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Women In A Midsummers Night Dream English Literature Essay

Shakespeare’s female characters are represented across a variety of social classes. In this essay I will explore how Shakespeare portrays women in A Midsummer Night’s Dream inclusive of several female characters in this play. This allows us to examine in depth, to a very limited extent, how they were treated in society and the stereotypical roles Elizabethan society imposed upon them. I will be examining specifically the characters and portrayal of Hippolyta, Helena and Hermia and how they defy the stereotypical notion of how women were treated by men.

Firstly, the most obvious aspect regarding Shakespeare’s portrayal of women in this play is that the female gender is commodified. Throughout the play, women are treated like objects to be sold or traded. With reference to the background of the characters Theseus and Hippolyta, Greek mythology states that when Theseus, the Duke of Athens, sailed to the land of the Amazon, the Amazons offered Theseus gifts of peace. However, Theseus kidnapped Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazonians, and forcefully made her his wife. [1] This resulted in the war between the Athenians and the Amazons. Theseus’s action of claiming Hippolyta as a prize and a wife might show that he treats them as objects rather than human beings. [2] This idea is reinforced when Theseus says ‘Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, and won thy love doing thee injuries’ (I.i.16-17). This statement refers to how Theseus won the battle with the Amazons and in conquering the Amazons; he has “conquered” their queen, Hippolyta, both physically and emotionally.

Hippolyta’s lines in this play are of relatively insignificant amount and value as compared to Theseus’s. For example, in the first Act, Hippolyta only comforts Theseus by saying that ‘Four days will quickly steep themselves in night; Four nights will quickly dream away the time’ (I.i.7-8) and they will have the marriage ceremony soon. In addition, Theseus appears to be making the decisions regarding everything, ranging from their marriage to Hermia’s marriage. This is significant as it shows that Hippolyta is subservient to Theseus as she has little say in these state events despite being seated next to Theseus. In addition, Hippolyta’s silence could possibly show how she is unhappy about being forced into a marriage with Theseus [3] as shown in the 1970s BBC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hippolyta’s silence could also be seen as a rejection of male dominance. [4] However, it is also significant that Hippolyta gets is given more of a voice in the last scene after being married and this will be explored later.

Another relationship that suggests the marginalizing of women is seen again between Egeus and Hermia. Egeus, Hermia’s father, has made up his mind to marry Hermia to Demetrius but Hermia refuses to do so. Egeus then brings up this complaint to Theseus, hoping Theseus is able to help him. In doing so, Egeus is shown to regard Hermia as a commodity. Egeus says that Hermia has ‘turned her obedience, which is due to me’ (I.i.37) and that since ‘she is mine, I may dispose of her’ (I.i.42). These 2 lines show Egeus treating Hermia as ‘mere property’ [5] because he made her and hence Hermia ought to listen to her father’s instructions. This idea is also proven by some parents in the early 17th century such as Sir Edward Coke who whipped his daughter into marriage with a mentally unsound man. [6] 

Moreover, Theseus becomes the personification of the law in Athens as he tells Hermia to ‘either to die the death, or to abjure for ever the society of men’ (I.i.65-66). According to the ‘ancient privilege of Athens’ (I.i.41) a woman’s father has the right to decide who she should marry and she has no say in his decision. If the woman goes against the wishes of her father, she can either be put to death or to stay a virgin forever by becoming a nun. The number of different options given by both Theseus and Egeus only goes to support the fact that Renaissance women were constrained in the verbal medium and that silence was ‘the virtue most stringently required from Renaissance women.’ [7] 

However, it is also through these three women that we see the female gender defying the society’s treatment of women then. Hippolyta, Helena and Hermia go against the grain in their unique ways and show that despite the limitations and laws that society imposes upon them, they are able to assert themselves and show society that they have the potential to be as capable as men. Critics have said that Shakespeare’s portrayal of women in this manner could possibly be his own stand on how women should be treated equally as men but since he belongs to the Elizabethan era, it is still difficult to garner Shakespeare’s precise views on feminism and its issues solely based A Midsummer Night’s Dream and even if we could, it is still problematic to judge his 16th – 17th century mindset based on the definitions and criteria of twentieth century feminism. [8] In addition, Shakespeare is based in the Elizabethan era yet he writes about the lives and attitudes of the ancient Greeks. This suggests that interpreting Shakespeare’s mindset from his works is only reliable to a small extent. Hence, his representation of women only serves as an understanding to how he was unorthodox in the gender assumptions of his era.

