Women as Instigators of Tragedy in the Works of Shakespeare
It is the very error of the moon;
She comes more nearer earth than she was wont,
And makes men mad. (Othello 5.2.112-14)
The moon is often seen in literature as an allegory for love, virtue, and chastity. In Shakespeare's comedies, especially, the moon is personified as Diana, the Roman goddess of chastity. In these comedies, the foolish antics of lovers (literally, "lunatics") usually occur under the auspices of the chaste goddess, the lovers behaving like hounds about her feet that snap at each other in competition for her bounty. The moon as allegory for the lunacy of romance helps us understand Shakespeare's view of romance. In the tragedies, however, the moon can represent many things at once: Diana, the goddess of Chastity; the cyclical nature of Fortune; and Hecuba, the witch of insanity. These figures, as their names suggest, are feminine. The tragic heroes often refer to their wives as the moon. The wives are often seen as possessing, at different times, elements of the various associations with the moon. I assert that, by examining the several allegories of the moon to the principal women of the tragedies, we can see the multiplicity of Shakespeare's attitude toward women. Often in the tragedies, the moon serves as the allegory for the changeability of fortune, the fickleness of women, and--as a result--the cause of madness. For this paper, I will systematically show the various allegories of the moon present in several tragedies. Then I will show how the multiplicity of these allegories is similar to the multiplicity of the principal women of the tragedies.
Several principal women of the tragedies are referred to as the moon in terms of Diana, the chaste. However, they are compared to Diana as being different from her; in other words, the women are shown to not to be chaste. The finest example can be found in Othello. Iago convinces Othello that Othello is being cuckolded by his wife, after which Othello questions him, referring to his wife as the moon:
Why, why is this?
Think'st thou I'ld make a lie of jealousy,
To follow still the changes of the moon
With fresh suspicions? No; to be once in doubt
Is once to be resolved . . . (3.3.190)
The moon/Desdemona is seen as at once chaste and inclined to change. Later, Othello accuses Desdemona of infidelity despite her protesting innocence. Again, he compares her infidelity with the moon: "What committed!/ Heaven stops the nose at it and the moon winks . . . " (4.2.74). The moon, once chaste, is now flirting. Similarly, Othello believes that Desdemona, once chaste, is cuckolding him. These two examples show the multiple allegories of the moon that, similarly, exist in women.
The moon also symbolizes the changeability of Fortune. What does the Fortune have to do with the moon? Shakespeare considered both of them to be much...