Titles

The other night I was watching a video of Kenneth Branagh’s version of Twelfth Night:

Pretty good, although without the star power and heavier on the bleakness, I think, than the big-budget Trevor Nunn version.  What struck me, though, was that Branagh decided to set the play in winter; he even includes a Christmas tree in one scene — it’s the prop behind which the conspirators hide during the Malvolio letter scene.  This connected the play to its title, at least a little bit.  The text itself has nothing to do with Christmas, or the Epiphany, or wintertime.  There are theories as to why the play has its title, but, as with most theories about Shakespeare, there’s nothing much to back them up.

Shakespeare didn’t do much with titles.  His tragedies and histories are uniformly named after their protagonists.  His comedies seem to have throwaway titles — As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing.  It’s almost as if he scribbled a few words on top of the manuscript before he took it to the Globe for the first rehearsal.

Titles for literary works are often problematic.  How do you summarize a novel in a few words?  How do you find the words that will make the book saleable?  I have had editors change two of my titles — one of them for the better.

The best title ever was Great Expectations (most of Dickens’s titles were also just the names of his protagonists).

1Q84 also seems like a pretty good title, but that may only be because I haven’t heaved the book across the room yet.

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