46 A Rose by Any Other Name: On Names

Philosopher Colin McGinn wrote a wonderful book several years ago entitled “Shakespeare’s Philosophy” that, among other things, pointed out numerous scenes in Shakespeare’s plays that were clearly influenced by Miguel de Montaigne (who Shakespeare was known to have read.) Most of the references were found in “Hamlet” or “The Tempest” (which I mentioned in a previous essay), but one play that McGinn did not cite was “Romeo and Juliet.”

I think the influence is obvious (perhaps even to the point that Montague is the Italian equivalent of Montaigne), but judge for yourself:

Tis but thy name that is my enemy; Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot, Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O, be some other name! What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet; So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,

And for that name which is no part of thee take all myself.

And here’s Montaigne writing about names:

“What can stop my ostler calling himself Pompey the Great? When all is said and done, what means or links are there which can securely attach that glorious spoken name or pen-strokes either to my ostler, once he is dead, or to that other man whose head was severed in Egypt, in such a way that they can profit by them? Do you think that bothers spirits and ashes in their tombs?”

Superficial as it may seem, “Romeo and Juliet” would have no drama except for the matter of names. In the 1962 U.S. Senate special election in Massachusetts, Edward J. McCormack, Jr., the state Attorney General, said that if his opponent’s name were Edward Moore, not Edward Moore Kennedy, his candidacy “would be a joke.” Crossing to the other side of the political aisle, can anyone imagine a mediocre Texas Governor named George Walker winning the Presidency in 2000?

Montaigne delves into the question of legacy in this essay and he also pokes quite a bit of fun at false nobility. In this day, Montaigne says that anyone who achieves a level of success immediately attaches himself to some form of nobility:

“I know nobody in my own time who has had the good fortune to be elevated to some extraordinarily high rank who has not been immediately endowed with new genealogical styles of which his father knew nothing, or failed to be grafted on to some illustrious stock. Luckily it is the obscurer families which best lend themselves to such falsifications. How many mere gentlemen are there in France who are of royal stock… by their own reckoning! More I think than of any other rank.”

Montaigne could have been chief of programming for NBC if he were alive today, because that’s the premise of the show “Who Do You Think You Are?” So far the show has informed us that country singer Tim McGraw isn’t just the son of New York Mets reliever Tug McGraw, but he’s also related to an obscure American Founding Father … and Kim Catrell’s grandfather was a bigamist.

The notorious family tree has more appeal to me, in part because my grandfather insisted that we were direct descendants of John Billington, a Mayflower passenger who was the first Englishman hanged in the New World. While my grandfather’s mother was named Lida Billington, I have not been able to trace her lineage back to the notorious Billingtons (who also nearly burned the Mayflower to the ground during the voyage, due to a fireworks prank.)

As best I can tell, Lida Billington’s grandparents came to the U.S., from Scotland, sometime in around 1830. I must admit, I am a bit disappointed — being of notorious New England lineage would put me in the same class as Tyrone Slothrop in “Gravity’s Rainbow,” one of the original American preterite. Pynchon endowed the preterites with mystical powers that allow them to see through the conspiracies of the elite.

Alas, we Conleys lack the ability to unravel elite conspiracies. The best I can do — thanks to my wife’s idea to leave girl’s names to her and boys to me … then giving birth to three boys — is to pass on ones I find interesting and memorable. So, Finnegan, Cormac and Quinn, your names have no genealogical meaning. But with some luck, your names will pass Montaigne’s test:

“They say that it is a good thing to have a good name (meaning renown and reputation); but it is also a real advantage to have a fine one which is easy to pronounce and to remember, since kings and the great can then recognize us more easily and less wilfully forget us.”

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