What do Shakespeare's comedies, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream,  suggest about the connection between sex, marriage, and society?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The marriage of two lovers or even two pairs of lovers is what creates the happy endings seen in Shakespeare's comedies. However, if we look deeper, we see that the human sexuality Shakespeare presents on stage actually has deeper social meaning. Literary critic Shirley Nelson Garner points out that the sexuality seen in A Midsummer Night's Dream portrays a male dominant society and female submission. Furthermore, sexuality leads to marriage, and in Shakespeare's time, marriage was a male dominant institution.

One instance of male domination we see presented through sexuality in the play is Oberon's response to Titania's affection for the foundling Indian boy. Oberon is so devoted to having the boy to himself and so angered by his wife's affection for the boy that it seems Oberon is actually jealous of the boy. If Titania is devoting all of her affection to the boy, then she is abstaining from bestowing affection on Oberon. Garner even points out that we see Titania treat the boy in what can be interpreted in a sexual manner. Puck describes that Titania "perforce withholds the loved boy, / Crowns him with flowers, and makes him all her joy," which is, ironically, the exact same way she treats Bottom when she falls in love with him (II.i.26-27). Hence, we see that Titania's love for the beautiful boy is enough to make Oberon jealous. Furthermore, Oberon's jealousy of the boy shows us that Oberon wants Titania all to himself. Oberon's decision to trick Titania into releasing the boy by humiliating her shows us that Oberon uses Titania's sexuality to once again restore his male dominance over her as her husband.

Another instance in which we see sexuality being used to create male dominance can be seen in the four lovers. Puck's mistake of enchanting Lysander to fall in love with Helena as well as Demetrius wreaks havoc on the lovers. It even breaks up the deep friendship between Helena and Hermia as Helena accuses Hermia of joining forces with both Lysander and Demetrius to mock her, as we see in Helena's line, "Lo, she is one of this confederacy!" (III.ii.195). However, even once the lovers are rightly paired--Lysander with Hermia and Demetrius with Helena, whom he was engaged to before he saw Hermia--Garner points out that after the fourth act, the two women never have speaking parts again. Garner asserts that their lack of lines demonstrates that they have accepted their roles as wives, which is to be quiet, submissive, and obedient. Hence, even through the lovers we see that sexuality is used to create male dominance, thereby pointing out the social issue of male dominance, especially in the institution of marriage.

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