“O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, That monthly changes in her circled orb, Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.” – William Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet,” 1597
More than 800 years later, William Shakespeare is not content to leave the moon in the sky.
In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” he makes the moon a character in itself, the aptly named “Moonshine,” depicted rather comically as a man with a lantern, a dog and a thornbush. Why this bumbling trio? Elizabethans believed the pattern on the moon’s face was that of a human with a four-legged friend, the dangling light leading the way.
Elsewhere on Shakespeare’s stage, an invisible cord connects moon and man, their emotions swelling and subsiding in unison. Indeed, Othello blames the moon for inducing the madness that leads to his murder of Desdemona – an allusion to the idea of moon-inspired “lunacy,” which dates back at least as far as ancient Greece:
“It is the very error of the moon; She comes more nearer the Earth than she was wont, And makes men mad.” – William Shakespeare, “Othello,” around 1603
O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon
Love -- some might say a madness of its own -- also flourishes under the soft glow of moonlight, as Romeo woos Juliet. But like matters of the heart, the satellite is a changeable creature – if Romeo had hoped to set his love in stone, he might have wanted to pick a more reliable rock than Shakespeare’s “inconstant moon.”
“Like many playwrights of his time, Shakespeare is influenced by the classical tradition of the moon being associated with the goddess Diana, who is perversely the goddess of chastity, but also associated with Lucina, goddess of childbirth,” said Professor Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute, at the University of Birmingham, England. “So in that way, the moon is eroticized both positively and negatively.”