Shakespeare’s Moons

Uranus moons
A proportionate image of Uranus’ large moons and one smaller moon: from left to right Puck, Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania and Oberon. Images via NASA’s Voyager 2

“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.

A lonely Miranda by John William Waterhouse, 1875

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:
O, wonder!
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.

Miranda moon
Uranus’ icy moon Miranda – Image from Voyager 2 NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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.


The Plague

COVID-19 virus

Hic incipit pestis.
Here begins the plague.

At least two authors have gotten an increase in attention (and perhaps sales and readers) because of the COVID-19 virus pandemic.

It probably seems obvious that sales of Albert Camus‘ 1947 novel La Peste (English title The Plague) have moved up in sales since late February. Sales are up 300% in France. These increased sales make a lot more sense to me than the current run on toilet paper.

The Plague is set in Oran, an Algerian town, that is sealed off by quarantine because of bubonic plague. That’s a real city and a real disease but the novel isn’t science, science-fiction or terror. It’s not really about a specific disease. It always seemed to me to be more mythic. This community becomes isolated and falls under this invisible siege. This scenario has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen in the future.

Like other fiction, Camus uses characters to represent groups. The good doctor Rieux is all those who help in a crisis. Cottard becomes depressed and suicidal-but changes as the novel progresses. Tarrou, an outsider, is the humanist. Some in the government are unwilling to call the plague a plague (Sound familiar?) because they don’t want to alarm the public. That approach never succeeds.

Camus wrote The Plague three years after the real city of Oran had an outbreak of the bubonic plague. As with much of great literature, each age finds its own lives in a story that is not of their own time or place.

Camus’ post-WWII audience may have viewed the pestilence as “the brown plague” of German occupation. Since then, it has been interpreted more generally as an ideology that spreads like a virus. It has been seen in the 21st century as the spreading of terrorism and hate.

In these kinds of pandemics, there are always people offering solutions and falsely preventative measures and taking advantage of fears. Silver solutions don’t prevent COVID-19 and the peppermint lozenges in the novel do nothing for the plague.

plague bed
flea-infested plague bed

In William Shakespeare’s time, the plague was the most dreaded disease. It was carried by fleas living on rats, but they didn’t know that and had no way to stop it. Not that they didn’t try.

I don’t recommend any of their treatments: rubbing onions, herbs or a chopped up snake on the boils, or cutting up a pigeon and rubbing it over an infected body, or drinking vinegar, taking arsenic or mercury. Less dangerous and no more effective was sage, rue, briar leaves, elder leaves, ginger, strain with white wine and a good spoonful of the best treacle and drink it morning and evening.

The plague swept through London in 1563, 1578-9, 1582, 1592-3, and 1603. But 1563 and 1603 were the worst years, each time killing over one-quarter of London’s population.

Shakespeare was born, lived and wrote through all of those years in his life from 1564 to 1616, so it’s not surprising that it came into his plays.

Where the infectious pestilence did reign,
Sealed up the doors
So fearful were they of infection.
Romeo and Juliet

In The Hot Hand, Ben Cohen looks at the history and science of “streaks” which we probably think of related to sports and gambling. One of his tales is how Shakespeare was influenced by the plague, especially during his “hot hand” streak of hit plays.

But Will’s plague story starts in 1564 when the plague had wiped out a sizable portion of Stratford-upon-Avon and surrounded his home on Henley Street.  His parents had already lost two children to previous plague outbreaks and 3-month-old Will didn’t have good odds of survival.  But he survived. Maybe he developed childhood immunity because he survived the subsequent plague outbreaks.

The plague wasn’t really a topic for an entire play.  It wasn’t material for comedy or tragedy.  Londoners tried to escape plague reality by going to plays – as Americans did with movies in the Great Depression and we are doing with TV and streaming movies during the current pandemic.

But he did use the plague in the plays. For a number of years, I taught Romeo and Juliet and I needed to teach the plague when I taught Shakespeare’s time.  Romeo and Juliet are actually ripped apart not by their feuding parents but by a twist of the plague.

I’m sure if you read or saw the play the plague line you would recall is Mercutio’s curse on the feuding Capulets and Montagues:  “A plague on both your houses!”

The plotting Friar Laurence was to send a letter via Friar John to Romeo in Mantua where he has been exiled. The letter will explain Juliet’s sleeping potion and faked death and then they can escape Verona, marry, and we’ll have a comedy – in that all’s well that ends well.

But Friar John never delivers the letter to Romeo because he can’t get to Mantua due to a plague quarantine. Therefore, Romeo thinks Juliet is really dead and kills himself before she wakes up from her drugged “death.” Juliet wakes up, sees dead Romeo and also kills herself. There is a lot of coincidence in Shakespeare’s plots.

