William Shakespeare’s early period romantic play A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1594-1596) tells the audience a love story over complicated relationships. In the Elizabethan era, women didn’t have any social roles. We can clearly see that Shakespeare criticizes this point in the play by comparing matriarchal society and patriarchal society with characters attitude on the situation. He compares these themes with chronotope, carnivalesque and history. Even though its main theme is love and marriage, the play questions maternal society and paternal society by giving the audience distortion on reality. This paper will analyze how gender tension created between the characters and the between the forest and the court, and give examples from Shakespeare’s play As You Like It to show Shakespeare’s ideas on women by comparing Rosalind and Hermia.
The play opens with an aristocratic wedding which was belonging to Thesus who is the king of Athens and Hippolyta who used to be the queen of the Amazons. Shakespeare mixed some literary elements when he created this play like the bewitched protagonist, another is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales Queen of Amazon.
“There is no known source for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As with Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems to have been entirely a product of Shakespeare’s imagination. But although there is no specific text upon which Shakespeare relied, we can see threads of earlier narratives woven throughout the play. In constructing the characters Theseus and Hippolyta, Shakespeare no doubt had in mind a story by the literary genius, Geoffrey Chaucer. In Chaucer’s masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, or, more specifically, in the Knight’s Tale, we are introduced to Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and his wife, Ypolita, the Queen of the Amazons:”1
But with different sources, Shakespeare puts his imagination into his works and creates a new literary product. But it was common in Renaissance men to imitate the ancient culture. Also, in As You Like It there are some old, new, popular, different cultural phenomenon in comedy style.
Nearly every Shakespeare play opens with a tragic situation. First, the tension increases, then the falling action happens and the end is the solution of all. Everything begins with tensions and ends with joy.
In “As You Like It”, there were tragic events like Duke Fredrick usurps his brother’s throne and sends him into Arden forest to exile him. After that just because he is afraid he orders Rosalind who is the daughter of Duke Fredrick to leave the kingdom or she will be punished. But Duke Fredrick’s daughter Celia doesn’t want to leave her cousin so she leaves the kingdom with her. They disguise themselves as two men. They try to imitate different people. Rosalind becomes “Ganymede” and Celia becomes “Aliena” because they will be aliens outside of the kingdom. There will be no courtesy, no castle laws. They will be strangers in a strange land. The play is a conflict between characters.
The title “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is also tricky. It refers to midsummer night celebrations; of feast and carnivals. In carnivals people wear masks, drink, eat and act like what they want to do. They have fun in a cheerful atmosphere. It resembles ancient feasts when considered from this point of view. People in the feast disclosure their fears, wishes, ideas. They want to be free from every limits and border. There is no preoccupation of classes, no upper class or lower class. Everyone belongs to the same hierarchy and equal.
In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” people are in like a dream state. They are half alive, half-awake, they are wearing masks because of their distorted realities. And because of the aristocratic wedding they enjoy, drink and feel free. The wedding is the beginning of the celebration.
The Duke of Athens Theseus is very excited and he is very impatient about his engagement with Hippolyta at the beginning of the play. But on the contrary to Thesus, Hippolyta is calmer about this engagement. Theseus shows his happiness to his circle to make everyone happy and cheerful. He boosts himself about how he gained Hippolyta’s love. But this love is not an ordinary one. Hippolyta is a female warrior of Amazon. Her life is composed of fighting, striking against enemies. She has the quality of leadership, independence and supremacy. She was never depended on anyone. She was never been dominated by a man. If Hippolyta marries with Thesus, she will become a conventional queen. She has to obey Theseus’s orders and she has to show submissiveness. In ancient times marriage was formed by privileges on the men side. In contradiction to men, women were like an object of beauty, an enchanted property of men. They had no rights to speak about any matters. The only purpose of women was giving birth to a child, raising them and being a bewitched object to their husbands.
This social structure on men and women of Athens is quite similar to Elizabethan’s era Britain.
“Elizabethan era women were dependent on men and as a social norm, they were the inferior sex. They had duties like obeying their fathers and after marriage, this obeying structure passes husband and even their sons when they grow up. These duties were coming right after birth. This was the norm of the society and this vital part of the duties had to be fulfilled in the Elizabethan era. If they didn’t obey these social duties- any non-conformist attitude was regarded as a crime.
Marrying was also part of the duty. They were like the property of the father. Women were expected to increase the property and wealth of the family, also produce children.
They also had no independence in society. There was no identity for them. The life of Elizabethan women revolved around a male family member. They did not have careers or education. The only received lesson was household chores or how to produce medicines from herbs.2
Hippolyta doesn’t want to be that kind of woman. When Theseus boost himself about how he gained her love by conquering her land, she stays quiet.
”Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword
And won thy love, doing thee injuries;
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph and with revelling.’’ (1.1.17-20)
In these lines, we see how Thesus is boosting himself with conquest. According to him, injuries is the poof of his love. But this is nothing but showing dominance over another person. If you destroy and kill someone’s lands, this is not loving. This is supremacy. Hippolyta lost the battle and defeated by Theseus and was wounded by him. But according to Thesus, this is what makes them get married. And this creates a tension between genders and social roles.
