Night in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
One of the recurring themes throughout Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the time of day during which the play’s major action takes place: night. This being the case, there are certain words that are directly linked to this theme that appear numerous times throughout the script. Four such words are “moon,” “moonlight,” “moonshine,” and “lunatic.” Each comes from a feminine root that serves to identify the women in the play as prizes to be won and controlled.
It becomes clear when looking up the term “moon” in the Oxford English Dictionary that the word is associated with the feminine. “In poetry,” for instance, “the moon is often personified, always as female…” (1050). It is important to note that the play upsets traditional cultural customs in this regard, for “May was the time of female fertility over which the moon presided, but the play begins with an image of lunar age and sterility, a ‘dowager,’ a ‘cold fruitless moon’” (Paster and Howard, “Popular Festivals…” 93). It is possible that Shakespeare applied such images intentionally to make it clear to his audience that the women in this play are not as free as the May Day festivities might make them out to be. The female fertility that is expressed freely in Shakespeare’s blend of May Day and Midsummer’s Eve is outside of the controlled realm of marriage. Instead of the unrestrained women that both holidays celebrate, however, Shakespeare bookends the play with a woman tamed by a man.
In the first scene, the moon is spoken of by Theseus and Hippolyta as a measurement of time when Theseus announces, “…four happy days bring in / Another moon: but, O, methinks, how slow / This old moon wanes! She linger…
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Brown, Lesley, ed. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. 5th ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.
“”moon,” “moonlight,” “moonshine,” and “lunatic”.” Shakespeare Concordance. 23 Feb. 2006 .
Paster, Gail Kern, and Skiles Howard. “Female Attachments and Family Ties.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Texts and Contexts. Ed. Gail Kern Paster, and Skiles Howard. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 192-264.
—. “Popular Festivals and Court Celebrations.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Texts and Contexts. Ed. Gail Kern Paster, and Skiles Howard. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 89-99.
Shakespeare, William. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Texts and Contexts. Ed. Gail Kern Paster, and Skiles Howard. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 1-86.
The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.