Symbolism of the Moon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Essay
The moon has many associations. In classical mythology, the moon is connected to the Triple Hecate, the pagan trinity that had power over the sky, earth, and Underworld. The moon is also associated with the irrational and the supernatural because of enduring superstitions that the full moon transmogrified people into werewolves or induced erratic behavior known as lunacy. Moreover, the moon represents harmony, growth and renewal as well as disorder, fickleness, and inconstancy because of its changing nature.
The moon is a dominant symbol in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and presides over much of the action within the play. Because the moon waxes and wanes as it passes through the monthly cycle, it is the embodiment of the idea of change. The symbolism of the moon also encapsulates many of the play’s themes and, including dreams, magic, irrationality, love, marriage, and chastity. By drawing upon the various allusions and associations that are connected with the moon, Shakespeare transforms the moon into a rich symbol unifies the play’s characters, themes, and ideas together.
Near the end of Act 5, scene 1, Puck describes the night:
Now is a time of night
That the graves, all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In churchway paths to glide.
And we fairies, that do run
By triple Hecate’s team,
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic. (V.i.366-75)
While daytime is associated with the realism and rationality of the waking world, nighttime is associated with the irrationality and surrealism of dreams. Nighttime is a time when a time when the ghosts of dead people roam free, and when fairies “now are frolic”. It is precisely in this kind of supernatural atmosphere that the main action of the play takes place, within the moonlit forests that lie outside of the rational daylight world of Athens. Puck’s speech also refers to the moon as the “triple Hecate”, an association that has a resonance throughout the play.
The triple Hecate is a Pagan trinity that consists of three different identities that represents the different phases of the moon and stages of the female life cycle. On earth, she is Diana, the virginal goddess of the hunt, represented by the waxing moon. In the sky, she is Phoebe or Luna, the mother-goddess who governs monthly rhythms and fertility, represented by the full moon. In Hades, she is Hecate, the crone goddess of magic and witchcraft, represented by the waning moon. All three identities are alluded to throughout the play.
The play opens with Theseus eagerly anticipating his wedding day and expressing his impatience at the waning moon:
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! She lingers my desires,
Like a stepdame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man’s revenue. (I.i.1-6)
Here, the dominant image play, the moon, is introduced at the outset of the play along with the dominant theme, love and marriage. Also, the time scheme of the play is suggested by the changing moon. By evoking the image of the old moon as a spiteful old crone who is denying him his promised pleasures, Theseus is alluding to Hecate, the Underworld goddess who represents the waning moon and is associated with magic, witchcraft, and death. He cannot simply choose to hold the wedding ceremony and must wait for the passage of the old moon.
Among other things, this passage demonstrates that even Theseus, the powerful ruler of Athens and the embodiment of reason, is subject to the powers of the moon. Hackett suggests that this is a play where “mysterious forces, elusive of rational control, are shown irresistibly turning human events and feelings aside from their planned courses” (Hackett 11).
Hippolyta, however, invokes a different aspect of the moon and associates it with dreaming when she calms her impatient lord by assuring him that their wedding day will come soon enough:
Four days will quickly steep themselves in night,
Four nights will quickly dream away the time,
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities. (I.i.7-11)
Hippolyta imagines the old moon moving quickly to its new phase. The “silver bow/New bent in heaven” symbolizes the maiden huntress Diana’s inner strength and impenetrability to male sexual advances, associating the moon with chastity. While Theseus is impatient and views virginity and chastity in a negative light and thinks of the moon as “withering out a young man’s revenue”, Hippolyta sees the moon as a benevolent entity that will preside over their marriage. The transformation of the moon as an old dowager to the virginal huntress suggests the cyclic regularity of change and renewal of the life cycle through marriage. The association between the moon and chastity is made throughout the play.
Theseus makes the ultimatum that if Hermia does not obey her father’s wishes and marry Demetrius, then she would have to “live as a barren sister all her life,/Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon” (I.i.72-3). In Oberon’s account about the magical flower, “Cupid’s fiery shaft” was aimed at a virginal “imperial votress”, but was “[q]uenched in the chaste beams of the watery moon” (II.i.161). When Titania falls in love with Bottom under the influence of the love juice, she observes that the moon “looks with a wat’ry eye,/And when she weeps, weeps every little flower,/Lamenting some enforcï¿½d chastity” (III.i.178-80). The moon weeps because of the pain and “enforcï¿½d chastity” in the sense that it has been violated when Titania thinks that she is in love with Bottom as a result of the love juice.
