A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a famous comedy play created by William Shakespeare. In this theatre performance, the storyline involves a marriage between Theseus and Hippolyta. Theseus, the groom, is the Duke of Athens while the bride was previously the Queen of the Amazon. In the play, other events that take place include the adventures surrounding four Athenian lovers who seem to be under the command of fairies present in the forest in which the action takes place. An in-depth analysis of this play reveals that it is not just a love story. On the contrary, it is an intricate illustration of political as well as a socially-oriented piece of literature especially when one applies a perspective that involves gender, power, and domination. As such, the play apparently gives a clear illustration of the culture and societal structure of that era. By the end of the entire play, it is significantly evident that the women are completely under the control of the lords and husbands as well.
Gender’s Role in the Play
One of the major themes in the play is that of male dominance. For instance, two of the characters Lysander and Hermia are lovers who escape into the forest to be away from the strict laws of Theseus. The two get married in Athens, a ceremony that is depicted as the ultimate social accomplishment for the woman. On the other hand, the man has the choice to continue with other activities including politics. Additionally, during the triple wedding, another character by the name Louis Montrose categorically claims that the event is marked by the successful manner in which women’s power seen in the Amazons, disobedient wives and stubborn daughters is brought under check (Fontanet 4). This is quite a strong statement that indicates the role of married women to be at the mercy of their lords and husbands. They are expected to be obedient and serve the needs of the men without as much as any indication of unruly behavior. Simply put, the gender roles highlighted by this example seem to imply that the man is the master while the woman is the slave.
Contrary to the powerful positions held by the male characters, it is evident that the women characters do not possess any physical or political power. Apparently, the female gender is allocated a subhuman status that is best described by the term commodification. This means that the women are treated more like objects than human beings. A critical example to support this observation is how Egeus tries as much as possible to control her daughter when it comes to selecting a partner. His actions are so strict to the extent that he is willing to use the harsh laws of the land and even death should the girl do anything contrary to his will. This extreme form of oppression indicates that women are not treated as human beings equal to men but as objects that heed to the command of the males. Additionally, there is an aspect of battery in the play where Theseus implies that he wooed Hippolyta by inflicting injury (Fontanet 12). Such acts further accentuate the fact that the women are portrayed as not having any say when it comes to what they want to do. Their feelings, needs, and dreams are not deemed essential.
To add to the already complicated gender roles in the play, the writer, Shakespeare seems to insinuate that in the event women realize that they are subordinates, they adapt to the situation by trying as much as possible to place more emphasis on their physical appearance. Simply put, women are expected to appear beautiful and pure. Helena explicitly tells Hermia that, “Call you me fair? That “fair” again unsay. Demetrius loves your fair” (1.1. 181-182). These words spur the feeling that the female characters substitute their lack of power and the invaluable treatment with making themselves more appealing to the males (Dusek). This realization proves that when the society treats a particular gender as an item, then there is every likelihood that the individuals will try as much as possible to become the best or most beautiful of the objects. As such, the patriarchal Athenian society depicted in the play reduced the women to similar extents.
In another instance, a sense of ownership of women is exemplified. During the argument that ensues between Hermia and her father, Egeus claims that “she is mine, I may dispose of her” (I.i.42). In this example, it is clear that the women in the Elizabethan area did not even have the right to their lives (Dusek). Keeping in mind the fact that Egeus was willing to send his daughter to death for disobedience is not only shocking but also a sign of the limited self-rule of the female gender. Theseus joins in this case and reiterates similar sentiments to the ones of Egeus. He gives the option to either obey or forever leave aside any association with men. All the options provided are not favourable, and this supports the earlier discovery that indeed the women were both physically and verbally restrained. Additionally, the event supposes that silence was considered a virtue beheld by women.
Despite the overall proof that the female gender is controlled by the males, three women namely Hippolyta, Helena, and Hermia bring about the element of defiance to the society’s stereotyping behavior. It is expected that women are supposed to adhere to the social etiquettes, which at some point, the mentioned women fail to do so. These three women come out strongly to assert their positions and indicate to the society that they are capable of doing much more than serving the lords and their husbands. Hermia opposes her father’s wish to marry Demetrius and plans to elope with her lover Lysander. This act is a strong statement that under certain circumstances the woman has to fight for her rights and freedoms. On another occasion, there is an aspect of reversal of gender roles as Helena pursues Demetrius. Although she doesn’t go after Demetrius on her accord, the instance further elaborates that women are supposed to be seduced and not the other way round. Helena says that “We cannot fight for love, as men may do; we should be wooed and were not made to woo” (II.i.241-242). The role reversal also implies that women are unreasonable and cannot make appropriate decisions without the assistance of a male personality (Dusek). Lastly, the struggle seen when Hippolyta disagrees with Theseus shows how the female gender struggles for power in a male dominated society.
The play brings out the roles of women in the Elizabethan era which include submission, purity, humility and respect to fathers and husbands. Women are expected to be loyal, kind and understanding without any hint of disobedience whatsoever. Failure to adhere to these guidelines is severely punishable to the extent of death penalties. However, by the end of the play, a new sense is instilled into the viewer’s mind to indicate the possibility that women can also stand up and fight for their rights and freedoms when treated unfairly.
Dusek, Dominique. “Gender Roles in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” 9 October 2014. Lewis Literature Journal. 13 April 2017.
Fontanet, Clàudia Mas. The Figure of the Changeling: . Thesis. Barcelona: Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, 2016.