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A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

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How is Theseus characterized in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream?

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Shakespeare characterized Theseus as one of the few rationally-minded characters in the play.

We first observe his rationalism in the opening scene when Egeus petitions Theseus to have his daughter punished for continuing to refuse to marry Demetrius. According to the "ancient privilege of Athens" a father may have a disobedient daughter put to death or sent to a convent. Interestingly, while sending Hermia to a convent is still an option, he only petitions Theseus for her death, as we see in his lines:

As she is mine, I may dispose of her;
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law. (I.i.43-45)

Theseus first demonstrates his ability to think reasonably and rationally when he changes Egeus's petition to once again include the more humane option of sending her to a convent. Theseus knows he must uphold the ancient law of Athens, even if he thinks it is unjust to force Hermia to marry Demetrius. He reminds Hermia that she is expected to treat her father as her god and obey his every will. When Hermia asks what could happen to her, unlike her father, Theseus includes the option of sending her to a convent in the prospective punishment, as we see in his lines, "Either to die the death, or to abjure / For ever the society of men" (67-68). Since Theseus leaves the more humane option in the punishment, we see that he is being more rational and level-headed than her father.

A second place in which we see Theseus acting as the voice of reason is when he decrees that Hermia will be permitted to marry Lysander, and Demetrius will be permitted to marry Helena. When Egeus and Theseus see the four lovers in the woods, Egeus, typical of his character, wants to insist on Hermia's and Lysander's punishment for stealing away into the woods in order to defeat himself and Demetrius. However, after Demetrius explains that he is now in love with Helena, whom he was engaged to before, like a sensible, rational leader, Theseus overrules Egeus and decrees that the couples shall be married as is.

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What does Theseus represent in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream?

Theseus has but a brief role in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Theseus is first of all the representative of order and reasonableness and rational thought. He is the Duke of the province and responsible for settling legal disputes. Such disputes can even be of the sort between family members such as Egeus brings before him in I.i, that of how to get Hermia to marry Demetrius when she is in love with Lysander. At the end of the play, and Theseus appears only in the beginning and ending, Theseus, though he sympathizes with the young couples discovered asleep in the forest and rules in their favor, discredits their talk of fairies and enchantments as fantasies:

More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.

Fairies oppose rational thought, thus Theseus's rejection of the couples' story underscores his representation of rational thought, a representation first developed in Act 1. That he is also reasonable and not dogmatic is shown when he chooses in IV.i to rule in favor of Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, instead of Egeus:

Fair lovers, you are fortunately met:/ ... /
Egeus, I will overbear your will;
For in the temple by and by with us
These couples shall eternally be knit:

Theseus's most famous speech, "The lunatic, the lover and the poet / Are of imagination all compact [are made completely of imagination]" (V.i), further underscores his representation of order, reason, and rational thought. He ends his speech by describing the extremes wrought by imagination: On the one hand, if imagination can think of a joy to be had, it immediately identifies someone through whom that joy can be delivered. On the other hand, in a fearsome dark night, if imagination fears, it immediately finds cause for fear in a bush that is "supposed a bear":

That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

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