A newer theory of how Shakespeare wrote is that many of “hits” came in streaks and those streaks came during plague years. Why would that be true?

For example, in the book The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, the author says that Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. And the answer to Why is that plague closed London’s playhouses for the same reasons that theaters are being closed in 2020. Shakespeare’s King’s Men left plagued London and headed out into the English countryside doing shows in safe towns. William stayed in London (or perhaps went home to Stratford – we don’t know for sure) and had lots of time to write.

So while the plague was never the subject of a play, it certainly figured in his writing life.

The Bard On the Screen

There are lots of film versions of William Shakespeare’s plays, but lately, there have been a few versions of William himself on screens.

One film is All Is True, directed by Kenneth Branagh. Ben Elton wrote the screenplay for this film about Shakespeare’s final days. Elton also created and wrote a British sitcom that ran for three seasons called Upstart Crow about Shakespeare’s life and work. Branagh had a cameo role on the series, and Elton played Verges along with Dogberry (Michael Keaton) in Branagh’s 1993 film versions of Much Ado About Nothing.

I haven’t seen more than a few clips of the lowbrow Upstart Crow (I only found it available with a subscription to Amazon’s BritBox package) and it is interesting that the same writer was able to write these two very different approaches to Shakespeare the man.

“Upstart crow” comes from Robert Greene’s famous contemporary reference to Shakespeare as an “upstart crow…[who] supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of.” The upstartedness of William was that he seems to have considered himself on par with the educated and more socially-graced  “Oxbridge posh boys” (like Christopher Marlowe or Ben Johnson) who were also writing plays at the time.

The serious All Is True is no sitcom. It begins with the Globe theater burning down during a performance of Henry VIII. This is taken as why Shakespeare decides to retire and return home to Stratford. He has been away from home for about 20 years. We don’t know if he occasionally visited home. In Upstart Crow, Will apparently often complains about the London to Stratford commute taking days. We really don’t know much for sure about the bard’s life, so writers and filmmakers have some license to fill in the blanks – and Elton and Branagh do so.

It might be that Shakespeare was writing in London, in Stratford and maybe even while journeying between places.  (I vote for London.) I also love that people are still digging into whatever they can find about Will. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has suggested that Shakespeare might have spent more time in Stratford than previously thought. Of course, the Trust is on the site of New Place, the second-largest house in Stratford that Shakespeare bought in 1597, so promoting the town may be a goal.

Many fans have been fascinated by Will’s relationship (or lack thereof) with his wife, Anne. The literal distance between them couldn’t have helped strengthen any love that had once existed. I read that Elton’s TV Will has a better relationship with Anne than most scholars have said existed.  The All Is True Will and Anne are more distant in all ways.

I always thought that the death of their son Hamnet affected Will and showed up in subtle ways in his later writing. Branagh’s version of Anne is angry that her husband did not really mourn their son’s death. This Will even goes off and writes next the comic Merry Wives of Windsor. Was he cold-hearted, or trying to escape grief? This film Shakespeare is more haunted by his only son’s death and back home he tries to fix the broken relationships with his wife and daughters.

The film’s Will is serious in looking back at some of his failings as a husband and as a father. Some of the “truths” of this story involve uncovering secrets and lies within the entire family.

All Is True as a title was an alternate title for henry VIII that was used during Shakespeare’s lifetime. It is also a nice pun considering that this new film is at least partially examining the role of what is “true” in what we know about Shakespeare’s life. Scholarly types have already dug into and opined on whether or not Branagh has stuck to the facts that have been considered true in the past about Shakespeare’s play and life.

St. John’s or Midsummer’s Eve

Illustration from a vintage edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (public domain

“Midsummer Night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.” – Swedish proverb

I’m sure you think of this summer as being new and young, but tonight is Midsummer Night’s Eve, also called St. John’s Eve. This holiday goes back to the time of Old English and the Anglo-Saxon calendar that divided the year into only two parts instead of our 4 seasons. On this calendar with only summer and winter (each being 6 months long), summer ran from April through September) makes now midsummer. It also placed the time at or near the solstice.

St. John is the patron saint of beekeepers and this was a time of full hives and the time to use that honey to make honey wine, popularly known as mead. We believe that it was Irish monks during medieval times who learned to ferment honey and make mead.

The June Full Moon was called the Mead Moon and mead supposedly enhanced virility and fertility and was an aphrodisiac. This led mead to be part of Irish wedding ceremonies, and contributed to the idea of a honeymoon, referring to the literal moon and also the first sweet month of those June marriages.

Many people know the holiday because of Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream which is set on this night. The comedy of two young couples who wander into a forest outside Athens on this night which is known for magic proves’ Shakespeare’s premise that “The course of true love never did run smooth.”

