“Well shone, Moon. Truly, the moon shines with a good grace.” – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The moons that orbit planets in our solar system other than our own mostly have names from ancient mythologies. Uranus’ moons are unique in being named for Shakespearean characters and a few named for characters from the works of Alexander Pope.
“Sweet Moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams; I thank thee, Moon, for shining now so bright.” – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Oberon and Titania, a King and Queen from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are logically the names of the largest Uranian moons. They were the first ones to be discovered by William Herschel in 1787.
The next two discovered were named Ariel and Umbriel. In 1948, Miranda was discovered.
It wasn’t an astronomer but the Voyager 2 spacecraft visited that found ten more moons orbiting in 1986. They were named Juliet, Puck, Cordelia, Ophelia, Bianca, Desdemona, Portia, Rosalind, Cressida, and Belinda.
Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope and powerful ground-based telescopes have increased the number of moons Uranian moons to 27! They are small (12-16 km or 8-10 miles across). They are black and, being 2.9 billion km (1.8 billion miles) away from the Sun, they are composed half of water ice and half of rock.
Miranda is from my personal favorite of Shakespeare’s plays – The Tempest. She is the only female character to appear on stage. She is the daughter of Prospero, a wizard banished to the island setting. Miranda was 3 years old when they arrived there and has only known her father and their servant Caliban for her 12 years there.
It is reasonable to consider that island setting as being influenced by explorations of the New World (North America). We believe that Shakespeare wrote the play in 1610-1611 and from 1607–1611 Henry Hudson explored Greenland and the river, strait and bay that now carry his name. Reports of the New World probably reached Shakespeare in the news along with tales of exotic plants, animals and people encountered or imagined. Caliban is an anagram of “cannibal.”
When Miranda first sees shipwrecked men arrive on the island, she says:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
Like discovering a new moon or planet, it is wondrous – but Prospero reminds her and us that ‘Tis new to thee,” but of course they were always there.
According to NASA, Miranda, the innermost and smallest of the five major satellites, is unique. It has giant fault canyons that are as much as 12 times as deep as the Grand Canyon.
The moon Ariel is named for a spirit in The Tempest. The name Ariel means Lion of God, but Shakespeare probably meant it was a play on the word “aerial” since this spirit is supposed to fly around the island. The moon itself is the brightest and possibly the youngest of the moons of Uranus.
And following Shakespeare’s characters, Oberon, Shakespeare’s King of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is an older, heavily cratered moon.
Shakespeare’s writing and characters live on in many ways.