How Shakespeare’s Leading Ladies Got Their Names

Frederic Leighton, "The feigned death of Juliet," 1856-1858. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

English poet and playwright William Shakespeare is regarded as one of the world’s most prolific writers. Well studied and passionately collected, many of his plays parallel the cultural shifts that occurred amid England’s Elizabethan period, during which he was instrumental in bringing core Renaissance ideas of humanism to theater. Despite the fact that they were written at a time when women held little economic or political status, Shakespeare’s literary contributions are rife with strong-willed, powerful female characters.

Though many critics, particularly those throughout the second-wave of feminism in the 1960s, condemn his representation of women, specifically in reference to their bodies and their subservience to men. Shakespeare was one of few at the time who included emotionally-complex, diverse heroines and villains with distinct goals and personalities in his works. From popular female characters like Lady Macbeth and Juliet to lesser-known leads, we’ve broken down the origins of nine of the most strong-willed female characters within Shakespeare’s works.

Shakespeare’s Iconic Female Characters

open book showing shakespeare and romeo and juliet

Women in Shakespeare represent a variety of personas, from strong-willed lawyers to timid, young women. As the playwright carefully chose each of his female heroines’ names to demonstrate their personality, their physical attributes and characteristics are often reflected in the etymology of their names.

Cordelia (King Lear, 1606)

The name Cordelia is thought to have Latin and Celtic origins, and is said to be an Anglicization of the Welsh goddess Creiddylad. Popular meanings of the name include “heart,” “daughter of the sea,” and “jewel of the sea.”

Shakespeare’s character Cordelia is the tragic heroine of King Lear (1606), an adaptation of the story of King Leir, who was a legendary king of the Britons. In Shakespeare’s play, Cordelia refuses to flatter her father in return for power, causing him to banish her in his anger. Her absence leads to King Lear’s downfall, upon which she returns to help in an act of selflessness and compassion. Her eventual death triggers emotional change in the King, who ultimately realizes all he has lost in selfish attempts.

Cordelia remains a powerful literary name, an icon of true love, and a quintessential example of remaining steadfast in the midst of immoral chaos.

Cressida (Troilus and Cressida, 1609)

Shakespeare often drew from source materials to generate names for his characters, rather than creating new ones. The name Cressida—which is adapted from the ancient Greek word chrysos, meaning “golden”—was taken from the tale of a Trojan heroine told by Italian poet Giovanni Boccacio in Il filostrato, then later through Chaucer’s epic poem composed in the 1380s, titled Troilus and Criseyde. In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare elaborates on the original tale with a dark destruction of love.

Desdemona (Othello, 1604)

Othello and Desdemona

Othello and Desdemona. Sold for €1,800 via Van Ham Kunstauktionen (November 2007).

Desdemona is of Greek origin meaning “unlucky” or “ill-fated.” It is the antonym of the Greek name Eudaimonia, which refers to a content state of health, happiness, and prosperity. The name is indeed fitting for Shakespeare’s leading lady in Othello, who is often depicted as a naive character who is submissive to her volatile husband. Othello, who refers to his wife as an “ill-starred wench” ultimately kills her in response to her supposed infidelity; a reflection of her misery and unlucky fate. To this day, the name is often avoided for its superstitious, tragic roots.

Juliet (Romeo and Juliet, 1597)

A Franco Zeffirelli print of Romeo and Juliet

Franco Zeffirelli, Print of Romeo and Juliet. Sold for £375 via Bonhams (October 2015).

Juliet is derived from the French name “Juliette,” which translates to “youthful.” Shakespeare’s use of the name in Romeo and Juliet likely references the youth and beauty of fourteen-year-old Juliet, who is described in the play as pure and chaste. The likeness of Shakespeare’s young heroine has been depicted in literature, music, dance, and theater.