In England, this night was once an established holiday celebration. For the fairies, this night was second only to Halloween in importance. These “Faeries” enjoyed making mischief with humans.

This may be a short night (the summer solstice being the shortest night) but celebrants made the most of it. They would light bonfires after sundown. This “setting the watch” kept bad spirits at bay, and gave light to the revelers who also might carry cressets (lanterns atop poles) d bedecked in garlands, along with dancers, and some dressed as a unicorn, a dragon, and the six hobby-horse riders.

St. John's Wort
Flowers of St. John’s Wort

Having a party at your home tonight? Decorate the door with birch, fennel, and the herb St John’s wort. That herb is so named because it commonly produces blossoms that are harvested at this time. “Wort” is a Middle English word (wort, wurt, wyrte) simply meaning a plant, that in Old English wyrt was used for any herb, vegetable, plant, crop, or root. Tonight or on St. John’s Feast Day (June 24) hanging this herb on doors would ward off evil spirits, harm, and sickness for man and beast.

The plant is in the genus name Hypericum is possibly derived from the Greek words hyper (above) and eikon (picture), in reference to the tradition of hanging these plants over religious icons in the home during St John’s Day.

In modern times and still today, many people use St. John’s Wort as a medicinal herb as a mild antidepressant. The plant itself is actually poisonous to livestock.

Tree worship was also part of Midsummer festivities and trees near wells and fountains were decorated with colored cloths. This was especially true for oak trees, as the Oak King ruled the waxing of the year and the oak tree symbolizes strength, courage, and endurance.

The Oak has always been particularly significant at Litha, the name Germanic neopagans use for the summer solstice festival Litha. In their ancient calendar, June and July were se Ærra Liþa and se Æfterra Liþa (the “early Litha month” and the “later Litha month”).

The Celtic name for Oak is ‘Duir’ which means ‘doorway’ and so this was the time when we enter the doorway into the second, waning part of the year.

Close Encounters, Three 3/13’s and Synchronicity

“Causality is the way we explain the link between two successive events.
Synchronicity designates the parallelism of time and meaning between psychic
and psychophysical events, which scientific knowledge so far
has been unable to reduce to a common principle.”
― C.G. Jung, The Portable Jung

A friend loaned me the book There Are No Accidents: Synchronicity and the Stories of Our Lives years ago because I had been talking to her about synchronicity. Carl Jung coined the term to describe coincidences that are related by meaningfulness rather than by cause and effect. ” Jung introduced the idea of ​​synchronicity to get away from the “magic and superstition” which surrounds some unpredictable and startling events that appear to be connected.

I found another similar book, There Are No Coincidences: Synchronicity as the Modern-Day Mystical Experience, whose title suggests that the “more than” part of these experiences may be mystical.

“We do not create our destiny; we participate in its unfolding.
Synchronicity works as a catalyst toward the working out of that destiny.”
David Richo, The Power of Coincidence: How Life Shows Us What We Need to Know

I would think that all of us have had some otherwise-unrelated events occur to us for which we assumed some significance beyond the ordinary. The common example is when you happen to remember a person you have not thought about or seen for many years, and at that moment your telephone rings and it is that very person. What is the statistical probability that this can happen? Very small; very unlikely. For some people, the explanation moves to the paranormal.

I was looking at an almanac page online on March 13th and came upon a story from 3/13/1997 about when thousands of people reported mysterious lights over Arizona. Around 8 p.m., a man in Henderson, Nevada, saw a V-shaped object “the size of a 747,” with six lights on its leading edge. The lights moved diagonally from northwest to southeast. Other people sighted seeing the same thing over the next hour throughout Arizona. They were seen as far south as Tucson nearly 400 miles away.

A rendering of the object seen created by witness Tim Ley that appeared in USA Today.

I remember those “Phoenix Lights” being covered by the media in 1997. Having grown up in the late 1950s and 1960s, I heard many tales of UFOs.

A repeat of the lights occurred February 6, 2007, and was recorded by the local Fox News television station. But, as was the case with almost every UFO appearance in my youth, it was explained away by officials. In this case, the military and FAA said that it was flares dropped by F-16 aircraft training at Luke Air Force Base.

Reading that account made me think of my own one and only possible “close encounter.” That phrase entered the mainstream with the release of Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

My own encounter would be of the first kind – seeing a UFO fairly close (within 150 meters).

My sighting was in the summer of 1993 in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. UFO sightings in the Pinelands seem to be fairly common. I saw what I would describe as a ship that was (as I later discovered) a lenticular saucer. It was motionless over a lake in the early morning (about 3 am). It had no sound or flashing lights, but a thin red-lit ring encircled it.  I had no camera. No one else was there with me. I watched it for about a minute and then it lifted vertically a few feet, tilted at an angle, and took off rapidly, vanishing from sight in a few seconds.

