Bob the Alien's Tour of the Solar System
Bob the Alien's Tour of the Solar System
Shakespeare's Moons

Thousands of years ago, when the Romans and Greeks were naming the planets that were visible to them, they decided to name them after their gods. Mercury (Greek: Hermes) was the Roman god of commerce, travel and industry, Venus (Greek: Aphrodite) was the goddess of love and beauty, Mars (Greek: Ares) was the god of war, Jupiter (Greek: Zeus) was the king of the gods, and Saturn (Greek: Cronos) was the god of agriculture. Hundreds of years later, even when people knew that the planets weren't actually gods, they still kept with tradition and named newly discovered planets after mythological characters. Uranus, Neptune and Pluto were all discovered in modern times, but their names are all still linked to ancient myths. Uranus is the Greek ruler of the heavens, Neptune (Greek: Poseidon) is the Roman god of the sea, and Pluto (Greek: Hades) is god of the underworld. The names of moons orbiting planets are also influenced by mythology. This is all except for one planet. The moons orbiting Uranus are named after characters in plays, mostly after characters in plays written by William Shakespeare. Why would you name moons after characters in a play though? Before I answer that, here's my quick guide to Shakespeare.

Bob the Alien's Guide to Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

One of the greatest ever writers of the English language was William Shakespeare. He was born on 23rd April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England and during his life, wrote about 154 poems (called sonnets) and 38 plays. From 1588, he lived in London where many of his plays were performed in front of the courts of the Royal Family. Although his plays are now over 400 years old, they are still performed and studied today, containing themes and ideas which are as relevant now as they were when they were first written. The Globe Theatre in London was opened in 2000 and is a modern day replica of the type of theatre in which Shakespeare's plays would have originally been performed. Some of Shakespeare's most famous plays are Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Shakespeare died on 23rd April 1616 and is buried in Stratford-upon-Avon church.

Although Shakespeare wrote a large number of plays, these plays can be placed into four categories: Comedies, Histories, Tragedies and Romances. The Comedies were often farcical comedies of error, kind of like Fawlty Towers for the 16th Century (e.g. A Midsummer Night's Dream) . The Histories were based on real historical events, usually about English history (Henry IV, Part 1) or ancient history. Tragedies were plays with darker themes (such as betrayal and jealousy) and by the end of the play, most of the characters had died! (Romeo and Juliet, King Lear). The Romances were a bit lighter in theme and featured elements of fantasy and magic (A Winter's Tale, The Tempest).

Shakespeare's House, Stratford-upon-Avon

William Shakespeare is a hugely influential figure in English literature today. Students still analyse and discuss his works, and tourists from all over the world visit Stratford-upon-Avon to visit Shakespeare's house (pictured right). His importance inspired William Herschel in 1787 to name some of the moons known to be orbiting Uranus after characters in Shakespeare's plays.

In 1781, Uranus became the first planet to be "discovered". The other planets that were known of at the time (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) plus the Sun and the Moon had been observed for tens of thousands of years from Earth and already had names, named by the Greeks and Romans after their gods. Before 1781, nobody knew that Uranus existed and people thought there were only six planets in the Solar System. Although Uranus had already been spotted numerous times, it was English astronomer William Herschel who first recognised that Uranus was actually a planet and not a star. Because the planet was discovered by an English astronomer, not an ancient Roman or Greek, it was very nearly named Georgian Sidus ("George's Star"), in honour of England's ruler at the time, King George the Third. Unsurprisingly, the scientific community didn't really like this name, wanting the new planet to keep the tradition of being named after Roman or Greek gods. So the seventh planet in the Solar System became known as Uranus, a name suggested by German astronomer Johann Elert Bode.

In 1787, a few years after discovering Uranus, William Herschel discovered two large moons orbiting the planet. Wanting to honour his British background once more, Herschel decided this time to honour the greatest playwright in English history by naming the two moons after characters in one of his plays. The moons were named Titania and Oberon after the King and Queen of the Fairies in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Again, some people (such as the German ambassador) kicked up a fuss, wanting the moons to be named after classical figures, but the names chosen by Herschel remained and the tradition of naming moons of Uranus after literary characters began. In 1851, William Lassell discovered two more large moons orbiting Uranus. These were named Ariel and Umbriel. Ariel and Umbriel are characters in Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock, names chosen by Willian Herschel's son, John. These are the only two moons orbiting Uranus named after characters in non-Shakespearean plays, although one of the main characters in The Tempest by Shakespeare is also named Ariel. The next moon to be discovered was in 1948 by American astronomer Gerard Kuiper. This moon was named Miranda, another character from The Tempest. It wasn't until Voyager visited Uranus in 1986 that any more moons were discovered. All of these moons, and all moons discovered since then have been named after characters in Shakespeare's plays. Even moons yet to be discovered will be named after Shakespeare's characters. He may have knew his plays were pretty good back when he was writing them, but even Shakespeare wouldn't have imagined that his characters would one day become immortalised in worlds millions and millions of miles away from his home in Stratford!

