Shakespeare chose the names of his characters carefully and often the names have hidden meanings.

These examples were put together by Heloise Senechal, from the Complete Works of Shakespeare (2008) published by the RSC and Macmillan.

A man in a long black coat and dark waistcoat stands with his hands in the air
Photo by Hugo Glendinning © RSC Browse and license our images

From The Merry Wives of Windsor

Mother Prat a 'prat' is a 'trick' though it was also slang for the buttocks

From The Merchant of Venice

Shylock perhaps from the Hebrew Shallach ('cormorant'), or from Shiloh (Genesis 49:10 although the word means 'messiah'); connotations of wary secrecy and hoarding (shy lock)

Gratiano according to a contemporary Italian dictionary, a name given to a foolish or clownish character in a play

From The First Part of Henry the Fourth, Act 1, Scene 2

FALSTAFF: … And is not my hostess of the tavern a most sweet wench?

PRINCE HENRY: As is the honey of Hybla, my old lad of the castle. And is not a buff jerkin a most sweet robe of durance?

hostess landlady

Hybla Sicilian town famous for its honey

old … castle carouser (plays on 'Oldcastle', Shakespeare's original name for Falstaff; castle may also play on the sense of 'stocks', instruments of public punishment in which a thief might be confined; a London brothel called The Castle may also be alluded to, appropriately named given that castle was slang for 'vagina') 

buff jerkin tight leather jacket worn by sheriff's officers (plays on the sense of 'naked vagina') 

robe of durance long-lasting garment (with sexual connotations; durance plays on the sense of 'imprisonment').

Developed with Macmillan and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.


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