Shakespeares A Midsummer Nights Dream is mostly regarded as a play on amusing romance that was acted during a ceremony that took place around 1595. It is also assumed that the audience of the play included pseudo intellectuals and scholars who were familiar with plays such as; The Faerie Queene; The Countesse of Pembrokes Yuychurch; and Sidney's Arcadia all of which took place in early 1590s (Olson, pg. 95). Using the idea of love and romance Shakespeare is able to explore a number of themes related to relationships and gender roles in the society. The play is full of misogyny and sexism which has been critiqued by the feminist. Women are depicted as being dependent and subservient to men. For instance, women are identified by their physical features and nature which is assumed to be inferior, unlike people who are equated to reason and superiority. This essay will discuss the mistreatment of women during the 1500s and 1600s as depicted from Shakespeares A midsummer nights dream.
To start with, it is apparent that in the world created by Shakespeare women did not have any rights since they were perceived as part of their fathers possessions. This is best inferred from Hermias situation. She is required to marry Demetrius whom she does not love. The advice given to her by Theseus from the first act is that To you, your father should be as a God (1.1.47). By equating Hermias father to God who is the creator Theseus can actually be interpreted as the father had absolute rights over her daughter. Egeus- Hermias father, clarifies this sentence by stating that; And she is mine, and all my right of her / I do estate unto Demetrius (1.1.97-98). The free will and choice of Hermia in this situation is not considered even though she makes it clear that she is more interested in Lysander.
It is absurd that whereas Hermias father seems to be having a good say in the choice of spouse for her daughter the mother is silent on the matter. The superiority of the father can be understood in the context of England culture by then which was mostly influenced by the works of Aristotle who hypothesized that a child was born out of a mans seed which was planted in the woman for growth. Being the man, it is him who therefore gave Hermia her blueprint of life (Schumann, pg. 45). The mother only facilitated the growth of the seed hence nobody thought of asking the mother for any opinion because the mother did not possess any right over their daughters (Vavreckova, pg. 28). Throughout the process, the mother is excluded in the selection of the spouse. There is not a single evidence of the mother. Instead of Egeus even asking the mother to at least convince her daughter she chooses to go to Theseus to make a law against his daughter. The exclusion of the mother further supports the argument that the child only belonged to the father and not to both parents.
The penalty that Egeus imposes on her daughter, who has not done a major crime, shows that he was entitled to the very life of his daughter. Egeus demands a death penalty to her daughter for objecting his wish of marrying Demetrius. Death penalty for such a minute crime is an evidence of violation of womans right and confirms the lack of entitlement to the right. The right to autonomy is also absent because Hermia cannot choose to love and get married to the person of their choice. Hermias right to express herself freely is also violated and criminalized. This is because a lady is always expected to agree with what the father is saying.
Second, women are portrayed as being very subordinate to men. They are ready to serve the men even in the worst situation where they are beaten by the men. In Act two, Helana shows the extent that she is willing to go just to be with Demetrius who has no love for her. Helena tells Demetrius that she is his spaniel regardless of the way he treats her. She says, The more you beat me; I will fawn on you: Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me, neglect me, lose me; only give me leave, Unworthy as I am, to follow you (2.1.204-207). Her words show that she did not have any confidence in herself. Helenas situation represents a number of women in the society who had so little esteem that they would be willing to endure abuse by the men and remain subordinate.
The servitude nature of women is also seen from the willingness of women to qualify some behaviors as being wrong for women but correct for men. For instance, Helena admits that she is not behaving a woman when she insists on pursuing Demetrius (2.1.247-249). Women were to be sought, found and agree with whatever the man wanted without questioning after which the man would still be at liberty to dismiss them. Demetrius has a history of sleeping with women after which he left them without any shame. This is a form of emotional mistreatment since the ladies may feel used and rejected after such actions. Whereas his conduct was not seen as a bother by many people, the women would be perceived as being unfaithful or ill-mannered even though they were merely acting as required by the men.