Katherina (The Taming of the Shrew, 1623)

Katherina is the Latinate form of the name Katherine, an old English name with popular variants including Catherine, Catharine, and Kathryn. The name’s root stems from the Greek word katharos which translates to “pure” and “virginal”; characteristics that represent any lady of this era who had not yet wed, and that which identified Katherina in Shakespeare’s 1623 work. The name also allows Petruchio, Katherina’s husband, to make puns that demonstrate both the shrewd woman she is and how he plans to tame her. In one exchange, he claims that he is “born to bring [her] from a wild Kate,” a pun on calling her a wildcat, describing her temperament as cat-like.

Ophelia (Hamlet, 1609)

painting of Ophelia

Friedrich Wilhelm Theodor Heyser, “Ophelia.” Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Though Ophelia is a Danish character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the origins of the name stem from the Greek word ophelos, meaning “help.” It made its first literary appearance in Arcadia (1504), a piece by Italian poet Jacopo Sannazaro. The name is fitting for Shakespeare’s tragic character, who eventually drowns herself as a result of irrational behavior by her lover, Hamlet. Since the character’s appearance in Shakespeare’s iconic play, Ophelia has been the frequent subject of artwork, often in Romantic or Neo-classical work. One notable example is English painter and illustrator Arthur Hughes’ Ophelia (And He Will Not Come Back Again).

Portia (The Merchant of Venice, 1605)

The name Portia stems from the Latin name “Porcia,” a feminine form of Porcius which is an old Roman family name derived from the word porcus meaning “pig” or “hog.” The name can refer to a female advocate or barrister as well. Portia is one of the most prominent and appealing of Shakespeare’s heroines, a brilliant, spirited lawyer who is both rich and beautiful. Though she must disguise herself as a man in order to defend Antonio in court, she represents confidence and class.

The name Portia continued to influence work in a variety of media, most notably in American painter Thomas Sully’s work, Portia and Shylock (1835) and English painter John Woods’ Portia (1888). It is even the name that American statesman John Adams lovingly used to address his wife, Abigail, in letters, presumably after Shakesepare’s character.

Rosalind (As You Like It, 1603)

The name Rosalind is of Old German origin, introduced to England by the Normans. Later, it was passed on to Spain by the Goths, where the name evolved to Rosalinda. For this reason, folk etymology often identifies the name as having Spanish origins, drawing upon the elements “rosa” meaning rose and “linda” meaning beautiful.

In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Rosalind is noted for her beauty and resilience. She is a strong female character with quick wit and decisive action, making the name an elegant fit for her character. Her alter ego in the play is Ganymede, who proclaims, “I’ll have no worse name than Jove’s own page, / And therefore look you call me Ganymede,” as she goes to the Forest of Arden. Ganymede originally appeared in a Greek myth, later adapted by the Romans, that depicts the Prince of Troy as an attractive, desired young man. During this time, having a young, handsome servant was considered a sign of wealth, so Shakespeare presumably used this name to underscore her privileged status.

Titania (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1605)

Titania and Bottom from A Midsummer Night's Dream

Edwin Henry Landseer, “Scene from a Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Titania is the name of the queen of the fairies in Shakespeare’s 1605 comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is believed that Shakespeare arrived upon this name based on the Latin narrative poem, Metamorphoses—written by Roman poet Ovid—which chronicles the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Cesar. In it, Titania is the name given to the daughters of Titans and represents proud creatures, similar to that of the character in Shakespeare’s play. Due to the playwright’s profound influence, the name has continued to be used in paintings, poems, and plays to represent fairy queens.

How Shakespeare Named His Fictional Females

Shakespeare carefully chose the names of his characters to reflect their physical and behavioral attributes. See where some of the most memorable names of Shakespearean works came from.

female characters in shakespeare infographic

It’s been over 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, yet we still perform his plays, study his works, and avidly collect mementos from his career. In 2016, the poet’s first four folios were sold at Christie’s for nearly £2.5 million; a testament to the playwright’s legacy. Along with the iconic words and phrases he introduced such as “wear your heart on your sleeve” (Othello), William Shakespeare also granted us complex female characters throughout his literary works. We continue to study their complexities and understand the history from which they originated.

Sources: No Sweat Shakespeare | ThoughtCo. | Shakespeare | Odyssey