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A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

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What options does Theseus give Hermia and why in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

The two options Theseus gives Hermia are death or life in the convent. He does this to uphold patriarchal power, telling Hermia that it is her father's right to choose her marriage partner.

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On the eve of his wedding to Hippolyta, Theseus is confronted with Hermia's disobedience. She wants to marry Lysander, the man she loves, but her father, Egeus, has decided she must marry Demetrius.

Hermia appeals to Theseus to allow her the right to make such an important decision about her own life, but Theseus backs patriarchy. He is marrying Hippolyta, former queen of the Amazons, against her will: he captured her and is now forcing the marriage, softening the blow by saying he will woo her and be good to her. Not surprisingly at this point, he wants to uphold patriarchal power, for in doing so, he justifies his own right to wed Hippolyta. (Hippolyta is by now graciously accepting the marriage based on abduction, though she is not in such a hurry as Theseus is to marry.)

Hermia, who is strong willed, speaks out boldly, but Theseus tells her she belongs to her father, who can mold her as he sees fit. Theseus won't allow Hermia to refuse to accept this patriarchal right without paying a steep price and decrees that if she won't obey her father, she has two other choices: to die or to be shut away forever in a convent.

None of this is satisfactory to Hermia or Lysander, who decide upon another option: running away to elope.

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In the first act of the play, Theseus tells Hermia she must marry the man her father has chosen. If she does not, only two options remain:

"Either to die the death or to abjure
For ever the society of men."

The first needs no explanation. It's the execution that Hermia's father has requested. The second is a reference to becoming a nun, as Theseus quickly spells out. Theseus acknowledges that some people believe nuns lead blessed lives. But he offers his own views -- that women are happier when they live out their lives as wives and mothers. In particular, he uses imagery of emptiness and coldness to describe the life of a celibate nun:

"…in shady cloister mew'd,
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon."

He compares the married woman to a blooming rose, while he says the life of a nun is one spent "withering on the virgin thorn."

So Theseus presents his options as if there is really only one tenable one. If Hermia doesn't obey her father and marry Demetrius, she is choosing either death or an empty, unhappy life. Either way, says Theseus, these options are inferior to marrying her father's choice.

If Theseus's options seem harsh to us, we should keep in mind that Elizabethans viewed things differently. Marriage was arranged by the parents of the betrothed; children were expected to obediently marry whomever their parents selected.

As William Gouge argued in a book published a few years after the end of Elizabeth's reign, doing so was a sacred and civic duty. Marrying against your parent's wishes -- as Hermia proposes to do -- was a sin. Instead of refusing to accept a parent's choice of spouse, children were supposed to ask God to intervene and change their own feelings about the matter. They were supposed to pray to God that their feelings about the potential spouse would become more favorable. If, after doing this, they were still averse to their parent's choice, it might be acceptable to respectfully request that their parents rethink their choice:

"…[T]hey may in a reverend manner entreat their parent to forbear to press that match, and to think of some other."

But even then, the child must feel bound by the parent's decision. If a child marries against her parent's wishes, Gouge says, she will be cursed by God.


Gouge, William. 1622. Of Domestical Duties.

Mortimer, Ian. 2014. The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England. Penguin.

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Egeus bring his daughter, Hermia, to Theseus because she refuses to marry the man that her father wants her to marry, Demetrius.  Instead, Hermia has fallen in love with Lysander and wants to marry him.  Egeus goes to Theseus and asks Theseus to uphold the law and let Egeus put Hermia to death for being a disobedient child.

I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,
As she is mine, I may dispose of her:
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.

Instead of immediately pronouncing the death sentence on Hermia, Theseus gives her three options.  First, be killed. Second, marry Demetrius.  The third choice is to become a nun with a vow of celibacy.

You could look at that as benevolence since Theseus did give an option other than marriage or death.  On the other hand Theseus admits that he believes because of Hermia's beauty that celibacy is way worse than a marriage to Demetrius.  

But earthlier happy is the rose distill'd,
Than that which withering on the virgin thorn
Grows, lives and dies in single blessedness.

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