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Welcome to Episode 209 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare.

The Moon is used by William Shakespeare over 160 times in his works, talking about the shape of the moon, the horns of the moon, and even traits of the moon like moonshine or moonbeam. For Shakespeare’s lifetime, the moon held almost as prominent a place in life as the sun, with people planning their lives around the phases of the moon. 

Described using a variety of names including popular feminine names like Lucina, Diana, and Cynthia, the moon was personified with attributes like good manners, while being held responsible for bad things like aging or unpleasant weather. For early modern England, it was best to consult the location of the moon to determine the best time to do everything from bringing in the harvest to getting a haircut. 

Given the prominence of the moon and the pervasiveness of its place in the culture, understanding how it works and its attributes becomes essential to understanding plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream which mentions the word “Moon” close to 40 times and employs the moon, algon with madness, as a constant theme of the story. 

Our guest this week, Rachel Aanstad, writes about the place of the moon in the culture and mindset of 16th Century England in her Illustrated Handbook and Encyclopedia for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Today she joins us to explore the history and place of the moon and why it held such an important role in Shakespeare’s lifetime. 

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Rachel Aanstad is the author and illustrator of A Midsummer Night's Dream Illustrated Handbook and Encyclopedia and is currently working on A Twelfth Night or What You Will Illustrated Handbook and Encyclopedia. She is the Artistic Director of the Rose City Shakespeare Company and the producer of The Twelfth Night Podcast by Rose City Shakespeare Company. You can join her group on FB Shakespeare's World and Words or There Will Be Bawdy. She has an MFA in technical theatre and is a retired architect and set designer. She lives in Portland, Oregon in a house with her family, 3 dogs, two cats and a few thousand books.

Places to find Rachel and connect with her:

I will be asking Rachel Aanstad about:

  • Shakespeare uses the imagery of the moon a great deal in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Rachel, are the images he selected specifically a nod to Elizabeth I?
  • In Shakespeare’s King John, the character Hubert de Burg reports to the King that  “five moons were seen to-night;Four fixed, and the fifth did whirl about, The other four in wondrous motion.” That comes from Act IV Scene 2. Rachel, what’s going on with the moon here? How was it possible to see 5 moons in one night? 
  • In several of Shakespeare’s plays, we see characters keeping track of time based on how many “moons” have gone by. I think of Othello when he references “nine moons wasted” in ACt I Scene 3 or how, in Pericles, Act II Scene 5, the character Simonedes says that for “12 moons more” is how long his daughter will wear Diana’s livery. Rachel, we know that implements like sun dials and calendars existed for Shakespeare’s lifetime, so why are these characters marking time by the moon? 
  • …and more!

Books and Resources Recommended by Rachel Aanstad:

Kassell, Lauren. Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London: Simon Forman: Astrologer, Alchemist, and Physician (Oxford Historical Monographs). Oxford University Press, 2007.

Lilly, William. Christian Astrology 1647 https://archive.org/details/ChristianAstrologyByWilliamLilly 2021

Sondheim, Moriz. “Shakespeare and the Astrology of His Time.” Journal of the Warburg Institute, vol. 2, no. 3, 1939, pp. 243–59,

Yates, Frances. The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, Routledge 1979

Detailed Notes for Patrons! (This post expands!)

Explore the visual content that compliments the history you're hearing about on our podcast inside the detailed show notes. Here's what's inside for this week:

  • 1511 sketch of the Virgin Mary sitting on a Crescent Moon
  • 1512 A drawing of the sun, the moon and a basilisk serving as an illustration for the concept of “Eternity”
  • 16th century Portrait of Elizabeth I that compares her to the moon goddess, Diana
  • 13th Century illustration of the moon and sun
  • 18th century portrait of Diana, the moon goddess (featuring a crescent moon on her forehead)
  • 16th century sketch of Nostradamus Astrology featuring a crescent moon
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