To what extent do male characters dominate ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’?
The first indication that the audience has that the play is male dominated is in the opening scene which is a dialogue between Duke Theseus and his fiancé Hippolyta. They are discussing their “nuptial hour” which is in “four days”. Hippolyta was the Queen of the Amazons and according to legend she was a strong warrior woman and after Theseus “wooed thee with [his] sword” and destroyed her kingdom, she was forced into marrying him.
Thus being compelled to conform into the idealistic submissive subservient wife whom Theseus desires. As this is such a contrast to her former life, she has adopted a passive aggressive nature in which she attempts to take control of her relationship and asserts herself and tells Theseus that “Four days will quickly steep themselves into night/Four nights will quickly dream away the time”. Their marriage was built on the foundations of violence and bloodshed and Hippolyta was a mere token of Theseus’ accomplishments to parade in front of the Athenians.
A symbol to satisfy his male ego and pride: a possession. Theseus’ custody of Hippolyta is reinforced through the whole of Scene 1 when she is a bystander to the injustice faced by Hermia. She is meant to reflect the lives of Elizabethan women at that time and how having a husband can transform them from being unique individuals to being objects and possessions. Modern audiences may not identify with this as it is atypical and most relationships are often coequal.
Contrastingly, Titania is a powerful fairy queen who refuses to bow down to Oberon or comply when he demands of the “changeling boy”. Rather she stands with integrity and power and tries to reason with Oberon which suggests that she is present and alive in her relationships.
However, like most other women in the play she has fallen victim to her male counterpart’s malicious doings. She is undermined and belittled to the point where is she is vulnerable enough for Oberon to take advantage of her. She is weakened as her authority threatens the man and as they cannot be on the same level she must be demoted and humiliated into falling in love with a “lion, bear, or wolf, or bull”.
This is to keep her out of the way so she can “render up her page” to Oberon. The dynamic between Titania and Oberon is often presented as a power struggle that Oberon ultimately wins. He dictates her fate across the play as it is up to him at which point he decides to “release the Fairy Queen” from the enchantment placed upon her. This indicates that males are more in the position of power and have the upper hand on women, not only in the Athenian world but also in the supernatural realm which highlights the parallel that male dominance can be seen in both dimensions.
Hermia is another woman in the play that is oppressed by male tyranny. She is forced to marry Demetrius who is her Egeus elected suitor rather than Lysander who she is in love with. The context in which this play was written in daughters were objects that belonged to their fathers who could “dispose of her” at will.
She must adhere to Egeus’ demands but is overcome by a “power” which makes her “bold” and defiant to speak out against the cruelty she is undergoing despite knowing her father bears the “ancient privilege of Athens”. She is given an ultimatum to either “endure the livery of a nun” or “death” if she refused to obey her father and marry Demetrius.
Unlike most other characters she decides runaway to a place where the “Athenian law cannot purse” her and marry Lysander. This could suggest that Hermia is very strong minded and determined to escape the patriarchal and dictatorial nature of the Athens. However, despite her being free of Egeus, it could be interpreted as her now being imprisoned to Lysander. Hermia claims to love him but that love could be fuelled be her father’s objection to him. Women in this society were dependant on men, so by turning her back on Egeus she has unknowingly enslaved herself to Lysander so she has not truly escaped male dominance.
Lastly, Helena is a character that seems to operate outside of social conventions and norms. She breaks the typical female stereotype and is very forward and direct about her feelings towards Demetrius. She acts very unladylike and “impeach[s] [her] modesty”.
This could indicate that Helena is not governed by men and lives her life on her own terms. She is free from male rule and throughout the entire play; she does not have to answer men. Shakespeare was trying to challenge gender stereotypes and the status of women through the character of Helena by giving her the most lines in the play which underlines her importance as a character.
Helena’s relentless pursuit of Demetrius causes him to dislike her and intimidates her by doing threatening to do “thee mischief in the wood”. However these violent threats do not repel her but increases her affection and chases him more. She is bound to a man which echoes the reoccurring theme that females are dependant on males for survival.
Demetrius has defined her throughout the play so that she cannot establish a sense of self without him. This is why she lovingly accepts him back when is he under the love spell. She is eager to finally have him that she is so quick to forgive and forget the pain he caused her by mistreating her. She ultimately joins with the man who has brought her the most pain and agony which suggests that women will always retreat to men even in volatile situations which is similar to Titania’s case.
Despite rebellion and power females are still governed by men at the end of the play. Helena accepts Demetrius, Titania is controlled by Oberon; Hermia goes back to Lysander after he wanted another woman and Hippolyta still marrying Theseus. These women are forced to conform to status quo surrounding gender stereotypes as they are living in a man’s world. The play itself was a green world for Elizabethan women at the time as they could experience power, control and independence. But in the end must return to reality.
By Libin F