To what extent can the opening of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” be considered a comedy?
The opening scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a conversation between Theseus and Hippolyta, an engaged couple discussing their wedding which is to take place in four days.
However, through the way in which they speak to each other and the metaphors Shakespeare deliberately uses, it is suggested that there are underlying tones of violence and aggression in their relationship. This is highlighted when Theseus says: “I wooed thee with my sword, And won thy love doing thee injuries;” which insinuates that, in order for him to achieve ultimate masculinity and bring back the Amazonian Queen as his trophy wife, a great deal of blood must have been shed for him to obtain his desires.
This tells the reader that their relationship already had a history of violence and destruction. This idea is then reinforced when Hippolyta makes a remark about a “silver bow” which foreshadows that their marriage will also continue to be brutal and damaging. The use of violent imagery on Shakespeare’s part creates a vivid image of chaos and anarchy in their relationship. Although, he utilises it in such a way that it is evident to the audience that Hippolyta is in discomfort about her current situation, but is rather helpless in the sense that she does not have the means to do anything about it.
There are types of violence, such as slap stick violence, which audiences find amusing however the violence presented her can make audiences uncomfortable and weary of the characters. The violent nature of their relationship lacks any comedic value which viewers may not find amusing.
Moreover, Shakespeare indicates that Hippolyta is being oppressed and is unwillingly bound to Theseus. She seems to be uncomfortable and have anxiety about consummating her marriage as it will cement their union to each other and she will no longer have any hope of potentially leaving him or escaping. Which is ironic seeing as that is the part Theseus is most looking forward to.
He uses sexual and promiscuous language to illustrate his erotic notions: “how slow This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires, Like to a step-dame or dowager”. This tells the audience that Theseus is very lustful. This presents their relationship as being heavily influence by the man which lacks any sort of humour which the audience may not identify with.
Theseus and Hippolyta’s relationship was typical of the times. The Elizabethan society was a patriarchal one and believed in traditional values such as the man being head of the household. Traditionally, women were expected to be passive and submissive to their husband, which is reflected in the opening scene.
Therefore, it would not come as a surprise to an Elizabethan audience that their relationship is male dominated, has an obedient wife, overbearing masculinity and conflict. Contrastingly, modern viewers may be surprised at the lack of presence Hippolyta has in her relationship and Theseus’ dictatorial and tyrannical nature. Since the Elizabethan times, the gap of women’s rights and gender equality has been narrowed so modern audiences might perceive their relationship as being oppressive and marginalising women to be subservient to their male counterparts, which viewers would not find comedic.
Different theatre and film productions may present the opening in various different ways. It is Hippolyta’s character that is often open to interpretation. Her actions and delivery of her lines determine how the audience perceive her. Theseus is often extremely: manly, masculine, bold and macho and is the main contributor to the conversation about marriage which would reflect his eagerness to wed Hippolyta. And her lack of participation and disinterest in the conversation could be the absence of happiness and unwillingness to get married. Hippolyta may be portrayed as being very submissive, a woman of the time who easily gave into her husband. This would give an interesting juxtaposition when the character Titania is introduced, which is often played by the same actress. This is to give the sense that there are parallels between the characters.
Some productions may introduce Theseus and Hippolyta by having them go at war against each other. This could be to illustrate Hippolyta’s power and strength within her marriage but when she is in the company of others, she must conform to what society sees as acceptable behaviour for a respectable woman and not overstep Athenian law. It also underlines the reoccurring theme of violence in their relationship and how Theseus’ overbearing masculinity is to mask or cover up Hippolyta’s capability so as to remain in charge and remain alpha male. This is similar to the character Oberon who has trouble remaining superior and containing Titania who is outspoken and goes by her own agenda.
Some directors may choose to portray Hippolyta as being more averse and repugnant towards Theseus to mirror that of Titania, so it is even more obvious to the audience that there is a relationship. This could also mean that Hippolyta is internally very strong but doesn’t let on her inner strength in order to avoid conflict with Theseus.
Many readers/viewers could misinterpret the entire play from the opening scene for being a tragedy or a dark comedy, or a play with very heavy undertones. It could easily be mistaken that Shakespeare was trying to challenge social norms and how society deemed the differing roles of men and women. The opening scene highlights aggression, violence, conflict, a form of hierarchy in a marriage, and lack of love and devotion which is often deemed as central in a marriage. Shakespeare brings up multiple serious issues that can mislead audiences from believing that it is a comedy. To both a modern and Elizabethan audience; it would have been difficult to assume that this was a comedy as it lacks any humour or amusement. It is only later when the lovers and mechanicals are introduced that humour and comedy thrives.
The traditional structure of comedies is often “Order, Disorder, New Restored Order”. Theseus and Hippolyta represent the order in society. Theseus is a Duke and a high society figure as well as Hippolyta who was the Queen of the Amazons. Following this scene Egeus consoles Theseus regarding Hermia and her refusal to marry the spouse of his choice. This depicts that Theseus is pillar in society that upholds law and order. Their marriage can also fall into the “Order” category. Disorder is introduced right along Order as there are hidden messages of violence when the converse with each other.
By Libin F