In early modern England, the name Helen referred to one individual: Helen of Troy, famed alike for her beauty, her sexual waywardness and for the waste and destruction that followed in her wake. The counter-example of St Helena, mother of Constantine and reputed discoverer of the True Cross, did little to defuse the name's negative associations. To name a child Helen in this period, Laurie Maguire suggests, was tantamount to naming a child Adolf today. (The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography appears to confirm this: of three Helens listed as born before 1650, two took new names upon entering convents, while the third was hanged as a witch.)
Why then does Shakespeare seem to like the name so much? Why does he give it to apparently virtuous and sympathetic characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream and All's Well that Ends Well? Maguire's search for an answer takes the reader on a fascinating journey, through Greek mythology and drama, early modern bibliography, and the oddities of onomastics (the study of names). If the name always referred to one person, Helen of Troy, she herself could be seen as double. According to a Greek tradition followed by Euripides, the real Helen never travelled to Troy but abided innocently in Egypt while the Greeks and Trojans fought over an image of her.
Maguire knows that seeking Shakespeare's sources in Greek tragedy is a tricky business: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that Shakespeare's acquaintance with Greek myth and drama was mediated by Roman redactions ... ". But the book presents a detailed if circumstantial case that Shakespeare would have known the Helen of Euripides. Consciously or not, Shakespeare follows Euripides in seeking to break up the monolithic view of Helen as whore, to "liberate his Helens" from the prison of their name.
The ostensible focus of Shakespeare's Names is on a handful of names (Montague and Capulet, Helen, Kate, Ephesus) in a small clutch of plays. But Maguire's onomastic inquiries open out in intriguing and unexpected ways. The surname-fuelled feud in Romeo and Juliet prompts a fascinating account of a recent Canadian production in which the Montagues spoke English and the Capulets French, and the reality of the lovers' plight was audible in their awkward code-switching. Throughout the book, references to recent stagings of the plays highlight the multiplicity of possible interpretations.
The introduction states that the "methodology in this book throughout is formalist". Just a few years ago such a statement would have raised eyebrows - and would probably have come accompanied by a dose of combative anti-historicist rhetoric. But with critical movements such as "new formalism" and "historical formalism" now gaining ground (even as their premises remain largely undefined), there is nothing particularly odd or old-fashioned about Maguire's language-centred project.
Certainly what is on offer here bears little resemblance to the "old formalism" of the New Critics. Maguire is alert to both historical and contemporary contexts; the chapter on Helen includes an important discussion of changing definitions of rape and abduction. Feminist concerns emerge repeatedly in the book, which concludes with an illuminating discussion of Adriana and Luciana, "the girls from Ephesus", in A Comedy of Errors.
To be sure, the book does bear traces of the old humanist certainties that many readers will associate with formalism. The assertion that "every culture has a ritual to name a new person, an occasion of celebration and optimism" would be hard to substantiate. A sceptic might wonder if in some cultures naming might not be a grimmer business, recognised as a sad but necessary shackling of the free spirit to a fixed identity. This would fit well with Maguire's own understanding of names like Helen and Kate as "onomastic straitjacket(s)."
Shakespeare's Names is introduced as "a book for language lovers". This describes a large and diverse audience - who would want to be excluded from the category? - and the book's tone and level of discussion will appeal to a wide variety of readers. The study of names might be considered an antiquarian project, but this book evades the negative associations of antiquarianism.
What it evinces instead is the antiquary's delighted love for his or her material, a form of delight that this book communicates with intelligence and generosity.
By Laurie Maguire
Oxford University Press
Published 11 October 2007