A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare is a comedic masterpiece that raises questions on power, gender, and the deception of love which facilitates the drama culmination. Elizabethan norms included patriarchal authority, which Shakespeare not only questioned throughout the play, but also challenged. During Elizabethan times, the predominant role that women played was that of a housewife. Women were subservient to men and had no will of their own, thus they remained completely dependent on their male relatives, as they were made to believe that they were inferior to them. Furthermore, marriage for women was often ordained by an authoritative male relative instead of giving the woman the opportunity to choose her suitor. It is in a similar light that Shakespeare portrays women, as that is the role of women he is most familiar with, however he uses comedy to veil his questioning of the female role in society. Despite A Midsummer Night’s Dream being a comedy, Shakespeare made it a point to raise concern over societal gender roles, including the identity of women in the Elizabethan era, and male dominance that is exerted throughout the play. Moreover, Shakespeare depicted the dichotomy between love and deception, and how oftentimes despite being portrayed alongside each other, are used to subjugate women.
Full of complex and modern ideas, A Midsummer Night’s Dream served as a commentary for such ideologies as a means to progress society towards a modern era. Shakespeare created the comedic play in such a motion that while disguised as a light-hearted play actually treads on serious matters concealed in a play within a play. Shakespeare questioned the notion that male supremacy and female obedience lead to a matrimonial harmony, while simultaneously pleasing the Elizabethan crowd so to not overstep any boundaries and by doing so, avoided having himself and his work be proclaimed as taboo (Pearson). Shakespeare challenges the idea of women serving and obeying men, yet subserviently succumbs to societal norms throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but not without first raising questions amongst the audience.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream kicks off with an entrance of the patriarchy. Hermia is left with the choice to either become a nun or to die if she refuses to marry Demetrius as her father had chosen for her. Egeus attempts to control Hermia’s choice of partner by subjecting her to the Athenian law and resorting to death should she disobey him. “As she is mine, I may dispose of her,” exemplifies how Egeus is using his status as a powerful male and a father figure as “her obedience, which is due to [him],” to exert his dominance and power over his daughter [1.1.45-49]. Egeus rages because he can ‘dispose’ of Hermia as he pleases, and yet she defies him. “Husbands and fathers can be understood as heads of households in much the same way monarchs functioned as heads of state.” This is especially true with Egeus as he not only believes his role is that of a father, but one as head of the household. “To disobey one’s parents was, in essence, to disobey God.” (Chamberlain) Shakespeare dramatizes the gender tension by having Hermia refuse to marry Demetrius, challenging the notion that females are the property of their fathers and must carry out their demands. The simple act of Hermia wanting to choose her lover is very risque as she is not only refusing her father’s command, but deciding for herself who she shall wed based on the pursuit of love:
Theseus: What say you, Hermia? be advised, fair maid:
To you your father should be as a God;
One that composed your beauties, yea and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted but within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it. [1.1.46-51]
This quote exemplifies the misogynistic ideals of the Elizabethan times and how Shakespeare used such diction to convey how serious the role of a man in society was taken, as her father is being compared to God. By comparing her “as a form in wax,” Shakespeare identifies how malleable women were believed to be compared to men, since women had to accept the authority and power of men, and do their bidding. The quote also hints at an underlying threat, should his daughter not agree to his demands, he would not hesitate to “leave the figure or disfigure it.” Moreover, the act of “disobedience could well “pollute” the patriarchal line, forever altering the family’s status within the community,” thus the idea of usurping such a role comes down to wanting power and control in society as that was a way to establish respect in the community as a male (Chamberlain).
Furthermore, Egeus’s role illustrates patriarchal prerogative in early marriage decisions. Despite knowing what’s expected of her and refusing, Hermia reveals the effect of the patriarchal notions by feeling the need to justify her decision, as she doesn’t know “by what power [she is] made bold.” The complex gender-related power dynamics is depicted in Hermia who comes off as an independent and free-willed character who isn’t willing to accept what she’s required to do, rather she demands to know why she must submit to her father’s wishes when it’s her livelihood in question. Essentially, she is questioning the stereotype in which men pursue the woman but the opposite is frowned upon (Boehrer). In other words, Shakespeare implicitly criticises the authoritarian notions and the double standards which dominated society in Elizabethan times. Hermia escapes subordination from her father only to fall into Lysander’s arms, whom she will have to depend on. She will never be able to be fully independent as she “appoints” him to be the next man whose proposals she’ll follow blindly:
Lysander: A good persuasion; therefore, hear me, Hermia.
I have a widow aunt, a dowager [. . . ]
From Athens is her house remote seven leagues; […]
There, gentle Hermia, may I marry thee; […]
Hermia: My good Lysander!
I swear to thee, by Cupid’s strongest bow, […]
In that same place thou hast appointed me,
To-morrow truly will I meet with thee. [1.1.155-165]
Hermia frees herself from her father’s authority for love, which is a deceptive concept in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as the love she is chasing is nothing more than another web of male dominance. She doesn’t hesitate in elopping with Lysander as she believes she is running in the name of love, a liberating and freeing concept, which turns out to be nothing more than a facade aiming to entangle her in the complex threads of patriarchy. This is perhaps the irony Shakespeare attempted to portray in a seemingly light-hearted comedy as anything otherwise would be radicalized. “Patriarchal hegemony” is extensively predominant in the play because when the female characters try to pave their path towards establishing independency, they end up exchanging one role of submission to another at the hands of another man (Pearson).
Shakespeare metamorphosed the fairies with his playful imagination to create a kind of fairy that was free from the taint of witchcraft and demons. “The social … purpose of fairies extended outwards to take on new and unfamiliar purposes.” (Waits) Shakespeare toyed with the idea of the Fey and even went as far as portraying the patriarchy in the supernatural world [3.2.3]. This portrays the methods the king used to go as far as to shame the Queen into submitting to him through the use of a love potion. This is another instance in which Shakespeare uses the idea of love to openly deceit the characters. Deception disguised in the form of love is something the readers see often in this play as it plays a crucial role in developing the critical questions challenging the patriarchy. Shakespeare could have raised the questions without the addition of a supernatural realm, however if he were not to include the Fey, then the closing remarks would lose their impact and lessen the mystical illusion that he has Puck apologize for and claim it is nothing but a dream (Waits). Hence, Shakespeare included such a scene to extend upon an already developed questioning, and the method of which he went about doing so was not only creative, but clever. Through the Egeus and Hermia, and Hermia and Lysander, Shakespeare was able to raise critical questions about the role of patriarchy that rendered women unable to escape the conventions of male domination.
Consequently, Shakespeare used A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a way to depict the societal norms in such a way that the audience would gleefully enjoy as it comes off as a farce, however Shakespeare subtly weaved in socially challenging ideologies so to change the way society functioned. Egeus and Hermia’s relationship and Hermia and Lysander’s relationship, as discussed previously, is one of subjugation as Hermia is constantly halted in her attempt to be free from the shackles of female oppression. The gender dynamic and the theme of power and domination was exemplified through the male characters, whether they be mortal or Fey, as a way to depict the deception or illusion of love throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This play revealed the misogyny and the obvious male dominance in the Elizabethan times. The tension between the genders and the challenging of such roles is reflected in the play. In the end, Shakespeare used his play as a platform to openly question and challenge the norms of society.