Gender Roles in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Photo from The Shakespeare Code
Photo from The Shakespeare Code

Often quoted in scrapbooks and on valentines, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream resonates with many audiences as a tale of triumphant and enduring love. However, the play flouts typically romantic conventions as much as it embraces them. More than just a simple tale of boy-meets-girl, Midsummer exists as a particularly complex and politically charged work of literature, especially when considered as a commentary on issues of gender, power and domination.

In Midsummer, the male characters reign supreme exerting their dominance over the female characters and through their acts of violence maintaining control over the fairer sex. Consider, for example, the union of Theseus and Hippolyta. Does he not say he wooed her by doing her injuries? Through this statement, Theseus indicates that he has used his superior strength in addition to some barbaric warrior-minded tactics in order to secure himself a bride. Though the means Theseus resorts to are not what we commonly think of when we consider courting rituals, they seem to be fairly effective in the world created by Shakespeare.

In contrast to the powerful male characters of the play such as Theseus, the women of the play–lacking physical prowess and political power– are relegated to subhuman status, being treated more like property and less like people. Take into account Egeus’s view of his daughter. He attempts to control her choice of partner by subjecting her to harsh Athenian law and even death should she disobey him (1.1.22-45; that’s pretty hardcore).

Compounding the already complex gender-related power dynamics that develop throughout the play, Shakespeare further seems to objectify at least the moral women of the play by giving them similar-sounding, possibly interchangeable names. In addition to creating confusion for the reader, (who, by the way, is just trying to keep all the characters straight) the similar-sounding names imply that women are all the same and therefore easily substitutable.

As a result of being treated as no more valuable than the sum of their parts, the female characters in Midsummer learn to place undue emphasis on their physical attributes. Of course, there are several examples of this throughout the play, but I would like to call your attention to what I consider the creepiest. (You’re welcome!) To Hermia, Helena speaks the lines (1.1. 181-182),”Call you me fair? That “fair” again unsay. Demetrius loves your fair.”

Helena greets her former friend and companion with contempt, citing Hermia’s superior (at least in the eyes of Demetrius) beauty as the reason for resentment. Driven by their desire to ensnare a man–a pursuit which resonates as especially important when considering the elevated status of male characters within the play–both Hermia and Helena, who once were the best of friends, find themselves pitted against each other in fierce competition. At the play’s climax, the two women are reduced to pettily insulting each other or, rather more specifically, each other’s physical appearance. Helena speaks contemptuously of Hermia saying, “Although she be but little she is fierce” (3.2.325). She ridicules Hermia for her small stature implying that her shortness is evidence of her inferiority.

The final thought I would like to leave you with is what follows. If your society chooses to treat you like a chair and view you like a chair, you want to be the prettiest most desirable chair upon which any one ever sat. These women seem to act in ludicrous and shrewish ways, but perhaps that only further emphasizes the utter ridiculousness of what the patriarchal Athenian society has reduced them to.

— Dominique Dusek, Assistant Marketing & Development Editor

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