A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare

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How easily things could have turned out quite differently! There is a darker side to dreaming and the potential tragedy of a Pyramus is never completely erased. When the fairies return at the end, the Puck declares:

Now the hungry lion roars,
And the wolf behowls the moon...
Now it is the time of night
That the graves, all gaping wide,
Everyone lets forth his sprite
In the church-way paths to glide.
And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate’s team
From the presence of the sun
Following darkness like a dream…


It is tempting to see the great pagan festivities of the past behind many of the elements of the play. The mechanicals plot suggests the Saturnalia of Twelfth Night; there are references to May Day in the text; Puck’s chant is Halloween, when the cosmic order is reversed and the dead are released back into the world. The moon, who has been the virginal Diana, and the amorous Phoebe, is now the witches’ Hecate – dark queen of the underworld. The words quickly change to ones of blessing, but the mood has been established and lingers. Here is far more than just ‘the silliest stuff that ever I heard.’

ACT ONE, SCENE ONE

The world of the lover is perpetually changing: from sunshine to shadow, from moonlight to dawn. Love, therefore, perhaps more than any other emotional state is sublunar – it exists ‘beneath the moon,’ and was thought to be dependant on all its monthly changes of waxing to the full then waning. This central fact goes a long way to explaining the importance of the moon as a symbol in A Midsummer Night’s Dream . The play, surprisingly perhaps, begins with the ‘old moon’ invoked in Theseus’ first speech. This is the waning moon of the old woman, personified by Theseus as ‘a step-dame, or a dowager.’ Immediately, Hippolyta counters with the new moon – ‘like to a silver bow/New bent in heaven’ – and this suggests a new beginning, a time of new growth, while the ‘silver bow’ references Diana the huntress, who is the classical goddess of virginity. This virginal phase of the moon is later evoked by Theseus when he warns Hermia of a future life ‘Chaunting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.’ Finally, Lysander introduces a further aspect of the moon, when he associates it, via lunar goddess ‘Phoebe,’ with the romance of ‘lovers’ flights.’

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William Shakespeare