Hippolyta was suppressed by Theseus. If she marries with him she will lose her voice and she will be depended on men, she won’t be fighting anymore and she has to surrender her equality and power of independence. Basically, Hippolyta moves to court where paternal society dominates.
Lysander is in love with Hermia. His behaviours are like a lover. He risks his life for his love. He sings for his love, says and thinks good love words. Even his social status is lower than Demetrius, he never gives up his love. In contrast to Lysander, Demetrius is rational and a cold man. He follows Athens’s laws and he is in a higher status with regards to hierarchy. Therefore Egeus, father of Hermia, wants to make Hermia marry with Demetrius. But Hermia doesn’t want that. She wants to be with Lysander. Egeus is forcing Hermia. Egeus comes to court to beg for justice from Thesus:
”I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,
As she is mine, I may dispose of her:
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.’’ (1.1.42-46)
With these lines, it can be clearly seen as women are nothing but an object in the eyes of the father. Also according to justice man Thesus:
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 and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.
Demetrius is a worthy gentleman. (1.1.47-53)
The idea of “Your father is your god” is represented in here as “as a form in wax.” So in old laws father can do whatever they want with their daughter. They have no right. The city is governing by patriarchal society so any father can do whatever they want to do to their daughter.
Theseus is a man of reason, he represents justice. That’s why Egeus brings his issue to him. He tries to make Hermia marry with Demetrius who stands in the upper side of hierarchy. If Hermia doesn’t want to marry, Theus offer her two options. Whether she is going to the church and be a nun or simply executed. But if she marries with him she will be unhappy and joyless forever. In a simple sentence, she is the victim of Athens rules. Shakespeare points serious social events and social status in the play while he is mocking it skillfully.
On the other hand, Egeus is very selfish and cruel. He threatens his child with death. Hermia’s feelings count for nothing to him. Because “Thesus knows the best of everything” idea, Egeus brings Hermia to him. Theseus is the embodiment of justice. He listens to the lovers (Hermia and Lysander) at the beginning and after that, he supports Egeus because ancient society was based on general patriarchal social structure. The father figure is in the most important position in that century. Paternity is the supreme authority and the child is like a property, a commodity. For Egeus Hermia is nothing but a wax; waiting to be shaped, thrown or killed like a commodity. The rules and court are so harsh and cruel so this also shows that Thesus is actually the symbol of cruel embodiment of the court.
After all these harsh conditions of patriarchal society, Lysander and Hermia decide to run away to the forest. Shakespeare has a conflict between patriarchal and matriarchal society. Lovers have to escape from this patriarchal world of authority to find happiness. Outside of this patriarchal society, Lysander and Hermia decide to go to aunt’s house which is in the forest where no one intervenes in their life. But why particularly to the forest?
“Forest” is a common chronotope in Shakespearean comedy. Woods or forest is the matriarchal side of nature’s fertility. This fertility gives matriarchal features to the forest. In the forest, there are no restrictions, borders or hierarchies. Everything is natural, everything exists in natural harmony. But besides that, there is a strong hierarchy. It’s governing by chaos, everything is immediate, there are no plans. Forest is not for everybody. It is not a good place to live. The forest is the place of madness and irrationalism. But also, it has a healing part. Every character is seeking among the woods and forest. When Lysander and Hermia escape from the city, Demetrius follows them. Also, Helene who is in love with Demetrius comes with Demetrius. These four characters are searching for their desires far away from society.
“Duke Senior describes the court as “painted pomp…the envious court”. He goes on to say that in the forest the dangers are real but natural and are preferable to those in the court “The …churlish chiding of the winter’s wind… even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say This is no flattery” (Act 2, Scene 1).
He suggests the harsh conditions of the forest are preferable to the pomp and false flattery in the court: That at least in the forest, things are honest.
This could be compared to the courtly love between Orlando and Rosalind and the bawdy, primitive but honest love between Touchstone and Audrey.
There are also reflections of Robin Hood and his merry men in the lives of Duke Senior and his supporters: “…there they live like the old Robin Hood of England” (Charles; Act 1, Scene 1).
This reinforces the positive depiction of the forest as opposed to the negative portrayal of the court. When the evil characters enter the forest, they have a sudden change of heart as discussed – suggesting the forest has healing properties. There is, therefore, a sense of foreboding at the end of the play when the characters are to be restored to the court…we hope that they will bring some of the natural qualities of forest life with them when they return.”3
The court is the domain of consciousness and the wood is the domain unconsciousness. Because according to Shakespeare, in the woods, fairies might visit you and distort your reality.
