From Amazons to Wives: The gendered difficulties of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and its Classical foundations

Though many have historically criticized Shakespeare’s early play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as shoddily written, re-examination of the text over the last several decades has leant new prestige to this entertaining ‘classic’. Most scholars agree that Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a light and frivolous accompaniment to the celebration of a wedding; and while the historical identity of the couple for whom it was written has escaped the knowledge of his students, there is ample textual evidence to support this claim. The main plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream involves the complex machinations of two couples (Helena and Demetrius and Hermia and Lysander) whose romantic cross purposes are further complicated by their flight into the woods and into the realm of the faerie King and Queen (Oberon and Titania) who themselves are engaged in domestic battle. The play contains some of the usual ‘lighter’ themes common to Shakespearean literature such as love, dreams and the creative imagination. It is love however, that causes the most difficulties for Shakespeare’s hapless characters. This sentiment leads to confusion, escape, intrigue and a great many laughs for the audience. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the quintessential comedy using misunderstanding and circumstance to create a scene that becomes incrementally absurd as to produce nothing but laughter.

The comedy of the play itself, however, has its roots in classical literature following very closely the structural ideals of the middle and new Greek comedy. The consequences of following classical structures are that the play adopts many of the societal trappings that would seem incongruous with Elizabethan England. Not only was the Bard composing a simple and thoughtless comedy, but he was also constructing a social commentary in which various gender roles were investigated and negotiated within classical frameworks. If one considers A Midsummer Night’s Dream it becomes clear that Shakespeare was interested in discussing the role of women in society particularly vis-à-vis the metaphors of fertility and the liminal space of the forest whilst maintaining the near myth-like classical framework of the play. Shakespeare’s theatrical interest in femininity may stem from his own particular time. In Elizabethan England, like most other places of the period, notions of ‘maleness’ and masculinity did not need to be investigated as they were dominant. Instead, in literature and text, it was women’s roles that were to be negotiated through the lens of a classical, male-dominated society much like that presented in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This paper will seek to demonstrate Shakespeare’s dependence on classical Greek comedy, investigate the conception of the ‘female’ gender through the metaphor of fertility and the liminal encountering space of the forest.

The Greek comedy was a dominant genre in the sense that the requirements of comedy had not significantly changed since Aristotle’s text on Poetics, however, individual remnants of these works were extremely rare. The very place of classical literature in a humanist age made these genres elite and dominant forces that were set up as examples to be used and modified to suit contemporary Elizabethan plots. Shakespeare, like his contemporaries, was cognizant of these literary forms and though there is no one play to whom he is directly indebted it is clear that the overarching principles of the genre were in the forefront. To demonstrate this link it is necessary to discuss the origins and purposes of Greek comedy and demonstrate how they are present in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Greek comedy arose out of Dionysian festivals (to celebrate the God of vineyards and of agricultural fertility). Though these plays began as small folk traditions they quickly expanded in importance in the Hellenic area to be included in major festivals in Athens. Of particular interest for Shakespearian analysis is the comedies of the middle and new period as they were renowned for their social critique, not of individual personalities but of classes and of social constraints. New comedies, in particular, included the ‘lighter’ elements such as love, and it was often the misfortune of lovers that were ridiculed. These elements are poignantly clear in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Elements of social critique are seen in the opening scenes of conflict between Helena and her father Egeus. The caricature of an overbearing parent demanding the unquestioned submission of his child (particularly his daughter) fits within the structures of middle comedy and its sharp attack on parental (and also governmental) authority. The misfortunes of Lysander, Demetrius, Helena, and Hermia all provide humorous fodder similar to that provided in the new comedies. The point of this critique was not so much to level complaints against society but to laugh at the bumblings of an individual in love and unable to express it to his beloved. Both Greek and Shakespearean comedy taunted the domineering father and the lax lover, they was not intending to present a perfection of the world but rather a comedic interlude wherein the lax morals of the society were flaunted.

In both the Greek and Elizabethan periods, theatre was a place of masculine purview. Women were neither actors, nor playwrights nor producers, and lacking involvement in creation, their characters were often presented in highly stereotyped ways. Plays were written, produced, directed and acted by men, it was rare that masculinity was the target of investigation. Women, as the problematic characters both of the Greek period and the Elizabethan were the subjects of investigation. Society demanded women’s subordination, but as history, and Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate, they had their own power. It was the nature of this power that posed significant problems for the male characters of both reality and the boards. The female characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are all in their own way headstrong and uncontrollable. This is independent spirit in a woman is in complete contradiction with the popular wisdom of the time. A woman’s public place, if she had one, was that of the wife and mother. Outside of these two roles women could not be trusted not to usurp male power. Egeus’ demand of daughterly obedience from Hermia typifies this exchange of comedic power because the real negotiation is the stewardship of the household. If Hermia is allowed to disobey her father, she socially castrates him as family head. Thus the crux of the play becomes the subordination and usurpment of female power and the righting of the social order. This fits within the paradigms of classical humour as often the unruly female becomes the symbol for social disintegration. A Midsummer Night’s Dream uses this understanding of social hierarchy upon which to base its critique and its humour, only once the females (Hermia, Helena and Titania) are suitably cowed is the hierarchy re-established in its proper patriarchal form in much the same way that Greek comedy used its humorous interludes to emphasize its own social vision.

