What’s in a name? Shakespeare’s inventio and the topic of 'notatio' (names)

Kirk Dodd


Shakespeare is widely believed to have received a grammar school education at Stratford, and this education would have included training on the three canons of rhetorical composition—inventio, dispositio, and elocutio (invention, arrangement, and style). Yet while we know a great deal about Shakespeare’s uses of the tropes and figures (his elocutio), much less is known about Shakespeare’s uses of inventio. This paper will introduce the methods of inventio and distinguish between the “specific topics” of invention (related to particular modes of discourse) and the “universal topics” of invention that could be used for any subject. These universal topics were first systemized by Cicero’s Topica (44 BCE), whose scheme of 16 topics included the topic of “notatio” (names), which asks writers to consider the name of the thing and the denotation of that name. While Shakespeare’s interest in developing material around the theme of “names” has been noted, with some suggesting this relates to the philosophical nominalism prevalent in the medieval and renaissance periods, this paper argues that Shakespeare’s interest is more consistent with the heuristic process of considering the topic of “notatio” (names) to invent material for a speech. This paper argues that when Juliet says, “What’s in a name?” (RJ, 2.2.43), and Falstaff says, “What is in that word “honour?”” (1HIV, 5.1.134), and Cassius says, “what should be in that ‘Caesar?’” (JC, 1.2.141), and the Countess says, “What’s in ‘mother’/ That you start at it?” (AW, 1.3.138-9), these four passages were developed by the same method of considering the topic of names. Shakespeare’s key sources will also be examined to help confirm that these passages were indeed his own, and it will be shown that Shakespeare appears also to use other topics alongside his treatment of “names”—helping to affirm the proposal that Shakespeare was trained in a fuller suite of topics and using them in his work. These findings provide new ways of understanding Shakespeare’s text and his artistry whilst contributing to an under-researched field of Shakespeare studies—shedding light on how Shakespeare used his rhetorical training to help invent the argumentative flair of his expressions.


Shakespeare; rhetoric; names; invention; topics of invention; Cicero; creative process; sources

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