I’m working on an Elizabethan historical fiction, and I’ve been struggling to find out what a male and female character who are lifelong friends would call each other in the sixteenth century. I wrote about it here, but I turned to Shakespeare for more research, and I feel a little more confident about my answers now.
First, the question of Lady Macbeth. In Shakespeare’s play, she has no name of her own. She is simply the wife or lady of Macbeth. That’s her entire identity. Though some of that is dramatic convention, there’s also a lot of historical weight behind it. Elizabethan men and women were defined to a large extent by their social and political roles. Women had no legal standing outside of their family role (though they did sometimes have their own jobs and could hold some positions in the parish or community).
A lot of Shakespeare’s characters are known only by their surname or role, but not all of them. Romeo and Juliet, of course, have first names and use them to address each other, as do Ferdinand and Miranda in The Tempest, and the characters in Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most of Shakespeare’s plays have foreign or fantastical settings, though, so the characters may not be following Elizabethan conventions.
The Merry Wives of Windsor takes place in an England that would have felt contemporary to Shakespeare’s audiences, so it may be more accurate in showing English customs. This is the play, then, I’m trusting the most to help me get my name usage right.
The men usually use “Master So-and-so” when speaking to each other, and sometimes just call each other by their last names, especially when speaking to someone lower down the social ladder. Knights and priests are given the title “Sir” along with their first name. The men also address each other by roles or relationships, such as “cousin.”
The women, likewise, address each other as “Mistress So-and-so,” even when they’re close friends. In families, people use first names, including wives speaking to their husbands. Women call servants by their first or last names (gender doesn’t seem to influence which they use).
The character who interests me the most for my purposes is young Anne Page, who’s being courted by several men in the play. All the men–whether courting her or not–generally refer to her as Anne Page or Mistress Anne, and when speaking to her, most call her Mistress Anne. The exception is her favorite beau, who calls her Anne or Sweet Nan. She calls him Master Fenton (Fenton is probably his surname).
So, “Master” or “Mistress” was generally used as a sign of respect, often with last names, but sometimes with first names when the people knew each other well and/or one of them was much younger (I don’t think married women were ever addressed as “Mistress First-name,” and I’m getting the assumption that young men would use “Master First-name” with each other from Much Ado About Nothing).
First names might be used alone between single men and women, but this was probably more common when the couple was courting or at least had a romantic interest–friends would probably still use Master/Mistress. Unlike the Victorians, however, using first names does not seem to have been an indication of betrothal. Also, the use of first names alone seems to have been reserved for private moments. In public, more formal address was probably considered proper.
This all applies to middle class Elizabethans. Members of the nobility would have had titles to complicate matters. Servants seem to have been more relaxed in their name etiquette, and might call each other by just surnames or even first names regardless of gender.