If gender roles are at the crux of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, then it becomes necessary to demonstrate the particular role that was established for women as well as how this is denoted through the various signs and metaphors in the play. As established previously, the two socially and publicly acceptable roles for the female were that of wife and mother, and interestingly those are the two roles that all the females flout in one way or another. To begin with Hermia refuses to marry Demetrius, the favourite pick of her father, and the man to whom she has been betrothed. Instead she illicitly loves Lysander and concocts a plan to escape her father’s authority in favour of her lover’s.

“ Egeus: Full of vexation come I, with complaint
Against my child, my daughter Hermia.
Stand forth, Demetrius. My noble lord,
This man hath my consent to marry her.
Stand forth, Lysander: and, my gracious duke,
This hath bewitch’d the bosom of my child”

Problematic in this instance is the fact that Hermia is undermining her father’s right to determine his own progeny and the alliances forged within the family. As such the motifs of fertility are subverted by the female to exclude the crucial element of male choice. In the case of Titania an even more blatant refusal of male authority is present. Titania, in her youth, had a voteress who gave birth to a young Halfling and later died. The marital dispute over the fate of this young boy becomes the driving element of this particular subplot. Oberon, as the King of the faeries, cannot countenance spousal disobedience and launches on a plan to force Titania, his wayward wife, into a life of obedience and mastery. This is done through the use of a serum, dewy and liquid, that is liberally applied over the eyes, forcing the victim to fall in love with the first creature seen upon awakening.

“Oberon: It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,
And maidens call it ‘love in idleness’.
Feth me that flower – the herb I show’d thee once.
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.”

Like Hermia, the real conflict centers around male authority and in this way is making a commentary about the gendered role of females rather than the less problematic one of males. Titania and Hermia as expectant wives (and in the case of Titania erstwhile mothers) must be made to surrender to male authority to preserve the fabric of social order and harmony. The males are never subordinated to the females, and the way that Egeus, Demetrius and Oberon behave underscores the nature of male gender as one of authority and lordship over the physical, social and emotional lives of the females under their care. This kind of control gives the males of the play access to determine their fertility, to tame the energetic and disobedient women so as to physically conquer her and make her mother. The chronological period of the play underscores this. As a may play it is intimately linked with the new harvest and with fertility. The dreamlike quality of the forest period is reminiscent of Dionysian fertility rites. By this is meant that the conflict between Oberon and Titania and Demetrius and Hermia (and consequently Helena) is not about sex. Instead the conflict arises about social position as the women are not looked at as agent’s of pleasure, but rather as individuals whoa re disobedient to their social function. This makes it highly reminiscent of festival plays or carnival as for one night the women are allowed to flout their societal role (with the permission of the men, of course) to invert reality and to live by their own standards. As with festivals or Carnival, however, reality is soon righted and the superior knowledge and command of the male figures the women are soon brought back to their rightful places through the act of marriage, the ultimate subordination of women to men through legal charter and physical conquest.
“Carnival was observed throughout Europe during the early modern period […] Traditionally this was a time of hedonistic excess and transgression. Carnival permitted and actually encouraged the unlimited consumption of special foods, drunkenness and a high degree of sexual license, and it often led to street violence and civil commotion. The custom of masking and disguise made it easier for the participants to get away with violations of social order, and indeed it was typical of Carnival that social order was turned upside down.”

The fertility metaphor is particularly important when considering that the faery realm (and therefore the majority of the play) is governed through the lunar cycle. The faeries are only able to come out a night and the moon is the guide by which they manage their lives. The lunar cycle as the typification of the feminine becomes a time of chaos and it is only once the sun comes out that reality is restored and the proper social function of women is re-established under the purview of the male. In this way the domination of the female is a nature v. science moment. The realm of the castle from which the women escape and the kingdom of Oberon that Titania rejects represent the scientific and ordered world of the male. The female, on the other hand, is governed by a different and more mysterious force such as the night wherein all is shadowed and all is possible. In this way, like nature, it is necessary that women be subordinated for the continuation of the species and for the rightness of the social order. Nature can only be made efficient once it has been subordinated to technology, and in much the same way it is only once the women are brought out of the forest that they become fertile ground for procreation based upon their subordination in marriage.

The backdrop for the majority of A Midsummer Night’s Dream occurs within the context of the forest, a place of dreams and mystery comparable to the scenery in many classical plays. The importance of the forest is that it provides a liminal environment that is neither the masculine ordered world of the estate that will host the marriage of the Duke and his soon to be wife Hypolita nor is it the purview of Oberon the faery King. As festival plays often celebrated fertility and marriage the forest is a place of in between, a perfect environment for the negotiation of female gender roles:

“…we are led to feel the outgoing to the woods as an escape from the inhibitions imposed by parents and the organized community.”

