Using Bavinck to Read Shakespeare: What’s in a Name?

In the second act of scene two in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, we encounter a punchy line that’s held readers’ attention for centuries. Frustrated because her lover carries the name of her family’s rival, Juliet voices her complaint,

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet. 

So, what’s in a name, anyway? Why doesn’t Romeo just drop his last name and make this love affair a whole lot simpler? There are reasons he doesn’t, which extend perhaps beyond even Shakespeare’s imagination.

People have sometimes misinterpreted Juliet’s words to mean that names aren’t important. A rose would still retain its scent and color if called by a different name, wouldn’t it? Of course it would; but then it wouldn’t be a rose. It would be something different—a pansy, a peony, or a daffodil—but not a “rose.”

Names are important, and we can’t drop or change them without repercussions. Herman Bavinck sheds light on just how important names are, and perhaps this will help us refute the popular view that names are only superficial.[1]

A Name and Its Bearer

In discussing the biblical names for God, Herman Bavinck writes,

A name is a sign of the person bearing it, a designation referring to some characteristic in which a person reveals himself or herself and becomes knowable. There is a connection between a name and its bearer, and that connection, so far from being arbitrary, is rooted in that bearer. Even among us [moderns], now that names have for the most part become mere sounds without meaning, that connection is still felt. A name is something personal . . . . it stands for our honor, our worth, our person and individuality.[2]

A name is more than just a string of phonemes—even if that’s how we treat names today. Names are tied in a special way to those who hold them. They play a part in identifying the being to which they are attached, and in doing so they alert us as to how we should interact with that being.

Names for God

Bavinck continues with his argument by examining the names of God we find in Scripture—names which are more transparent than those we find in our culture. In the Bible, God’s names point to His being. In Gen 17:1 God identifies Himself as אֵל שַׁדַּי, “God Almighty.” The letters signify who God is: He is incomparably mighty, stronger than any other being. Similarly, יְהֹוָה צְבָאוֹת points us to God’s power as the “Lord of Hosts.” He has every army at His beck and call. When we pronounce that name, we draw attention to God’s commanding presence. God’s names themselves carry meaning that is bound up with God, the bearer.

This is the same for Christ. As the מָשִׁיחַ “Messiah,” Christ is the anointed one. He is the one who will fulfill God’s promise in Gen 3:15, the one who will carry out the climactic event of redemptive history. He has been “anointed” in a way unlike any other person, so it is fitting to call him the anointed one. All others who have been anointed in history pale in comparison.

The Holy Spirit is not left out of this naming convention either. He is called ὁ παράκλητος, “the Helper” or “Comforter.” The letters bring to mind the very nature of what the Spirit does for believers in Christ.

The names of God, then, are tied not just to who He is but how He acts, and thus they reveal how we relate to Him as creatures. When God tells Moses that He is “I AM,” He is referencing His a se nature—His utter independence and self-existence. As a creature hearing that name, Moses learns that he is derivative, dependent on God for his every breath. This revelation—as it should—brings Moses to fear and worship. The name reveals how Moses is to respond to the one who bears it.

Names of Creatures

What Bavinck has stated about the names of God can be applied analogously to God’s creatures. Names identify beings and make them knowable, and they reveal how we are to relate to them.

Throughout Scripture, names tell us something very important about who a person is or will be. This is evident in God’s renaming of certain people in the Bible, such as Abram and Jacob. God says to Abram, “No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen 17:5). Abraham’s new name points to who he will become. In Gen 32, Jacob is renamed “Israel,” meaning “he who strives with God,” because he strove with God and with men and prevailed (Gen 32:28). Jacob’s new name, like Abraham’s, reflects who he now is.

All this is not to say that our names today are as transparent as those we find in Scripture. In fact, we would be hard-pressed to find a name today that is etymologically tied to the person bearing it. Rather, it is to say that names cannot be separated from their bearers as if names themselves have no meaning. They certainly are not treated this way in Scripture. Even if names do not reveal the actual nature or character of the thing they are attached to, they still allow us to identify a person or thing and interact appropriately.

What Juliet Meant

So, what did Juliet mean by her words about the name of a rose? She didn’t mean that names are arbitrary and that Romeo can simply cast his aside without consequence. Here’s what I think she meant: Juliet, like Shakespeare, would have known, at least intuitively, that names are important and that they are bound up with their bearers. They identify people and things, making them knowable and revealing how we are to interact with them. Because of this, Juliet would be frustrated by pure, detached nominalization. She is a Capulet, and Romeo is a Montague. These titles alone—considered in isolation from their particular bearers—are keeping them from being together. A name in isolation from its bearer is restricting her actions. This, to her, is madness—as it should be. It is not that names themselves are of little value, but that names are vapid when viewed in isolation from the unique creatures who bear them. Names are connected to their bearers and have meaning and status derived from those whom they identify. That is why Jesus’ name is above all other names (Phil 2:9). All that Jesus has done, is doing, and will do, all that He is, places His title above any other name. He reveals Himself in His name, making Himself knowable, and thus showing us how we are to respond to Him. There is a clear connection between Christ and His name—“a connection . . . rooted in that bearer.” 

Conclusion

We can’t say that names are irrelevant; we don’t even act as if they are. We know that a name identifies a unique creature, distinguishing it from others, and that it tells us how we are to interact with the creature who bears it. I will not turn around if someone runs down the street, calling, “Jim! Jim!” That’s not my name. Someone wishing to interact with me must use my name, the name that is bound to me as a particular creature made in God’s image.

So, let us return to Juliet. What’s in a name? A bearer. That’s what’s in a name. A rose called by another name would still smell as sweet, but we would have altered our reference to the bearer, and thus affected how we identify it and how we interact with it. Names are not superficial strings of phonemes. They stamp their bearers with particular identities—identities that cannot be torn from their names without confusion or misguided engagement resulting. As it turns out, it’s better that Romeo didn’t “doff” his name. Had he done so, Juliet would have, quite literally, fallen for someone else.


[1] Note that this essay deals not with what Juliet actually meant in the context of the play, nor does it attempt to explore Shakespeare’s use of nomenclature. Rather, it deals with the faulty interpretation of Juliet’s words by those who would divorce them from their context and give them a “reader-based” meaning, a meaning which I consider to be insubstantial and unstable.

[2] Herman Bavinck, God and Creation, vol. 2 of Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 97.

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