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Nearly all of Uranus' 27 moons have Shakespearean names. What'll this one be called?


OK. This question has two correct answers. What do all of the following have in common - Titania, Ophelia, Desdemona, Juliet, Portia and Puck? Answer - they are all Shakespearean characters and also moons of the planet Uranus. Nearly all of the planet's 27 moons have Shakespearean names, a tradition that dates back centuries. And now astronomers have discovered a new one, the planet's 28th and possibly tiniest moon. And they plan to continue the naming tradition by calling it Violenta. So we've called up Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute in the bard's hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon in England. Thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL DOBSON: It's a pleasure.

SHAPIRO: Who is Violenta, and why name a moon after her?

DOBSON: I think this is a lovely idea. Violenta is about as insignificant as you can get and still be in the Shakespeare canon somewhere. Violenta comes on stage in a stage direction in "All's Well That Ends Well." She's apparently a friend of the widow who keeps the guest house in Florence. But she doesn't have any lines at all. And it's possible that her name is even a misprint and Shakespeare really wrote Violetta. So she just glimmers into view and then disappears again. And most performers offered the role of Violenta would not be very pleased. So for a very indistinct, very distant moon that is barely visible, it's not a bad name. I understand that the astronomer wants to call this moon Violetta because he's got a daughter called Violet.

SHAPIRO: Oh, how perfect.

DOBSON: And it's a bit like violet. There's nobody called Violet in Shakespeare. There is, of course, Viola. But I imagine her name has been taken already for an asteroid.

SHAPIRO: That's a bigger role.

DOBSON: Yeah, yeah, a much bigger role.

SHAPIRO: Well, how did the tradition come about of naming the moons of Uranus after Shakespeare's characters?

DOBSON: It starts very early with Titania and Oberon. Titania is an alternative name of Diana. She's the queen of the fairies in "Midsummer Night's Dream." And she's called that partly because it's an alternative name for Diana, who is the goddess of the moon. And "Midsummer Night's Dream" is perhaps the most moon obsessed of Shakespeare's plays. So Titania, that's reasonable. If you've got another one, well, it might as well be Oberon, Titania's husband. And it seems to have spiraled from there.

SHAPIRO: Did Shakespeare himself talk a lot about the moon beyond "Midsummer Night's Dream," which you mentioned?

DOBSON: Oh, yes. I mean, he had no particular interest in it as a heavenly body per se, but he's interested in how mortals look at it and the sense they try to make of it, the ways they identify with it, the ways they talk about time using the moon.

SHAPIRO: Do you have a favorite line that references the moon?

DOBSON: Oh, loads. I mean, Romeo and Juliet are probably the most famous in the, you know, what's called the balcony scene, though it doesn't include a balcony.

SHAPIRO: What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet as the sun - kill the envious moon. The envious moon, right?

DOBSON: Absolutely. Lady by yonder blessed moon, I vow that tips with silver all these fruit tree tops. I mean, I think perhaps the most appropriate one in connection with naming things is Caliban in "The Tempest," who doesn't use the word moon, but does talk about being taught its name in that wonderful speech where he rebukes Prospero when he says, when thou camest first, thou strokedst me and madest much of me, wouldst give me water Water with berries in't, and teach me how, to name the bigger light, and how the less, that burn by day and night.

SHAPIRO: As somebody who has spent his life studying Shakespeare, what do you make of scientists applying these beautiful, poetic literary names to these discoveries that are rooted in, you know, cold, hard data and facts?

DOBSON: I find it very touching. Shakespeare is interested in people on earth using the skies to make meaning in their lives and finding omens and portents and signs of good luck and so on in what's happening in the sky. That scientists are now trying to make these tiny pieces of rock millions of miles away that we're never really going to see meaningful by turning them into a kind of random gallery of Shakespearean characters, obviously, it's a colonial gesture, but I think it's quite cute.

SHAPIRO: Michael Dobson directs the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham in England. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

DOBSON: It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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