Here, the moon is associated with change, unhappiness, conflict and pain. Titania should be in love with Oberon, but she is in love with Bottom, and Lysander’s love, as a result of the love juice, has shifted toward Helena. While the association between the moon and chastity is an important one in a play where marriage is an important theme, the moon is also associated with love. Pyramus and Thisbe secretly meet at Ninny’s tomb by moonshine, and Egeus accuses Lysander of wooing Hermia and of having “stol’n the impression of her fantasy” (I.i.33) in the moonlight. When the young couple decides to run away from Athens in order to pursue their love, Lysander tells Helena that the moon will watch over them:
Tomorrow night, when Phoebe doth behold
Her silver visage in the wat’ry glass,
Decking with liquid pearl the bladed grass-
A time that lovers’ flights doth still conceal-
Through Athens gates have we devised to steal. (I.i.209-213)
Because the harsh rule of Athens is hostile towards their love, Lysander and Hermia stole away into the moonlit forests, a magical dream space where the fairies and the moon preside, and where anything can happen. The passage also associates the moon with water in its description of the moon’s “silver visage in the wat’ry glass” and the image of the moon “[d]ecking with liquid pearl the bladed grass”, the implications of which are expanded upon later on in the play and explored in relation to the quarrel between supernatural rulers of the fairy realm.
All is not well within the fairy world. When Titania and Oberon are first introduced in the play, they are in the middle of a quarrel:
Oberon Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.
Titania What, jealous Oberon? Fairies, skip hence.
I have foresworn his bed and company.
Oberon Tarry, rash wanton. Am I not thy lord?
Titania Then I must be thy lady. (II.i.60-4)
Here, moonlight is associated with misfortune and disorder. Oberon calls Titania proud because she will not do as he wishes. While Theseus is a compassionate and reasonable ruler who is concerned about Hippolyta and his subjects’ well-being and happiness, Oberon tries to forcefully exert his authority has husband and ruler. It is his obstinate pride and his insistence on having the Indian boy that results in a conflict that has serious consequences for the natural world, causing great disorder:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound (II.i.103-5)
Titania’s speech is full of images of anarchy. It suggests that orderly forms of nature have become disordered as a result of their quarrel: the seasons have become mixed up and the moon, which normally “[decks] with liquid pearl the bladed grass” (I.i.211) and nourishes the world with moisture, has devastated lives by saturating the natural world with an excess of water.
The moon is also associated with irrationality, and is connected to the play’s treatment of love and altered perceptions. The full moon was believed to induce erratic behavior in people. In fact, the term “lunacy” is derived from the Roman moon goddess Luna. Love is irrational, and in this play, the characters’ ridiculous behavior within the forest demonstrates the ways in which their passions overcome their reason. Under the influence of the love juice, the delicate and ethereal Titania falls in love with the grotesque Bottom, and Lysander and Demetrius’ feelings become extreme: on one hand, they make overblown professions of love for Helena, on the other, they express a deep loathing towards Hermia, calling her a ” vile thing” (III.ii.260), “tawny Tartar”, and “loathed medicine” (III.ii.263). Furthermore, Lysander and Demetrius’ feelings for Helena are so powerful that the conflict nearly escalates into a duel.
According to Hollindale, the moon’s light is “a disorientating luminousness, one which threatens dangers but also offers the prospect of vision and transformation” (Hollindale 112). In Act 5, scene 1, Theseus makes a speech grouping together “[t]he lunatic, the lover, and the poet” (V.i.7). All three have in common a fanciful imagination, especially the poet, who can create within the mind’s eye people and things that do not actually exist, and “gives to airy nothing/A local habituation, and a name” (V.i.16-17). Yet, the play demonstrates that the imaginary world has validity. The young lovers’ conflicts are resolved not through the laws of the daylight world of Athens, but through the supernatural forces within the moonlit forest.
The association between the moon and altered perception is also made through Moonshine, a part played by Starveling in the artisans’ rendition of Pyramus and Thisbe. The word “moonshine” is a pun that can either refer to smuggled spirits or visionary ideas, both of which are associated with altered perception. Starveling’s role as Moonshine is a comic treatment of the symbol of the moon, reflecting the artisans’ simple-mindedness. The moon, with its associations with dreams and the supernatural, is a mystical and mysterious entity that eludes human attempts to represent it. Therefore, the artisans’ attempt to personify the moon through Starveling instead of using actual moonlight results in failure and makes them look ridiculous.
The moon is a dominant symbol in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with many meanings and associations. Within the play, it is associated with Hecate’s magic and mysticism, Diana’s chastity, and Phoebe’s fertility. It also serves to unify the play by connected many of the play’s themes and ideas together. Moreover, despite how different the four sets of characters are from each other, the moon shines over them and presides over much of the action in the play. The moon is truly a rich symbol and powerful image.