheapside to “Allwitt,” while in A Mad World, My Masters “Penitent Brothel” turns after a moral crisis into “Penitent Once-Ill.” At the climax of Barton’s study a curious shift makes itself felt, when the most interesting things to be said about Shakespeare’s playful and clusive practice in the use of names turn out to have nothing at all to do with Plato’s dialogue. To be sure a few pointedly directive names lurk around the fringes of things—Constable Dull, for example, or Sir Oliver Martext, the parson—but Shakespeare’s common practice is freer and less pointed; it is often more psychological, sometimes poetic, and on occasion superbly careless. (Who are, after all, the three companions of Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice?) The different orders of word- and name-play in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Henry IV, and The Taming of the Shrew have a pleasure and fascination all their own, as well as an inventive freedom that appears particularly fresh by contrast with most previous practices. Without laboring the point, Barton brings out this new freedom forcefully; and while her analysis involves (as it were) kicking down the ladder by which she has reached her level of insight, the sense of Shakespeare’s originality with which we emerge constitutes the crown of her book. The contrast in A Midsummer Night’s Dream between Bottom. Quince, Flute, et al., and Peaseblossom. Mustardseed, Cobweb, and their set might baffle Cratylus as well as Hermo genes, but if it did not enchant Plato, the less Plato he.

Comedy is a natural place to study the uses and misuses of names; the topic, though at first it may look narrow, turns out when extended across history to have all manner of offshoots, implications, and speculative pointers. The inadequacy of placard names comes out in a field that lies beyond Barton’s concern, in the practices of prose fiction. The change involves (one may speculate) a turn from satiric distance to different varieties of sympathy and identification. Placard names serve very often, if not invariably, to mark a target. Thwackum and Square in Fielding’s Tom Jones are objects to be pelted with moral beanbags; their cousins on the stage are Doctor Kronkheit, and in the burlesque fiction of Catch 22, Major Scheisskopf. But a softer and more placatory note is sounded in names like Milly Theale, Lucy Honeychurch, or for that matter Clarissa Dalloway.

Dickens is of course the master of the disguised or distorted name: Joe Gargery speaks his honest, simple sentiments, in a perfect gargle, and anyone with a touch of French knows the character of Mr. Murdstone before he opens his icy Victorian mouth. Names in the modern allusive style are Katka’s semi nameless hero K, Thomas Pynchon’s cut-out figure Herbert Stencil, and Gradus, the fogbound agent of Pale Fire. Arguably the most successful christening of modern times has been, not of a person at all, but of the very small, very quick, many-charactered particle known everywhere these days as the quark. Whether it’s cratylic or euphonic or just tantalizing like the particle itself, the name is a whiz-bang.

This Issue

December 6, 1990