In preparation for my journey to the path of totality, this week I re-read one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Unlike the great tragedies and histories full of moral questions, or even the great comedies with witty lead characters who keep you always on your toes, Dream is light and airy, designed to make you laugh.

According to Open Source Shakespeare, Moon, moonlight, or moonshine appear in Dream (either the text or the stage directions) 52 times, in 37 passages. This is almost one quarter of all Shakespeare’s Moon passages in the entire canon. Moonshine even appears as a character in the Rude Mechanicals’ wonderfully inept performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in Act V. Since my quest this week is for the Moon, I thought it would be fun to explore the role of the Moon in Dream.

What I quickly discovered is that “role” isn’t appropriate at all, but rather I’d havd to discuss “roles.” The Moon is described in so many different ways in Dream that you begin to wonder how one heavenly body could mean so many different things. I decided to organize this reflection around those different views of the Moon in Dream.

1) The Dependable Moon

The first appearance of the Moon in Dream is when Theseus describes his impatience as he waits to marry Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons whom Theseus has conquered in war.

Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace; four happy days bring in
Another moon: but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes!

Oddly, the fairies talk very differently of the Moon, including the quote in my title. They describe the Moon as swift in her motions across the sky. Shakespeare is here, I think, pointing out how subjective our view of time can be.

In both cases, Theseus and the fairies are using the constant, dependable Moon as a standard of measure. This is the Moon’s most obvious trait, its dependable changeability.

Later, Hermia compares the dependable Moon, like Lysander’s love. She’d sooner believe that the Moon could pass through the Earth than that Lysander would leave her side in the night. Interestingly, the motion Hermia ascribes to the Moon sounds very much like an eclipse –  a rare but by no means unheard-of event.

would he have stolen away
From sleeping Hermia? I’ll believe as soon
This whole earth may be bored and that the moon
May through the centre creep and so displease
Her brother’s noontide with Antipodes.

Perhaps Hermia is not so confident in Lysander’s love as she pretends. Interestingly, in a play written at about the same time, Juliet asks that Romeo not swear his love by “the inconstant moon,” referring to the Moon’s changeable, if predictable, nature.

hermia dream

Hermia (Lilly Englert), Demetrius (Zach Appelman), and Lysander (Jake Horowitz) during their moonlit pillow fight in Julie Taymor’s excellent Dream

2) The Virgin Moon

Theseus is, in a sense, the anti-hero of this play – or at least the resident blowhard. Perhaps not surprising, then, that Theseus, a creature of the daytime, should have a very different view of the Moon than most characters. When he presents Hermia with the choice of death or lifelong chastity if she refuses to marry Demetrius, Theseus paints a grim picture:

For aye to be in shady cloister mew’d,
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.

The Moon is closely associated with Artemis or Diana, the most fiercely virginal of the ancient gods. Perhaps not surprising that Theseus, who has no problem converting his victory in battle over Hippolyta to love for her, would see the war-like virginal goddess in a negative (cold) light. It is interesting, though, that in a play so packed full with love, lust, and passion in the night that Theseus presents this much harsher view of the “fruitless moon.”

3) The Watery Moon

Titania, the fairy queen, presents a radically different view of the Moon. She describes it as “the governess of floods” and associates it with weather, sometimes violent weather, here on the Earth. Of course, in Shakespeare’s time and long before, humans understood that the Moon has a profound effect on tides. From there it’s not a great leap to associate the Moon with other watery events such as rain and snow, flooding, and drought.

Titania returns to this idea of a watery Moon when she is under Oberon’s spell that caused her to fall in love with the transformed mechanical Bottom, now given the head of an ass (a donkey in Shakespeare’s time, though I’m looking forward to the upcoming movie version when Bottom’s head is a true bottom!) Titania seems to suggest that the Moon wants us to love, and that she weeps when we do not.

Come, wait upon him; lead him to my bower.
The moon methinks looks with a watery eye;
And when she weeps, weeps every little flower,
Lamenting some enforced chastity.

A very different view from Theseus’ “cold fruitless moon”.

titania dream

Titania (Tina Benko) with the transformed Bottom (Max Casella)

4) The Illicit Moon

Finally, the Moon is described in Dream as the Sun’s counterpart, ruler of the night. The night, of course, is the place for illicit acts – unsanctioned love, unapproved play, and even suicide.

It starts with Hermia’s father Egeus, who accuses Lysander of stealing his daughter from him under cover of night.

Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung,
With feigning voice verses of feigning love,

This, by the way, is another example of Shakespeare’s genius for language, as “feign” means false, but “fain” (which sounds the same to an audience) means “eager”. Lovely!

Soon after, Peter Quince describes the secret assembly of the Rude Mechanicals

meet me in the palace wood, a mile without the
town, by moonlight; there will we rehearse, for if
we meet in the city, we shall be dogged with
company, and our devices known.

And then, of course, Pyramus and Thisbe, in the play within a play, take their own lives by moonlight, enacting a scene that is meant to be hilarious in its ridiculousness, but perhaps hits a little close to home for the four lovers who could easily have met a similar fate just the night before.

Puck, that merry wanderer of the night, fittingly gets the last word on the Moon, as he does in the play, emphasizing the Moon’s role as monarch of the night:

Now the hungry lion roars,
And the wolf behowls the moon;
Whilst the heavy ploughman snores,
All with weary task fordone.

As I write these final words on Shakespeare’s most Moon-filled play, the Moon herself, nighttime’s pale ruler, inconstant and watery, yet dependable and proudly virginal, inspiration of “lunatics, lovers, and poets”, slowly inches toward her rendezvous with the Sun, approaching her one opportunity to claim victory over the daytime, if only for 2 minutes and 40 seconds (give or take a tenth). I hope she doesn’t drive me mad.

puck dream

Kathryn Hunter as Puck

Lord, what fools these mortals be!