How does Shakespeare present Theseus and Oberon as authoritarian yet sympathetic leaders?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Oberon, King of the fairies, are by position and by nature authoritarian. Yet, as the play progresses, they release their subjects from the punishments that they have assigned them, thus demonstrating generosity and compassion.

  • Theseus

In the opening scene of Act I, when Hermia's father complains to the duke that she will not comply with his desire that she marry Demetrius and demands that she receive the death penalty for her disobedience, Theseus is equally as harsh. For he tells Hermia,

...be advised, fair maid:
To you your father should be as a god

When Hermia entreats him to pardon her, he instructs her of the consequences of her choice, 

Either to die the death, or to abjure
For ever the society of men....
Take time to pause; and, by the next new moon,--
Upon that day either prepare to die
For disobedience to your father's will,
Or else be wed to Demetrius....

However, in Act IV, when Theseus again appears in the drama, he tells Hermia's father, "Egeus, I will overbear your will" (4.1.179) and allows all the lovers to marry the ones that they desire after he learns that Demetrius no longer loves Hermia, but wants Helena instead (because of the dousing of love potion upon him).

  • Oberon

The king of the fairies displays unreasonable authority when, because of his jealousy of a changeling's affections from his wife Titania, he devises a plan to win back the attention of his queen. While he is in the forest, Oberon reaches Titania who is asleep and sprinkles her so that, hopefully, she will wake up ''...when some vile thing is near" (2.2.34) and he can steal the changeling from her.

In a humorous turn of fate, while on his mission to sprinkle an Athenian, Puck puts the magical pollen on Lysander instead; then, he discovers the foolish mechanicals in the forest and decides to play a prank on the mortals, turning Bottom's head into that of a donkey. Frightened by this transformation, the other men run off and Bottom stumbles around. Awakened by the commotion, Titania sees Bottom first and falls immediately in love with him. 

After Puck returns, he reports that Titania has fallen in love with "a monster"; however, in their conversation, they realize that Puck has anointed the wrong Athenian. Oberon accuses Puck,

This is thy negligence. Still thou mistak'st,
Or else commit'st thy knaveries willfully (3.2.345-46). 

However, Oberon does try to undo the chaos that Puck has caused and anoints the eyes of Demetrius, who then falls in love with Helena, an act that effects the happy ending for all the lovers as Theseus retracts his condemnation of Hermia. When the spell is removed from Titania because Oberon feels she has been humiliated enough, they reconcile as Oberon takes pity on her.

Oberon, however, has been a much more powerful force than has Theseus. For, his conflicts with Titania have been so violent that they have disrupted the seasons. In admittance of this, Titania says,

...this progeny of evils
comes from our debate, from our dissension (2.1.3). 

This condition hints at the power struggles of Shakespeare's sixteenth century world.

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