lunacy 1. n. The condition of being a lunatic; intermittent insanity such as was formerly supposed to be brought about by the changes of the moon … Also, a fit or attack of such insanity.
b. transf. and fig. Mad folly. Often in much weakened sense.
lunatic A. adj. 1. Originally, affected with the kind of insanity that was supposed to have recurring periods dependent on the changes of the moon.
c. fig. Madly foolish, frantic, idiotic, ‘mad’.
2. a. Influenced by the moon. Obs.
The moon is quickly established in the first scene of Midsummer as a controlling but fluidly changing force. The moon wears several different faces within a few lines, but all of them are influential. By moonlight, transgressive and sexually charged actions – like singing beneath your lover’s window – can occur. Yet the moon is simultaneously figured as an unyielding force of order: it is the deity to which Hermia will pledge herself (“chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon”), and it is the marker of the time limit she has to make her decision.
The way characters personify the moon in dialogue speaks to the way the moon was perceived: changeable, related to water, both romantic and sterile, feminine and masculine. Theseus refers to the moon as “the cold fruitless moon” when revealing Hermia’s possible grim future as a nun – feminine but sterile. In a similar vein, Oberon calls the moon “chaste,” “the imperial votaress,” “maiden”, and her beams have the power to put out “young Cupid’s fiery shaft” and bring it to earth. At the very beginning of the play, Theseus calls the “old moon” a “step-dame or a dowager Long withering out a young man’s revenue,” tying it even further to the idea of celibacy. Yet when Titania falls in love with Bottom, both moon and flowers weep, “Lamenting some enforced chastity”. Titania also figures the moon as “the governess of floods,” an angry and powerful force of nature.
And then we come to Moonshine — poor Robin Starveling with his horns, lantern, thorns, and dog. Moonshine is the man in the moon, in contrast to the feminine way most of the characters personify the moon. Compared to the real moon, Moonshine is completely ineffective: he can’t even control his lines, let alone the audience. But as ineffective as Moonshine the actor may be, the moon itself is recognized as being an important force, even by the Mechanicals. Pyramus and Thisbe must have moonlight to meet each other. The moon “doth shine that night” – but the Mechanicals clearly have great faith in redundancy, and so they make Moonshine a role as well.
All this moon imagery implies lunacy, a term not used until the very end of the play when Theseus proclaims that “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet Are of imagination all compact”. The moon’s influence was believed to cause madness and frenzies that depended on the changing nature of the moon, as the OED definition above describes. Every human who enters the woods in Midsummer, whether the moon is dark or shining, goes a little mad – usually thanks to the meddling of the “mad spirit” Puck. Some of the frenzy is sexual, as in Titania’s tryst with Bottom; some of it is violent, with Demetrius and Lysander vying for Helena’s hand and Helena and Hermia having their own eye-scratching fight; some of it is simply fearful, as in the Mechanicals’ frantic escape from Bottom and Puck. In the morning, it all seems like a dream – or perhaps a hallucination, or “vision” as Bottom calls it. When Theseus compares the lunatic, the lover, and the poet, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the lover is the lunatic: “all as frantic,” certainly, and driven through the woods by the moon.