Here is a list of all of the moons of Uranus, their size and location, the date they were discovered and where their names originate.

Name Distance from Uranus Diameter Discoverer and year of discovery Origin of Name
Cordelia 59,770 km 26 km Voyager 2 1986 One of Lear's three daughters in King Lear (Tragedy, 1605). At the beginning of the play, Lear decides to split his kingdom between his three daughters. In return, they must tell him how much they love him. Lear expects Cordelia to give the best response as she is his favourite, but she refuses to lower herself to having to suck up to him. Lear gets angry and banishes her, giving her third of the kingdom to her sisters, who then go on to betray their father. King Lear then goes mad, while one of Cordelia's sisters poisons the other one, and then kills herself. Cordelia marries the King of France, who admires her honesty. King Lear is reunited with the dead Cordelia at the end of the play, and then he dies.
Ophelia 53,790 km 32 km Voyager 2 1986 Daughter of Polonius in Hamlet (Tragedy, 1602). Ophelia is in love with Hamlet but is advised by her father that it would be wrong for them to marry because she is 'below' him and that Hamlet wants to take advantage of her, rather than get married. Hamlet's apparent madness torments her and her father's death drives her to insanity, leading to her drowning.
Bianca 59,170 km 44 km Voyager 2 1986 Beautiful sister to Kate in the Taming of the Shrew (Comedy, 1594). Her sister is the "shrew" that needs taming. Bianca has numerous suitors, but none of them can marry her until her volatile sister, Kate, is married.
Cressida 61,780 km 66 km Voyager 2 1986 Title character in Trojan War play Troilus and Cressida (History/Tragedy, 1602). Cressida is initially wooed by Troilus, a Trojan prince. Troilus tells her how much he loves her before she is traded to the Greeks and becomes a prisoner of war. While in the Greek camp, Cressida falls for Diomedes, and Troilus sees them together, deciding that she isn't the girl for him.
Desdemona 62,680 km 58 km Voyager 2 1986 Wife of Othello in Othello: The Moor Of Venice (Tragedy, 1603). Desdemona is fair and innocent, and deeply in love with her husband. Othello is convinced by a standard bearer, Iago, that Desdemona has been having an affair with Cassio, Othello's lieutenant. Iago plants Desdemona's handkerchief on Cassio. Desdemona protests her innocence, but when Othello tells her that Cassio is dead, Desdemona cries. Othello sees these tears as a sign of guilt, and then suffocates Desdemona. Iago's wife, Emilia, tells Othello that Desdemona was actually set up, so Iago then kills Emilia. Othello then kills himself and Iago is taken away to be tortured!
Juliet 64,350 km 84 km Voyager 2 1986 Title character in Romeo and Juliet (Tragedy, 1599). Romeo and Juliet fall in love with each other, but their families hate each other, meaning they have to keep their relationship secret. They get married, but after Romeo kills Juliet's cousin, Tybalt, in a street fight, Romeo is exiled and flees to Mantua. Juliet's father then arranges her to be married to Paris, a nobleman, but Juliet refuses, taking a potion given to her by the Friar who married her to Romeo. This potion will put her asleep for 42 hours but will convince other people that she has died. The Friar will then get a message to Romeo to let him know that Juliet will awake and they can go off together, but Romeo instead gets a message from his messenger, Balthasar, that Juliet is dead. Romeo buys some poison, goes to Juliet's crpyt, kills Paris outside it, and seeing Juliet, takes the poison. Juliet wakes, sees Romeo dead, and then stabs herself.
Portia 66,090 km 110 km Voyager 2 1986 Heroine in The Merchant of Venice (Comedy, 1597). Her father's will is that she must set a puzzle for any prospective suitors. She is portrayed as an intelligent, beautiful, quick-witted character. She favours marriage to Bassanio, and defends his friend, Antonio, by dressing as a man and pretending to be a lawyer, saving Antonio's life in court.
