A Midsummer Night's Dream Imagery: Moon, Night & Sight

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

In this lesson, we'll learn how imagery of the moon, night, and sight in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' affects romantic relationships. We'll learn how various characters in the play view these images differently.

Nocturnal Imagery in A Midsummer Night's Dream

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the moon, night, and sight play important roles in the relationships between Theseus and Hippolyta, Oberon and Titania, Hermia and Lysander, and Helena and Demetrius. They also factor into the wedding play within the play, which features the characters of Pyramus and Thisbe. Characters' perceptions of moon, night, and sight vary throughout the play depending on their situations, so a variety of imagery (sometimes conflicting!) is used for each.

The Moon: An Obstacle to Romance

The moon is often depicted as a feminine virginal obstacle to romance, which male characters find 'cold.' At the play's opening, an impatient Theseus complains to Hippolyta: 'O, methinks, how slow This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires, Like to a step-dame, or a dowager, Long withering out a young man's revenue.' Their wedding is still four moons (days) away, so the current moon is getting 'old' for him. His metaphor of a man waiting to receive an inheritance from an elderly female patron reflects his (mild) frustration at having to wait to be joined with the woman promised to him.

Another example is Egeus's ultimatum to his daughter Hermia. Her choices are to marry Demetrius, be executed by court order, or become a nun: 'For aye to be in shady cloister mew'd (confined), To live a barren sister all your life, Chaunting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.' Here, the moon represents the denial of marriage and childbirth in a much more final way than Theseus's peevish imagery does.

A third example is the backstory behind Oberon's potion. Oberon tells Puck how, one night, he watched Cupid shoot at a maiden worshipper of Diana, the virgin goddess often symbolically represented by the moon. Cupid's 'fiery shaft' missed because it was '(q)uench'd in the chaste beams of the wat'ry moon' and hit a white flower instead. Here, the cold virginal moon is personified as a powerful goddess, which is comparable to the power a wealthy elderly woman has over the inheritance of family members.

The moon personified as the virginal goddess Diana (painting by Pietro Rotari)
The moon personified as the virginal goddess Diana (painting by Pietro Rotari)

The Moon: A Facilitator of Romance

However, at times, the moon is depicted as assisting or blessing lovers instead. Unlike Theseus, Hippolyta is content to wait the four days until the wedding. She imagines that 'the moon, like to a silver bow New bent in heaven, shall behold the night Of our solemnities.' Here, she associates the moon with a heavenly bow rather than a 'frigid' Diana.

In Act 5, the wedding play is performed for Theseus and Hippolyta. In it, the moon lights the way for lovers Pyramus and Thisbe. Pyramus says: 'Sweet Moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams; I thank thee, Moon, for shining now so bright; For by thy gracious, golden, glittering gleams, I trust to take of truest Thisbe sight.' Here, the moon's light is 'golden' and 'sunny' rather than cold and gloomy.

Night: Protective Shelter or Drawn-out Torture?

The moon, of course, is really only seen at night. However, Shakespeare uses the night as a separate subject for imagery. In Act 1, Lysander tells the distraught Hermia to meet him in the woods that night so the two can elope to Athens. The cover of night will both give them the chance to be together in private and elude Egeus at the same time.

Hermia and Lysander in the forest at night (painting by John Simmons)
Hermia and Lysander in forest at night (painting by John Simmons)

However, by the end of Act 3, an exhausted and frustrated Helena is eager for some sleep, then daylight. She's sick of the drama between herself, Demetrius, Hermia, and Lysander: 'O weary night, O long and tedious night, Abate thy hours! Shine, comforts, from the east, That I may (go) back to Athens by daylight.' For her, night is a form of drawn-out torture, whereas the sunrise is 'comforting.'

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