What’s in a Name? (The Spanish Tragedy edition)

I was told the first year of teaching is hell, and the past semester and a half have done nothing to prove otherwise. My blog has been pushed aside as I navigate not only my first two semesters as an adjunct instructor, but also the ins and outs of teaching during a global pandemic. I’ve learned valuable lessons, one being how to structure a syllabus that educates but doesn’t swallow my life with grading and prep. Said syllabus won’t be implemented until the coming fall, though, which leads me to this blog post. Consider this a short breath of fresh air, a way for me to do a little of what I love (researching and writing about early modern drama) as I tie up the loose ends of spring semester. While you wait for my regular posts to resume, please enjoy this interesting and tasty amuse-bouche for the mind…

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I’ve wondered about the character names in The Spanish Tragedy from the first time I read it. Why did Kyd choose them? More to the point, who names their child Bel-Imperia? It must mean something. There must be a reason Kyd chose it. Is it even an actual name? I finally gave in and decided it was time for some light research.

Unless otherwise noted, the name meanings/definitions below are from the Oxford Dictionary of First Names. I don’t call what follows deep and definitive, but the results are interesting and add another possible dimension to the characters’ personas. This is just me having fun learning more about names I find fascinating. Are the meanings what Kyd intended? Not likely, but I’d like to think he’d find the results intriguing, too.

  • BALTAZAR: “A variant of that of the biblical king Belshazzar… mean[ing] ‘Baal protect the king’.” In that name, Bel = ‘Baal’ + shazzar = ‘protect the king.’ Would Baltazar’s marrying Bel-Imperia be a form of protection for his father, the Viceroy of Portugal? Or — more appropriate to the meaning — the King of Spain, her uncle? After all, Spain and Portugal are at war when the play begins.
  • BAZULTO: www.houseofnames.com states the similar name “Basulto” could be derived from an “ancient Anglo-Saxon surname…from Basile, which means royal.” Through their shared grief Bazulto’s character reflects Hieronimo’s, so this possible meaning deepens the two characters’ association (see Hieronimo, below).
  • BEL-IMPERIA: Not surprisingly, this name doesn’t turn up in the Oxford or via a general web search, so I decided to parse it. The Collins English Dictionary defines “imperia” as supreme power, and the Oxford English Dictionary defines “imperium” in a similar way: “absolute or supreme power or dominion.” “Bel” could refer to beauty, as in bella or belle, but look back at the meaning of the name Baltazar. In that name, Bel refers to the god Baal. Based on these definitions, there are two possibilities for the meaning of Bel-Imperia: beautiful supreme power or Baal supreme power. Take what you will from that potential duality. 
  • GHOST OF ANDREA: The name Andrea is thought to be either “a coinage in English from the Greek vocabulary word andreia: ‘manliness, virility’” or a “form of the Greek name Andreas, a short form of any of various compound names derived from andr- ‘man, warrior.’” Andrea’s character aligns with these meanings. In life, he was a brave soldier, self-made man, and Bel-Imperia’s lover.
  • HIERONIMO, KNIGHT MARSHAL OF SPAIN: Hieronymos is from the Greek words hieros (holy) + onoma (name). This sheds additional light on the character. Is he the most noble, the most worthy, of the characters? If so, does this confer an aspect of holiness (or royalty? see Bazulto)? In the classic sense, he is arguably the most tragic. Despite this, do the gods appear to favor him over all others?  There’s a lot to unpack here, and it’s beyond the scope of this post (and my blog).      
  • HORATIO: The Oxford mentions only that this is possibly an ancient Etruscan name and notes its association with Horace, the Roman poet. A more general web search suggests meanings connected to the concept of time (“man of time” “timekeeper”). Does time stop or become suspended when he dies? For Hieronimo, Isabella,
    Bel-Imperia, and Andrea…possibly.   
  • ISABELLA: A Spanish variant of “Elizabeth” meaning “God is my oath.” In the context of the play, the meanings of the names Hieronimo and Isabella are striking; both are intertwined with the sacred. Whereas Hieronimo bears a “holy name,” Isabella’s name claims devotion to the holy. Her line “My husband’s absence makes my heart to throb” (2.5.34) suggests a deep love and need for Hieronimo.
  • LORENZO: The Oxford states this name is derived from “Lawrence,” which in turn is from the Latin Laurentius or “man from Laurentum.” It goes on to note that Laurentum may have come from the Latin laurus or “laurel.” As the laurel was a sign of victory, or given as an award, this gestures to certain things about the nature of the character. Is Lorenzo accustomed to winning? Is he focused on always being the victor, having his way, and believing he can command fate? His actions certainly bear these thoughts out.
  • PEDRINGANO: Pedrignano is a town in Italy, near Parma. Did Kyd intend this place name but spell it wrong? If so, does this situate Pedringano as an outsider and therefore unaware of the machinations of the ruling family? Is his gullibility a sign of ignorance and his brashness an attempt to fit in? These possibilities put a more sympathetic gloss on the character’s actions and demise.  
  • SERBERINE: Nothing comes up in the Oxford or via a general web search, but modern ears can’t help but hear “Serbia” in the name. The area we know as Serbia was part of the Ottoman Empire during the early modern period. Based on the possibility of Pedringano being a place name, might Serberine, too, be from another country? He is a servant to Baltazar; could he have been a prisoner of war, captured and presented to the prince?

As I said previously, I don’t claim these meanings define the characters or even that Kyd was aware of them — let alone had them in mind while crafting his play. This is a brief exploration of the more unusual character names based on my curiosity as to their meanings. My goal in posting this little exercise is to add some wonder, and another dimension, to your enjoyment of The Spanish Tragedy. I’ll be returning to my usual blogging as soon as I’m able (ST Act 3, Scenes 9-12, I’m looking at you!).

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earlymodernetc

Shakespeare and early modern drama. MA in English, BA in Liberal Studies. Reader, playgoer, music lover. Twitter: @16thCenturyGirl

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