Rosalind 69,940 km 54 km Voyager 2 1986 Daughter of the banished Duke Senior in As You Like It (Comedy, 1599). Rosalind isn't banished from the kingdom. A young gentleman called Orlando falls in love with Rosalind, which angers the new Duke, Frederick, and Rosalind is then banished. She leaves the kingdom with Celia, Frederick's daughter. They disguise themselves, with Rosalind dressing as a man called Ganymede (the name of a moon of Jupiter!) and Celia dressing as Aliena. They escape to a forest where Rosalind (as Ganymede) meets Orlando again. Orlando doesn't know that Ganymede is Rosalind, but accepts Ganymede's offer to act out Rosalind's role in their relationship. Meanwhile, a shepherdess called Phoebe falls in love with Ganymede. However, a shepherd called Silvius is in love with Phoebe. Realising that things are getting into a bit of a muddle, Ganymede makes Orlando promise that he will marry Rosalind and Phoebe promise to marry Silvia if she can't marry Ganymede. Ganymede reveals him/herself to be Rosalind, meaning that Orlando can marry her, and Pheobe, not being able to marry Ganymede/Rosalind because he/she is a woman, marries Silvia. Phew! Rosalind's father also gets his job back as Duke after Frederick repents his sins.
Cupid 74,800 km 2003 Character in Shakespeare's sonnet 153
Belinda 75,260 km 68 km Voyager 2 1986 Belinda is a character in Alexander Pope's poem The Rape of the Lock, published in 1712/1714.
Perdita 76,420 km 80 km Karkoschka 1999 Heroine in The Winter's Tale (Comedy/Romance, 1611?). Perdita is the daughter of Leontes, King of Sicilia, and his wife, Hermione. Because Leontes believes that Hermione was unfaithful to him, he doesn't accept that Perdita is his daughter. He orders one of his lords (Antigonus) to leave the young Perdita on a seacoast. Although Antingonus is chased away by a bear, Perdita is rescued by a shepherd. Sixteen years later, she meets and falls in love with the Prince Florizel, who is the son of Polixenes, the King of Bohemia and the person that Leontes thought Hermione was unfaithful with, and therefore the father of his "lost" daughter, Perdita. Somehow, the truth comes out, Hermione marries Florizel, and everybody lives happily ever after.
Puck 86,010 km 144 km Voyager 2 1986 Servant of Oberon (King of the Fairies) in a Midsummer Night's Dream (Comedy, 1595)
Mab 97,734 km 2003 Queen Mab is a Fairy referred to in a speech made by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet (Tragedy, 1599). She is not actually a character in the play.
Miranda 129,390 km 472 km Kuiper 1948 Heroine of Shakespeare's The Tempest (Romance, 1610). Miranda has been stranded on an island with her father Prospero since she was five. About 12 years later, she falls in love with Ferdinand who is brought to the island during a storm conjured up by her father.
Ariel 191,020 km 1158 km Lassell 1851 An "airy spirit" in The Tempest (Romance, 1610). Under the control of Prospero, he is eventually freed at the end of the play. Also a character in Alexander's Pope's The Rape of the Lock. It is likely that because Umbirel is also a character in The Rape of the Lock, and the moon with the same name was discovered with Ariel, the Moon Ariel is not actually named after the Shakespearean character.
Umbriel 266,300 km 1170 km Lassell 1851 A character in Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock.
Titania 435,910 km 1578 km Herschel 1787 Queen of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Comedy, 1595). Falls in love with Bottom.
Oberon 583,520 km 1522 km Herschel 1787 King of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Comedy, 1595)
Francisco 4,276,000 km 2001 A lord, and follower of Alonso, in The Tempest (Romance, 1610). Is washed onto the shore of the island on which Prospero and Miranda are stranded in a storm conjured up by Prospero.
Caliban 7,231,000 km 80 km Gladman 1997 Prospero's deformed slave in The Tempest (Romance, 1610). Son of the witch Sycorax.
Stephano 8,004,000 km 30 km Gladman 1999 A butler in The Tempest (Romance, 1610), washed up on the island after a storm. Is drunk for most of the play! Plots with Caliban and Trinculo to kill Prospero and become King of the island.
Trinculo 8,504,000 km 2001 A clown, and friend of Stephano, in The Tempest (Romance, 1610)
Sycorax 12,179,000 km 160 km Nicholson 1997 A witch, and mother of Caliban, in The Tempest (Romance, 1610)
Margaret 14,345,000 km 2003 A maid in Much Ado About Nothing (Comedy, 1600)
Prospero 16,256,000 km 40 km Holman 1999 Magician in The Tempest (Romance, 1610). He creates a storm which washes several people to the shores of his island. He controls a slave (Caliban) and a spirit (Ariel) and between them they bring up his daughter Miranda.
Setebos 17,418,000 km 40 km Kavelaars 1999 Name of the god worshipped by the witch Sycorax in The Tempest (Romance, 1610)
Ferdinand 20,901,000 km 2001 Son of Alonso (King of Naples). In The Tempest (Romance, 1610) he is brought to the shores of an island inhabited by Prospero and his daughter, Miranda. Ferdinand falls in love with Miranda, and his love is put to the test by Prospero.

Bob the Alien's Tour of the Solar System
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