A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedic play written around 1595 by the Bard himself, William Shakespeare. It is one of Shakespeare’s most successful works and is often staged throughout the world. The play chronicles the adventures of four young Athenian lovers and six amateur actors who are manipulated by the faeries that inhabit the forest in which the play is set. As many of Shakespeare’s comedies do, A Midsummer Night’s Dream ends in four joyous unions. The play is wildly popular among theatergoers and literary critics alike. There is an unique feminist critique drawn from the pages of the play, in which Shakespeare questions the fallacies and hypocrisies in gender roles and an overtly patriarchal society.
Although written in Elizabethan England, the play itself is set in ancient Greece. Athenian society was an objectively male-dominated world. Women had no agency to make decisions nor did they have the ability to garner the skills necessary to be able to support themselves autonomously. That brand misogynisic thought and rhetoric maintained well into Shakespeare’s time; however, Queen Elizabeth I managed to become the sole monarch of England without a husband and ruled her country as a completely autonomous woman. Elizabeth I influenced Shakespeare greatly, as she was a lover of theatre and a patron of Shakespeare. The Bard had a great reverence for his queen and because of this, he disregarded traditional female standards of docility and submissiveness and created many strong female characters that, perhaps, were portraits of Elizabeth herself. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermia and Titania exemplify the strong feminine spirit that Elizabeth I maintained. Through characters like Hermia, Titania, Bottom, and Puck, Shakespeare questions the traditional standards of masculinity and femininity.
Hermia refuses to marry the man she does not love. As Athenian law dictated, women had no autonomy and were given to their husbands by their fathers along with a dowry. The consummation of marriage is how power over a woman changes handed from father to husband. She does not yield to her father’s decision although he believes that “[a]s she is [his], [he] may dispose of her” however he pleases (I.i. 42). Clearly, Hermia is treated by her father as an object and that his fatherhood gives him the right to consider her as his possession. Nevertheless, Hermia is a strong-willed character. She prefers Lysander and is not afraid nor intimidated to say it. She is very persistent and not willing to change her mind to accept Demetrius as her husband. When it is revealed that her refusal to marry Demetrius will lead either into death or solitary life as a nun, Hermia expresses her acceptance of any punishment boldly as long as she does not have to do something she does not choose to. So, she discards luxury and escapes to the forest with Lysander. Hermia is not docile in the slightest and is not willing to submit to any will but her own, a trait not maintained by the traditional standard of femininity.
Titania is the queen of the faeries and is a proud queen at that. As the play begins, she is at odds with her husband Oberon, since she denies his wish to rid of the young Indian prince that she wants to raise as her child. Titania is strong-willed, intelligent, daring and a powerful woman. She is characterized by being a dominating figure. As the wife of Oberon, she challenges and combats her husband, arguing with him openly. She does not behave like the traditional, submissive Athenian, or even Elizabethan, wife. In a truly liberated fashion, Titania, in response to the conflict resounding her marriage, swears, “what, jealous Oberon! Fairies, skip hence:/ I have forsworn his bed and company” (II.i.62-63). Her authoritative role is equal to Oberon’s role as a man and as the king of the fairies, she does not give in in this marital war. She acquires an passive attitude towards the persistent wishes of Oberon and does not succumb to his request for authority as her owner. On the contrary, when Oberon asks if she considers him her “lord” she replies, “then I must be thy lady” (II.i.65). Even after she is bewitched by Oberon and has fallen in love with Bottom, she maintains her dominating aura. Titania, within her relationship between Bottom, is unquestionable female dominance over male. The queen authoritative attitude can be seen when she falls in love with Bottom and orders him to stay in the forest: “Out of this wood do not desire to go:/ Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no./ I am a spirit of no common rate;/ The summer still doth tend upon my state;/ And I do love thee: therefore, go with me…” (III. i. 73-77). Bottom merely accepts the situation and is carried away with Titania’s decisions and orders.
Through Bottom, gender roles are reversed, creating a hegemonic femininity where men are marginalized and defined by their female counterparts. An example of this is the transformation of the head of Bottom, a male member of an acting troupe, to an ass’s head. Through this transformation, Bottom is no longer a man. Puck, an agent of the queen of the forest has relegated him to another identity (Eanes). Under the influence of the hierarchy of power in the forest, Puck is compelled to protect the queen, and acting as her agent, Puck transforms Bottom, and Bottom is defined not as himself, but as Puck chose, just as Egeus and Theseus do to Hermia. Bottom’s companions are frightened by his transformation and run away, which prompts him to sing to allay his own fears, but this wakes up Titania who inquires, “What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?” (III.i.129). To Titania, Bottom is neither an ass nor a man, he is an angel. Titania, as a queen and a part of the hierarchy of power in the forest, is able to redefine him as she sees fit, just as Theseus redefines Hermia as a nun.
Though Puck was an instrument to the objectification of Bottom, he is the closest thing the play has to a protagonist. His mischievous spirit clearly pervades the atmosphere, and his actions are responsible for many of the complications that develop the main plots in a chaotic way. What is not clear is the gender of Puck, since the character has been represented as male and as female along the play’s history. The ability of Puck’s character to be male or female is powerful because of explicit contrasts, such as the implicit comparison between rough, earthy craftsmen and delicate, graceful fairies. Puck seems to illustrate many of these contrasts within his own character: he is graceful but not so sweet as the other fairies, and he is given to a certain coarseness. Puck is good-hearted, but capable of cruel tricks. Finally, whereas most of the fairies are beautiful and ethereal, Puck is often portrayed as somewhat bizarre looking (Eanes). Puck embodies masculine and feminine traits, but his mischievousness transcends gender. Indeed, just as a woman can be coarse and earthy and a man ethereal, every person can be a shrewd, knavish sprite.
Those aforementioned characters defy the standard of gender placed by such Athenian and Elizabethan societies. Hermia and Titania are strong-willed and independent, much unlike the men of those societies expected them to be. It is obvious, however, that not all women are submissive. Queen Elizabeth I was one such woman. She commanded a country of men with full agency and autonomy. Like Titania, she maintained authority over the men she ruled. Bottom, at the will of Titania, is re-defined as less than a man, but an ass. His transformation runs parallel to the objectification of women in Athenian and Elizabethan societies, exposing how mistaken and hypocritical the chauvinist tradition is. Moreover, Puck eclipses gender and manifests traits common in both masculinity and femininity to break down the gender binary. Shakespeare, in this, perhaps the most well-known of his comedies, presents to his audience an alluring opportunity of interpretation. A feminist literary analysis provides an insight to the female role in society and the aberrations of misogyny.
Eanes, Herbert. “Hegemonic Masculinity in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Professional Essays of H.E. Eanes, 14 May 2015, thequixoticpedagogue.wordpress.com/2015/05/14/hegemonic-masculinity-in-a- midsummer-nights-dream/. Accessed 4 May 2017.
Shakespeare, William. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. Robert DiYanni. New York, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007. 1391-1454. Print.