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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