One extremely effective method of showing that women should assert having their opinions and rights recognized by men is to have the characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream either engage in a power struggle or a role reversal. The very first power struggle shown in the play exists between Egeus/Theseus and Hermia. In Act 1 Scene 1, Hermia openly defies Egeus’s wishes for her to marry Demetrius instead of Lysander. Through Egeus’s eyes, Hermia is seen to have a ‘stubborn harshness’ (I.i.38) and she will not ‘consent to marry with Demetrius’ (I.i.40). She defies Egeus despite knowing that ancient tradition grants the father power to marry his daughter off whoever he wishes to. Nonetheless, she even conspires with Lysander and agrees to his plan of leaving Athens to Lysander’s widow aunt whose house is ‘remote seven leagues’ (I.i. 159) and out of reach of the ‘sharp Athenian law’ (I.i.162). While running away might seem like a nuanced and subtle form of defiance, it is still an affirmation of Hermia’s rights and freedom as a woman to choose who she marries.

In the same scene, she defies Theseus in both her tone and her language. For example, when Theseus tries to persuade Hermia to marry Demetrius by saying that ‘Demetrius is a worthy gentleman’ (I.i.52) Hermia asserts, ‘So is Lysander’ (I.i.53). In addition, when Theseus tells Hermia that she faces either a nunnery or death, she replies that ‘My soul consents not to give sovereignty’ (I.i.82) and she would rather be a nun than having to marry Demetrius. In Hermia’s case, the act of women asserting themselves is almost unheard of as Shakespeare ‘lived in a patriarchal culture in which authority and privilege is particularly invested in the hands of the patriarch of a family.’ This shows that women were subordinate to men. [9] 

The most obvious example of gender reversal is between Demetrius and Helena. In Act 2 Scene 1, Helena reminds the audience about this role reversal by saying, ‘We cannot fight for love, as men may do; we should be wooed, and were not made to woo’ (II.i.241-242). This line refers to how, in this situation, Helena is playing the role of the male chasing after the female (Demetrius) through the woods and persuading Demetrius to love her. Although I acknowledge that Helena is forced to woo Demetrius due to her situation of unrequited love, it is not proper for a woman to behave in this manner in Ancient Greece.

This role reversal between Helena and Demetrius suggests that in Ancient Greece, women were generalized as insensible and unable to make proper judgments and hence needed a male guardian. [10] By getting Helena to play the role of men, Shakespeare creates comic relief as the audience sees it as ridiculous and absurdly funny. In addition, some members of the audience may feel sympathetic for Helena instead. Inducing sympathy and challenging the audiences’ perception of women could have been Shakespeare’s intentions to promote equal treatment regardless of gender. Nonetheless, this seemingly comic situation still holds true to this day as we, to a small extent, still stereotype women as human beings to be wooed by men despite various organizations pushing for female equality. This may be due to our genetic makeup as human beings or cultural influences about women but we do not exactly know.

The final instance of a power struggle between the genders occurs between Theseus and Hippolyta. In Act 5 Scene 1, Hippolyta voices out that she disagrees with Theseus on the events that happened to the lovers the previous night. While Theseus says that he ‘may never believe these antique fables’ (V.i.2-3), Hippolyta disagrees and says that it must have been true because ‘all their minds transfigured together’ (V.i.24) and it was ‘more witnesseth than fancy’s images’ (V.i.25). Hippolyta’s verbal answer can be seen in two ways. Firstly, Michael Boyd, a stage director implied that Hippolyta has accepted Theseus as she gives her husband a kiss. This suggests that Hippolyta is simply discussing the whole issue about the lovers with Theseus. The darker way of looking at this is that Hippolyta is involved in ‘struggles for power in a patriarchal society.’ [11] In doing so, Hippolyta empowers the female gender by going against how women were supposed to be submissive and agreeable to their husbands.

In conclusion, I hope this essay demonstrates Shakespeare’s several conscious and subconscious feminist intentions, through A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in his portrayal of women as ‘opposition to the supposed virtues of marriage.’ [12] More importantly, this paper would have suggested that A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be interpreted to imply Shakespeare being a proto-feminist who understood and sympathized women who were treated unfairly.

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