Thursday, 14 September 2017

A Midsummer Night's Moonshine

In his play a Midsummer Summer Night's Dream written in 1596 Shakespeare introduces the poor tailor Robin Starveling. Tailors were lowly paid and known to be thin, hence the popular Tudor proverb “It takes nine tailors to make a man”. Robin Starveling is one of the Athenian rustics and in Act Five he takes the part of Moonshine in the “play within a play” Pyramus and Thisbe based on a story within Ovid's Metamorphoses. A perfect role created by Shakespeare for a young actor learning the trade or perhaps an older member of the company who no longer had the stamina for more demanding roles. Moonshine is a hopeless actor with improvised props and he is mercilessly mocked by the audience and in particular by the aristocrat Hippolyta. However, what Moonshine has to say in his brief part is of great interest to astronomers.

“All that I have to say is to tell you that the lantern is the moon, I the man in the moon, this thorn-bush my thorn-bush, and this dog my dog.”

The Tudors saw three images in the moon. A man hunched over carrying a bundle of sticks over his shoulder on the right hand side, a thorn bush in the top section and a dog on the left hand side. Presumably the sticks had been gathered from the Thorn Bush and the dog was the man's companion. Shakespeare knew these images and so did his audiences. I have drawn the outlines in red on a photograph of the full moon.  A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of Shakespeare's best known plays and today well over 400 years since it was written audiences still laugh at poor Moonshine as he takes the stage just as their ancestors did.

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