Sai Rathakrishna, Co-Editor-in-Chief
“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.” (2.2.46-50)
Recently, I had the opportunity to return to fair Verona, the world of Shakespeare’s well-known “star-crossed lovers” while taking a course on love poetry in the Renaissance. As I came across these lines during the famous balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet, I couldn’t help but think about the significance of Juliet’s question in our increasingly interconnected, pluralistic society. What’s in a name? When we introduce ourselves in a meeting, on a blind date, or in front of a crowd, why do we always start with stating our names? Perhaps a more pertinent question we can ask in our contemporary age is: what are the implications of a name?
Juliet suggests that the names of herself and her lover denote the longstanding feud between their families and ultimately prevent them from remaining at ease in their love for each other. Arguably, the names “Montague” and “Capulet” alone are responsible for the tragic demise of Shakespeare’s titular characters at the play’s end, despite the reconciliation of the families following their deaths. Whether or not she foresaw this event, Juliet seeks to separate Romeo’s “dear perfection,” or his essence, from his name. So, she argues there isn’t necessarily a connection between the flower that we call a rose and the name that we bestow on it.
Today, names situate us in the social world. They signify our relationships to people; hence, we have nicknames, stage names, usernames, pen names, secret or “code” names and the middle name that is often so embarrassing that only our closest relatives know what it is. Names may hold significance beyond our lifetimes as well. Some names are passed down over generations, forming a tradition for families that denotes their uniqueness and is considered honourable in and of itself. There are even “Starbucks names” that are convenient when people don’t have the time to spell out their names for the barista or have seen interesting spellings of their name on previous orders. I once had “Psy” written on my latte, as in the prefix of “psychology” or the name of the one-hit-wonder pop artist from South Korea.
Names are not necessarily fixed; apart from official documentation or for legal purposes, we choose what name to use depending on the context. For instance, we may not wish to disclose our real names in online public networks for safety reasons, so we substitute these names with words that might suggest our interests instead. Even a legal name can be changed, though it’s a lengthy process. The primary motive behind stylizing, modifying and adapting names is to build certain personal brands. Personal brands enable us to participate in society. Whether applying for a job, entertaining guests at a party or trying to acquire followers on a social networking platform, our personal brands help us achieve the goal of being liked and accepted.
The concept of personal branding raises an important contradiction that is only hinted at in Juliet’s speech. Although we have the agency to modify names, names are not about how we identify ourselves, but how we want others to identify us. This issue impacts me on a regular basis. I live in a Western society that constantly reminds me that I am an outsider despite being born into it. I was often reminded of this through the frequent mispronunciation of my name when teachers took attendance in classes. Since elementary school, I have felt the need to shorten my first name for the convenience of others. Although official measures are being implemented to address such issues, I sometimes wonder if my opportunities in life may be limited because my name sounds “different,” and therefore, I must be “different” too.
In another world, would Juliet be able to love Romeo freely by separating his essence from his name? Is there truly a relationship between a person’s autonomy and their name like Juliet suggests? It seems there is no definite answer. They are part of ourselves but also not part of ourselves. They can be changed and used for self-identification, but they are also tethered to identity, placing us permanently in relation to other individuals. One thing, however, is for sure: Juliet is a profound thinker.