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).

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The Value of Shakespeare

Photo from Wikimedia.

At some point in your educational career, whether as an awkward teen in high school or an only-slightly-less-awkward student in college, an English teacher has undoubtedly subjected you to Shakespeare- assigning readings of at least some of his numerous plays. Though you probably spark noted most of the material, the whole endeavor was likely one of the most torturous experiences of your life to date, and since then you most likely have filed everything you may have learned about the bard and his writing away in your brain as unessential and uninteresting.

While I most certainly understand your feelings, I encourage you to seize this opportunity to revisit the material which you have so readily dismissed. One of the reasons teachers continue to torture students both college and high school alike with assigned readings of Shakespeare’s plays is because underneath their surface plots, a variety of deliberate mechanisms are at work which make them tension-filled and dare I say even interesting to interpret.

For being an old, dead white guy, Shakespeare and by extension, his writing, seem as pertinent as ever to the discussion of contemporary issues such as class and race. However, my personal favorite lens through which to view shake Shakespeare’s plays is feminism mostly because, as it seems, Shakespeare as a social critic and writer both favors gender equality and yet reproaches it at the same time. The complex relationship his complicated position on gender creates within the texts makes them, in all their unexcavated richness, fun to ponder and play with.

In the next few weeks, I will be reviewing Shakespeare’s most renowned comedies and tragedies and unpacking the gender implications contained therein with the hope of achieving a more sophisticated understanding of gender and its functions within the contemporary society. I invite you to putting your scarring previous experiences with the bard behind you join me in a careful reexamination of these texts. Though I warn you, with Shakespeare, you never know what you might uncover.

Join me next Thursday for a brief discussion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

— Dominique Dusek, Assistant Marketing & Development Editor