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The issues of gender in William Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, are centered around issues of gender roles and power relationships. They can be investigated in terms of the relationships between the male and female members of pairs of characters.
In the opening, Hippolyta and Theseus discussing their marriage. The Amazon queen, Hippolyta, in Greek myth, is an example of female power, independence, and matriarchy. However, she is conquered by Theseus, perhaps representing the conquest of earlier matriarchal society by patriarchy. The subduing of Hippolyta, invoked at the opening of the play, suggests that female power is something to be subdued, and that marriage is based on asymmetrical power relationships and subordination of women.
The Titania-Oberon pairing is also one in which we have a powerful female queen in a power struggle with an even more powerful male king. As in the Theseus-Hippolyta pairing, Oberon eventually triumphs in the contest.
The gender dynamics among the young lovers also end in conventional marriages with the women assuming a subordinate position to their husbands.
The theme of love always raises many questions and in A Midsummer Night's Dream there are many instances which reveal that love can be fickle, unfair, intense, contradictory, irrational, painful and beautiful. Gender always plays a part in love and from the beginning, gender is apparent when even the proud and independent Hippolyta is "wooed (thee) with my sword" (I.i.16) according to the noble Theseus. The fact that he uses his physical strength to get what he wants confirms the anticipated male domination.
In Shakespeare's day tradition would have certainly challenged the place of real feelings and been in a position to stifle real love in favor of convenience. For Hermia, filial loyalty requires that she satisfies her father's demands and expectations. Egeus accuses Lysander of having "turned her obedience, which is due to me..." (37) and his words immediately remind the audience that there are gender stereotypes at play between the dutiful daughter and her father. Egeus even considers his options to "dispose of her" (42), wondering whether death or Lysander would be more appropriate.
Shakespeare boldly challenges this concept by introducing stronger female characters although they still argue over what are considered typically female complaints regarding appearance. Helena berates Hermia for apparently having influenced Demetrius with her beauty and which is the reason why Helena intends to run away. Helena also uses her feminine vulnerability to her own benefit when she insists that Demetrius and Lysander are only men in show because real men would not "use a gentle lady so" (III.ii.152). She encourages the perception of being disadvantaged because she is female.
Puck's love potion gives the women more of a voice and yet they bicker between themselves. Perhaps it was the only way for Shakespeare to introduce this notion to an Elizabethan audience without becoming unpopular himself. Lysander and Demetrius comically chase Helena and an audience would have enjoyed this ridiculous notion, considering it absurd and beneath them in any real life situation. At the end, everyone does marry happily which ensures that just such an audience goes home happy and the gender stereotype is secure.
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