An encounter with a UFO that leaves evidence behind, such as scorch marks on the ground or indents, etc., is said to be of the second kind. Spielberg’s film deals with the third kind – an encounter with visible occupants of a UFO. The fourth kind involves the person being taken and experimented on inside the alien craft. The fifth kind involves direct communication between aliens and humans, as portrayed in the 2016 film, Arrival.

I don’t know what I saw. I never read any news reports about it. I never reported it.

After I read that almanac entry on the Phoenix Lights, I looked at another almanac website for more information and that site that told me that on March 13 in 1855, Percival Lowell was born. Who was he? Born to a wealthy family, he graduated from Harvard, but he passed on working in the family business and instead did a lot of traveling and travel writing. In the 1890s, he read that astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had discovered what appeared to be canals on Mars. Lowell was fascinated by that idea and put his fortune into studying the Red Planet.

He believed that the canals offered proof of intelligent life. He built a private observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Astronomers and scientists were skeptical of his view of intelligent life on Mars, but the general public was intrigued by his view. Lowell’s writing and observations had an impact, not as much on science as on the infant literary genre that became known as science fiction.

These two coincidences on March 13 led me to check out that date on Wikipedia. The event that caught my attention on yet another March 13, in 1781, was that the English astronomer Sir William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus. Well, “discover” may be too strong because John Flamsteed had observed it in 1690, but thought it was a star. Herschel was the first to figure out that it was a planet and not a star.

He observed the planet’s very slow movement and determined that meant it was very far from the Sun – farther than Saturn, which was the farthest known planet. He named it after Ouranos, the Greek god of the sky. Since then, astronomers have discovered 27 moons orbiting the blue-green ice giant. The moons have literary names, mostly characters from Shakespeare’s plays. Uranus is an odd planet in that its axis is tilted so far that it appears to be lying on its side with its ringed moons circling the planet vertically.

Was it a coincidence that I found these three stories that day? Is there some synchronicity that these three events occurred on the same calendar date?  Is there a connection among these three March Thirteenths?

Though I believe in synchronicity, they seem to be coincidental. I found connections because I was looking for connections. But I am open-minded about the idea. I do believe in coincidences, and I do sometimes believe that things occur which stretch my belief in coincidences.

“Coincidences give you opportunities to look more deeply into your existence.”
Doug Dillon

“Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
– Albert Einstein

“I live for coincidences. They briefly give to me the illusion or the hope
that there’s a pattern to my life, and if there’s a pattern,
then maybe I’m moving toward some kind of destiny where it’s all explained.”
Jonathan Ames

A Globe on Fire

Inside the modern Globe Theater 

I noted that yesterday was the day in 1613 that Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre burned to the ground. It wasn’t arson. The thatched roof caught on fire after a theatrical cannon misfired during a production of Henry VIII. No one died, but the home of Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was gone.

That’s history, but what felt more contemporary to me in that story is that after it was rebuilt in 1614, it was closed down in 1642. The Puritans closed all the theaters in London that year. I thought about that and the recent controversy over a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in New York’s Central Park. Caesar was portrayed as a Donald Trump character and, of course he is assassinated by his own senators.

Thankfully, though there were protests, no one burned down the theater. But the media was afire with the topic. Some people pointed out that this updating of Caesar in portrayal without changing the play’s text is not new. Orson Welles did a famous production with Caesar as Hitler. A few years ago a production had a clearly Barack Obama lead and last year a Hillary Clinton female Caesar walked the stage in a white pantsuit and was assassinated. Those two productions didn’t get much media attention.

The Puritans were a Protestant religious faction and another kind of reformed, plain church, strict religious view. At the end of the Elizabethan era, this conservatism went beyond religion to many social activities within England. The Puritans hated theater.

That they were able to close all the theaters should be more shocking to us than it probably seems to most people today. Imagine if the government, pressured by a religion, was able to shut down the theaters for plays (and films?) today. Is it possible?

There is too much anger and ugliness in American politics today, but we still say we value freedom of speech and expression.

Sometimes it feels like our globe is on fire with wars, terrorism and tragedies manmade.

The Globe Theater was pulled down two years after it was closed. It was rebuilt much like its earlier incarnation (with concessions for current safety) more than 350 years later. It operates today and we are still seeing updated productions of Shakespeare’s plays that resonate with issues of the day. That is how it should be.

The Assassination of Julius Caesar
Vincenzo Camuccini (1771–1844) The Assassination of Julius Caesar