The forest is the land of fairies and spells. Time is May and people are waiting for the feast of May celebrations. They are getting ready for the feast and wearing masks, eating, drinking and enjoying this amazing time. With those masks, they can act freely without any hierarchy. These masks hide people social status and make everyone equal. In the forest, all those hierarchies suspend itself automatically. Everything in the common world gets upside down in there. Borders, bands, rules, restrictions are abandoned in there. Going to the forest as a woman can destroy women’s reputation according to Athens rules but Helena and Hermia go there anyway. Because they are in search of something.
There is a common point between “As You Like It” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Both of the plays are happening in the forest. Rosalind and Celia go to the forest in search of a happy life just like Lysander and Hermia.
Both Rosalind and Hermia are in love and take risks. Rosalind is escaping from her uncle before he exiles her. She leaves the court and tries to catch an opportunity to control her destiny.
Like Rosalind, Hermia wants to determine her own future. Sheis brave enough to take a risk even on the margin of death. Both of them are beautiful women, they can easily influence other people. Both Helena and Celia are in the shadows of Hermia and Rosalind. But Hermia’s courage comes from her love in contrast to Rosalind. Shakespeare gives this idea by comparing Hermia and Carthage Queen Dido from Aeneid.
“Hermia mentions the fire which burned the Carthage Queen(1.1.173). In the Aeneid, the Carthage Queen, Dido, after being abandoned by Aeneas, both stabbing herself with a Trojan sword as she burns herself alive. Dido madness, however, does not just come about, and is the result from the constant torment of men, as Virgil writes that, «The queen-too long she has suffered the pain of love, hour by hour nursing the wound with her lifeblood, consumed by the fire buried in her heart(150-151) Shakespeare references a woman who is burned alive for her love of men to emphasize echo the hidden theme of the play, which is the suffering women endure for their love of men.”4
Oberon is the king of fairies and Titania is the queen of fairies. They are arguing about a child who is coming from India. The child belongs to Titania because his mother is dead but when she was alive she had been worshipping to Titania. So Titania wants to bring honour to mother by taking care of her son. But deep inside she wants to have the feeling of motherhood. Titania loves the child like her own. She wants to ornament him. But Oberon is extremely jealous of him.
Oberon enchants everyone to show everyone that he is in control whereas Thesus is a ruler that gives orders to people. Oberon is extremely irrational that caused him to show jealousy and frustration.
What, jealous Oberon! Fairies, skip hence:
I have forsworn his bed and company.
Tarry, rash wanton: am not I thy lord? (2.1.443)
Instead of making fairies follow his order, he decides to use magic. So, in the forest patriarchal society tries to stay alive where it’s impossible. Because of those magic play gets complicated where people fall in love who they don’t love in the real world. But Oberon is irrational that he doesn’t care what will happen to Titania with magic.
The King of the Fairies, Oberon’s personality has two sides. On the one hand, he ensures that the proper lovers end up together by the end of the play. He sympathizes with the sorely abused Helena and causes Demetrius to fall madly in love with her. As a benevolent ruler of the spirit world, he also brings a blessing of peace and health to the future families of the newlyweds. But his personality is not all kindness; Oberon shows a more malicious side in his dealings with Titania.5
Having once this juice,
I’ll watch Titania when she is asleep,
And drop the liquor of it in her eyes.
The next thing then she waking looks upon,
Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,
On meddling monkey, or on a busy ape,
She shall pursue it with the soul of love:
And ere I take this charm from off her sight,
As I can take it with another herb,
I’ll make her render up her page to me.
But who comes here? I am invisible;
And I will overhear their conference. (2.1.550)
With this irrationalism Shakespeare Show the irrational and ignorant side of patriarchal society. So, Oberon magic makes Titania falls in love with a peasant who has a donkey head. But she is the queen. How shame is that! But the truth is this was what Oberon exactly asked for.
Titania is the queen of the forest. Even though he is married to Oberon she has never lost her power like Hippolyta. She has that magical power since the beginning. In the forest, when man decided to control everything, that everything gets upside down. Demetrius and Lysander fall in love with Helena and Titania fall in love with Bottom who has a donkey head created by magic.
Puck distorts reality, turns Bottom’s head into a donkey and Titania falls in love with him obsessively. Also changes Lysander and Demetrius but not physically, but emotionally. They become alpha males and try to duel for Helena. So, they join the animal kingdom.
These two worlds have a social hierarchy. In the world of fairies and Athens, there are kings and queens which dominate the place and embody the supreme power. Both worlds have patriarchal society but in a different way.
To sum up these observations about gender roles in the play, Shakespeare criticized Elizabethan era’s social rules in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the perspective of both court and forest, kings and queens, realty and non-real, mythology and history.
Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare’s Sources for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sources/mssources.html >.
Mahabal, Prasad. Elizabethan era Women’s Life http://elizabethanenglandlife.com/elizabethan-times-women.html
Jamieson, Lee. (2019, March 23). How the Forest and Court Are Presented in ‘As You Like It’. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/as-you-like-it-forest-vs-court-2984633
Racine D. (2014) Feminism in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A comedy with Tragic Consequences.
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