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Supermoons and streetlights

Last night was the full moon. The full supermoon, when its orbit reaches perigee and it comes closest to Earth.

Shakespeare sees it as a watery moon, a pale-faced moon, a changeable moon. In such a night as this, before the advent of street lights and helicopter parents, did children leave their supper and leave their sleep to join their playfellows in the street. In such a night, when the moon comes more nearer earth than she was wont she makes men mad, or at least for a few chilly minutes she encourages them to leave the television and poke a head outside to see whether the winter clouds have for a moment parted to reveal her quiet glory peering over the neighbor’s well-lit windows.

Supermoon March 2011
The moon at perigee.

At times for Shakespeare’s characters it was an ominous moon, especially when there were five of them.

HUBERT: My lord, they say five moons were seen tonight:
Four fixèd, and the fifth did whirl about
The other four in wondrous motion.
KING JOHN: Five moons?
HUBERT: Old men and beldams in the streets
Do prophesy upon it dangerously. (King John TLN 1906-11)

But we need no soothsayers, no star-guessers to tell us that the moon influences people as it influences the seas, though in these days of oppressive and omnipresent streetlights we see too little moonlight. Portia compares the frail light of a candle to the moon:

Ner. When the moone shone we did not see the candle?
Por. So doth the greater glory dim the lesse. (The Merchant of Venice, TLN 2506-7, quoted from the Folio)

So human lights dim the glory even of a supermoon, and we are left unmoved by what must have been exciting and unusual – a full moon, a night free, or almost free, of clouds, and a world of changed colors and shadows waiting outside. I recall my grandfather, in one of his regular reminiscing modes, explaining that in the early years of the motor car in Australia it was legal on nights when there was a full moon to drive without headlights. Now the fine Dominion Astrophysical Observatory near Victoria is swamped with light pollution at all hours.

A candle in the dark. Real dark. How welcome its gleam must have been in a generally unlit world, offering a glimmer of hope in darkness:

Por. That light we see is burning in my hall:
How farre that little candell throwes his beames,
So shines a good deed in a naughty world. (The Merchant of Venice, TLN 2503-5)

Is it too much to see in this an image of Shakespeare’s always-threatened, always-contingent world of comedy?

– Michael Best, Coordinating Editor

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