Women are also not expected to give away anything that they have without raising any debate. When King Oberon and Queen Titania argue; the king blames her for not giving him what rightfully belongs to her. Titania gives a justifiable reason as to why she wishes to bring up the boy; for her sake do I rear up her boy (2.1.136). Oberon, on the other hand, does not want the boy but revenge against the queen using the boy. The king is jealous as he feels that the boy has taken away the attention of the queen from him. His jealousy is evident from his questioning the queen: am I not thy Lord? (2.1.63). His question in this context seems to imply that the queen should not voice her concern but should instead submit to him without any complaint. King Oberon later steals her adopted boy when the queen is sleeping and is not questioned to give the explanation for his criminal conduct. This shows that not only are women servants but also that they have masters who violate their rights and gets away with it Henning, pg. 484).
Besides, the servitude depiction of women makes them be viewed as existing to be conquered by men- even the very men who claim to be in love with them. Theseus tells Hipplyta that: I woo'd thee with my sword (1.1.16). By saying that I will wed thee instead of we will wed, Theseus indicate that there is some level of power imbalance in the relationship (Schumann, pg. 56). The description he gives for their wedding is With pomp, with triumph, and with reveling (1.1.19) evokes a celebration of the military where there is triumph of one party. In this case, Theseus perceives their marriage as winning against Hippolyta.
Third, women are viewed as irrational and unfit for any decision making or leadership position even when it is apparent from their speech that they are more rational and mature in their thinking compared to their male counterparts. Theseus is regarded as the one to safeguard the law of the land yet he lacks in a very important quality of a leader and a judge. He is very impatient and even describes himself using an imagery: She lingers my desires, like to a step-dame or a dowager long withering out a young mans revenue (1.1.4-6). In this imagery, Theseus compares his impatient to that of a young man who a waits eagerly for the death of a female relative so that he can get inheritance. The imagery used by Theseus is that of a person who is so impatient that he wishes for some bad omen to occur so that he can get what he wants.
On the other hand, Hippolyta who is subordinate to him simply because of her sex is more patient and rationale in her thinking. She responds by telling him that the remaining four days will pass by very quickly. Her words are wise and elevate Theseus impatient mind. When taken before Theseus Hermia also demonstrates high level of reason. She is able to argue and defend her love for Lysander even though she understands that it goes against modesty. Hermia's reason is justified because given the background of Demetrius who sleeps with women and then abandons them Lysander is, of course, a better suitor. Theseus is however faulty in arguing that Demetrius is a worthy gentleman (1.1.52-53).
Lastly, but not least Queen Titania displays more reason compared to King Oberon even though the king is the ruler and the lord over her. King Oberon is supposed to be safeguarding the rights of the people as a king, but he is doing the opposite. The queens behavior especially towards the adopted India boy is admirable. Instead of appreciating his wife, the king decides to violet her by stealing the son even though he understands the significance that the son has to the queen. This form of emotional mistreatment cannot be justified by reason.
Women in 1500s and 1600s were mistreated and denied their rights as inferred from Shakespeares play. As young girls awaiting marriage, they were possessions that the fathers willingly disposed to people they preferred for the wedding. As young women, they were used by men such as Demetrius who left them after sex. Still, such ill-mannered men would be regarded as worthy gentlemen in the society and even be pursued by women with low self-esteem like Helena. After marriage, women took the subordinate role and served their lords like Queen Titania. When they voiced their concerns, they would be dismissed and mistreated as King Oberio did. Even though the women were rational their wisdom did not grant them any leadership role. Instead, they were seen as objects to be conquered by men. It was indeed the world where men ruled with physical and emotional brutality, and women had to get along with all the unfair treatment.
Henning, Standish. "The Fairies of A Midsummer Night's Dream." Shakespeare Quarterly 20.4 (1969): 484-486.
Olson, Paul A. "A Midsummer Night's Dream and the meaning of court marriage." ELH 24.2 (1957): 95-119.
Schumann, Angela. "But as a Form in Wax: An Ecofeminist Reading of Shakespeares A Midsummer Nights Dream." COLLOQUY-TEXT THEORY CRITIQUE 30 (2015): 42-60.
Vavreckova, Jana. Love in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. Diss. Masarykova univerzita, Pedagogicka fakulta, 2012.
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