With four separate plots and four sets of characters, A Midsummer Night's Dream risks fragmentation. Yet Shakespeare has managed to create a unified play through repetition of common themes — such as love — and through cohesive use of imagery. Shining throughout the play, the moon is one of the primary vehicles of unity. In her inconstancy, the moon is an apt figure of the ever-changing, varied modes of love represented in the drama. As an image, the moon lights the way for all four groups of characters.
The play opens with Theseus and Hippolyta planning their wedding festivities under a moon slowly changing into her new phase — too slowly for Theseus. Like a dowager preventing him from gaining his fortune, the old moon is a crone who keeps Theseus from the bounty of his wedding day. Theseus implicitly invokes Hecate, the moon in her dark phase, the ruler of the Underworld associated with magic, mysticism, even death. This dark aspect of the moon will guide the lovers as they venture outside of the safe boundaries of Athens and into the dangerous, unpredictable world of the forest.
In this same scene, Hippolyta invokes a very different phase of the moon. Rather than the dark moon mourned by Theseus, Hippolyta imagines the moon moving quickly into her new phase, like a silver bow, bent in heaven. From stepmother, the moon is transformed in the course of a few lines into the image of fruitful union contained in the "silver bow," an implicit reference also to Cupid's arrow, which draws lovers together. Utilizing the imagery of the silver bow, Hippolyta invokes Diana, the virgin huntress who is the guardian spirit of the adolescent moon. In this guise, the moon is the patroness of all young lovers, fresh and innocent, just beginning their journey through life. This new, slender moon, though, won't last; instead, like life itself, she will move into her full maturity, into a ripe, fertile state, just as the marriages of the young lovers will grow, eventually resulting in children.
Later in the same act, the moon alters once again, returning to her role as Diana, the chaste goddess of the hunt. Theseus declares that if Hermia does not marry Demetrius as her father wishes, she will live a barren life, "[c]hanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon" (73). Hermia has until the next new moon to make her decision, so the new moon becomes both a symbol of Theseus and Hippolyta's happy union and of Hermia's potential withered life as a nun (or even a corpse), if she does not comply with her father's whim. In a play that celebrates love, marriage, and fertility, the chaste moon is not a welcome image. Therefore, Theseus urges Hermia to marry Demetrius, her father's choice of a husband, rather than spending a barren life in a convent. By the end of the scene, the moon presents herself in another guise: as Phoebe, the queen of moonlit forests. In this role, her "silver visage" will both light and conceal the flight of Lysander and Hermia, as they seek a happy and productive life away from the severe authority of Athens. As the play progresses, the moon will continue her transformations, accompanying all of the characters through their magical sojourns.
Guiding Theseus and Hippolyta as they prepare for their wedding, the moon also shines over the quarreling Oberon and Titania, who seek a way to patch up their failing marriage. As Oberon says when he first sees Titania, they are "ill met by moonlight." Notice how the fairy world is directly connected with the cycles of the moon: As "governess of the floods" (103), the moon, which is pale in anger because of Titania and Oberon's argument, has indirectly caused numerous human illnesses. And Titania invokes a weaker, more passive and "watery" moon that weeps along with the flowers at any violated chastity.
On a more comical level, moonshine is also relevant to the players. As they prepare their performance of "Pyramus and Thisbe," which is also drenched in moonlight, they wonder how they will manage to represent the moon. Bottom has the brilliant idea of leaving a window open during the performance so that the moon can shine in. Quince doesn't like the potential dangers of this natural solution — what if it's an overcast night — and suggests, instead, that one of the actors personify Moonshine by wearing a bush of thorns and carrying a lantern. Thus, Robin Starveling appears in the final act of the play as the Man-in-the-Moon, showing Shakespeare's dexterity in playing with all of the cultural representations that coalesce around a single image: From slender, virgin huntress to full, ripe mother to dark, mysterious crone to comical man-in-the moon, Shakespeare represents the moon in its full complexity.
Most of Shakespeare's images have similarly multiple layers of significance: Their relevance changes with their context, so no image maps simplistically onto a single meaning. Despite the multivalent meanings of the moon in this play, it is still a vehicle for unity, shining on all four groups of characters as they transform themselves in the course of the drama. Drenched in moonlight, this drama is aligned with Hecate's mystical, underworld visions; with the chaste, huntress Diana; and with Phoebe's rich fertility. But it is also aligned with the more comical, folkloric image of the man-in-the-moon, who, in the guise of Robin Starveling the tailor, lights the action of "Pyramus and Thisbe." Part of Shakespeare's skill as a playwright was in skillfully representing all aspects of a potent cultural icon, without destroying the unity of his carefully wrought artistic creation.