Updated: Feb 18, 2020
If there’s one name on which I would wager my life that every single person on this corporeal crust knows, then it is “God.”
Yahweh, Elohim, Elyon, Allah, Jehovah, Brahma, Zeus – no matter the linguistic form of this theonym, no matter one’s position on Faith, the essential concept of a supernatural being as creator of Heaven, Earth, and Man is pretty consistent and understood the world over.
When we, then (in the West, at least), think of “God” (for we, according to biblical translators, were made in “His image”), we imagine an aging, bearded white bloke. Booting aside the problem that nobody has ever clapped eyes on the old fellow, this remains the accepted picture of Him. One only has to look up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to see the truth in this.
But what if we – and Michelangelo - have got it wrong? What if someone told you, with all credibility: "Hey, guess what - I met God, She’s black”?
Bad grammar aside, this is the controversial T-shirt slogan designed by David Chenfeld, and which helped launch his Rooftop NYC clothing brand. Though Chenfeld doesn’t claim responsibility for coining this - some might say “blasphemous” – subversion, and flipping on its head an entrenched idea, if it were so, the myriad implications it raises about our understanding of God and who He is and what He represents are, in the broadest sense possible, not simply mind-blowing, but potentially world-changing. (Something Naomi Alderman investigates in her novel The Power.)
But God’s name isn’t the only sacred cow to be whipped with a sacrilegious stick.
In a recent article for The Atlantic, Elizabeth Winkler argued that William Shakespeare too may have been a “woman”.
Doubts surrounding the true author of a canon of plays and sonnets considered the work of a genius are, though, nothing new. Since the 19th Century, anti-Stratfordians, as they are known, have taken great pains to dethrone Shakespeare, a lowborn glover’s son, by outing him as an illiterate, social-climbing imposter.
Picking apart the parcel of evidence against him (for example, the fact he never signed his work or that there’s not an existing document in which Shakespeare refers to himself as a “playwright”), his doubters have repackaged it as assuredly as any conspiracy theorist touting proof for government complicity in 9/11 or the holding of aliens at Roswell.
Esteemed men such as Edward de Vere, Sir Francis Bacon, and even Sir Walter Raleigh have all been flagged as being better qualified, and therefore likelier, to have written the world’s most famous stock of plays.
But it is Shakespeare’s friend and contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, who is most often cited as Suspect Numero Uno. As some Marlovians have it, the playwright faked his death in a drunken brawl and fled abroad to avoid execution for his atheism, before returning to this country and his work under a pseudonym.
For Elizabeth Winkler, though, her starting point for Was Shakespeare a Woman? relies on none of this earlier evidence. Rather, it is predicated on Shakespeare’s uncanny insight into the mind of a woman. This, so she posits, is plain to see in the texts of the plays themselves, and from which she quotes liberally in her original article.
Distilled and simplified, her proposition might read: either Shakespeare was an astute psychoanalyst centuries before Freud, and to boot, a feminist way, way before Germaine Greer et al – or he was a she.
Winkler’s hypothesis may not seem as singular or outlandish as it first appears. “One would think that he [Shakespeare] had been metamorphosed from a man to a woman,” wrote Margaret Cavendish, many decades earlier. While critic John Ruskin once observed, the Bard “has no heroes – he has only heroines”.
Inferences from a body of text, of course, vast though it may be, provide at best tenuous proof.
Winkler’s speculation that Shakespeare was in fact poet Emilia Bassano, on the other hand, carries far more credibility.
Emilia, she suggests, due to her background, would have had more insight into aspects of Court and high society than a simple “pet horse-boy at Blackfriars”, who wrote about them so knowingly.
And then there’s the character “Bassianus” in Titus Andronicus, the original name of Emilia’s father’s hometown, Bassano del Grappa.
Winkler’s most compelling projection, however, lays with the discovery that not only had Emilia existed at all, as unearthed by an Oxford historian in 1973, but by the don’s implication that she may have been Shakespeare’s “mistress”.
In the interest of this blog, though, I would ask that you consider not so much the question, What does it mean about the man called Shakespeare if he was to be irrefutably proven a catfish who forged a more cultured and learned identity in order to court fame and the ladies, as much as, How does it change the way we read “Shakespeare”?
Those works long cemented in our conscience as being “Shakespearian” - and our understanding of them in this way - are they suddenly invalidated?
And more pertinent still, if we must then think of them instead as being, say, “Marlovian”, or indeed, “Bassanoan”, must the plays be viewed through a different, perhaps more colourful or softer prism?
And would the truth ever out?
I can well imagine a cabal of Shakespearian scholars convening to conspire a Dan Brown-esque cover-up to save from annulment several lifetimes worth of study, as might the Vatican move if the first page of the bible was uncovered in a cave in the Saini and read: This is an original work of fiction and any resemblance to any person or persons dead or alive is purely coincidental . . .
So linked are names to identities, it appears they may even determine who we become.
According to Kenneth L. Dion, an American psychologist, parents naming their progeny Obama or Donald (my examples, randomly pulled out of the ether, you will understand and forgive), Charlotte or Chardonnay, may influence their development.
By this thinking, I cannot help wondering had my father not denied my mother when he’d registered my birth, how being raised “Kim” may have affected my personality? Since I’ve never wholly fitted the Alpha model of masculinity and exhibit, instead, the sensitive and emotionally empathic characteristics more associated with the female sex, it is possible that my mother had some preternatural instinct absent in my father and that she was right to want to bless me a gender-neutral name.
But how does a man determine which of his feminine inclinations are a product of genetic coding and which of his masculine a result of toxic social conditioning or vice versa, and which by his name?
Of course, without the benefit of living two lives, the question of which parent was right or wrong, and whether in the end nature - or God - got the balance just so and I am exactly who I’m supposed to be – that is me - will remain forever unanswered . . .
But then again - perhaps there is a way. Perhaps we, as writers, can test the question through literature, by asking: would the characteristics of a novel’s central figure be significantly altered if its author decided at a late stage to change their protagonist's name?
As it happens, I can tell you from experience.
And the answer is . . .
Both no and yes.
Like many writers keen to keep the momentum of the first draft in a state of uninterrupted progression, as a placeholder for my narrator in the novel that would become The Meaningless Killing of Luke Little, quickly snatched at the name “Richard Noble”, and ran with it.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the name Richard Noble, it does conjure the image of a respected, revered adult, a brave, Shakespearian King, perhaps, rather than a 12-year-old boy from a deprived housing estate.
But it was the very playfulness of his surname – Noble - when seen side-by-side with his best friend’s Wesley’s – Savage - that I quickly leaped upon to provide its worth and “meaning.”
Oh, how I fell in love with this clever, smarty-pants pairing. Of exploiting the anthropological idea that we are all “noble savages”. That is, we are born savages and only made noble and civilised by society as a cooperative necessity for survival.
And to my happy mind, it worked awesomely. Because I’d written the book as a way of exploring the roots of violence. Asking where violence comes from. How one human being is able to hurt another in a brutal way. Whether it’s an innate characteristic written into the male hormone testosterone (no matter that females too have it in their biology), or else a learned trait thrust upon boys from an early age by well-intentioned fathers (and by some mothers, too) passing on received wisdom on How To Be A Boy: “Man up. Don’t be a wuss. Hit him back twice as hard.” Comedian Robert Webb can attest to how that plays out.
And so the placeholder persisted. Earned its role. Even if Richard “Plum” Noble felt ill-fitted, not entirely truthful or ever quite right, my pretentiousness wouldn’t allow me to change it.
Except - then I did.
Out of nowhere, like some divine epiphany - poosshh - the name MORTON PLUM (#MortonPlum) one afternoon illumed big and bright inside my head.
And when I replaced “Richard Noble” with “Morton Plum” – guess what happened?
Well . . .
Nothing happened and nothing changed.
It felt immediately right. Meant to be. As if the name had been there all along, waiting in the shadows, waiting to emerge, a butterfly from a pupa, so easily did Morton Plum slip into the skin of my troubled 12-year-old narrator, the boy who lives with a deadly condition that prevents him expressing his furies and frustrations when his life is nothing but a series of furies and frustrations.
Don’t be lulled.
That was possibly the exception to an otherwise rash idea. For in another instance, the result was an altogether different story. When I swapped a stubborn placeholder, exchanging a new, stronger name for a weaker in a final draft, it changed the character in quite dramatic and unexpected ways. And unlike in the previous example, I was forced to revisit my character’s every behavior, quirk, and idiosyncrasy, rework his dialogue, because “Quinn Last” was nothing like “Roger Cope.”
So, a name is just a name, right?
No. As you see, names matter. They become us, or we, them. And sometimes we, as writers, fail to get it right the first time, perhaps in the same way biology doesn’t always succeed as when a little girl or a little boy just know from an early age that they’ve been assigned the wrong sex.
But my point is: be mindful of naming your creations, and when possible, try to settle on one before starting your second draft, or be prepared for a consequence of labour and a fierce headache later.
If you enjoyed this latest post and found it helpful and would like to be the first to read the next #TWCBlogger post, and many more thereafter, please sign up to the mailing list. And better still, become a member and join The Writing-Class house, a place where support and solidarity between all writers can be found, and ideas discussed and shared.
To buy The Meaningless Killing of Luke Little - here.