Had the story taken place in the castle it would have been well within the purview of the masculine world but the inclusion of the forest leads to a place where male rules of social and public conduct are not dominant. The viewer of the play is introduced into an environment of female gossip and of gender negotiations without the dominant presence of the male characters.

“[…] presents a female-centered world reminiscent of the Amazons, a world, of “women who gossip alone, apart from men and feeling now no need of them.” It also, as Margo Hendricks has recently demonstrated, does so in the context of a passage that elides “female and geographic fecundity”.”

In fact, the play makes quite clear that it is the lack of male authority that allows the women to act in socially subversive ways. In rejecting the King in favour of the young Halfling, Titania moves her court to a bower and essentially creates a household independent of the authority of her earthly master Oberon.

“Oberon: Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.
Titania: What, jealous Oberon! Fairies, skip hence:
I have forsword his bed and company.
Oberon: Tarry, rash wanton! Am I not thy lord?
Titania: Then I myst be thy lady.”

Both Elizabethan and classical cultures were one of sexual segregation with strictly defined roles. In reality women were separated from men from a young age living under the auspices of their lordly fathers or husbands to whom they owe allegiance.

“The social structure of early modern England was based on a highly differentiated system of rank, degree, and privilege. A complex social hierarchy assigned a traditional order of precedence to be observed on public occasions, and it determined both the division of labour and the allocation of authority.”

The male elements of this forested area is the serum used by the intercessor Puck to confuse and humiliate the women. As previously noted the dewy whiteness of the liquid is reminiscent of semen and it is spread over the victims eyes to display the vagaries and enchantments of their refusal to accept male authority. In this way Helena and Hermia are pushed towards the objects of their love. Hermia is rejected by both Lysander and Demetrius who are now attracted to Helena. Because of her rejection of the male authority of Egeus, Hermia is punished and loses the man for whom she ran away from the rightful household of her father. Titania, in a similar way, is humiliated for her refusal to accept the male authority of Oberon and is made to love an ass, Bottom the Weaver. In this way the women, even though they remain in the forest a place of gendered congregation, are subjugated to their rightful man’s authority and domination. The absurdity of the love confusion mirrors classical Greek comedy and it also serves the function of demonstrating the illicitness of female love. Hermia and Titania, having flouted their earthly masters are punished throughout the night and made to look foolish. Helena who had been faithful to her friend and followed her as a function of her role as hand-maiden was made, for one night, the object of the affections of two men in order to punish Hermia. Though the forest, as a liminal state, is by definition temporary it serves the comedic function of making the women ridiculous and shameful.

In addition to its authoritative function, the forest also serves in the metaphor of fertility. As a place of liminal desire the forest stands for the untamed natural image of the female that needs to be conquered and exposed by the male in the light of day. Much of the classical world is transposed in the forest. As previously noted, the festival play that was A Midsummer Night’s Dream focuses on the celebration of marriage and fertility as did the Dionysian comedic festivals of the Greeks.

“ Shakespeare, in developing a May-game action at length to express the will in nature that is consummated in marriage, brings out underlying magical meanings of the ritual while keeping always a sense of what is humanly, an experience. The way nature is felt is shaped, as we noticed in an earlier chapter, by the things that are done in encountering it.”

The festival of Elaphebolion, for example, one of the nights of comedic celebration harkened the taming of nature and the return of fertility to the land. It began in the wilds of the countryside and a statue of the God Dionysus was marched from there to the civilized area of the town center where his restorative natural acts were celebrated. Two other festivals of the Gamelia and Anathesteria were two other Dionysian celebrations that harkened marriage and licentious activity. The fertility marked in these celebrations was really the domination of the masculine over the feminine. Nature as a symbol in these festivals was highly feminized. The ‘natural’ was untamed and difficult, it required a male intercessor to make it fit for consummation. Agriculture has always been a highly male symbol that stood for the rape and conquest of nature and its conformation to male desire in much the same way that Puck’s intercession for Oberon and the other male characters was seen as the prelude to the subordination of female desire in the play. The presence of the Duke’s marriage signals the time of festivity that symbolically drives the women into the forest who therefore are prepared for their own symbolic fertilization consummated on the night of the marriage and with the blessing of Titania and Oberon.

The resolutions of all conflicts between the male and female characters of the play sees no compromise on the part of the men. Rather, the women learn in the forest their true place which is their subordination to the male characters and the giving over of their unruly desires to those of their male counterparts. The relationship between Titania and Oberon, as the symbols of fertility whose strife has lead to erratic agricultural produce in the land lifts the veil of twilight that has clouded the eyes of Lysander and Demetrius. When they return to the castle to celebrate the marriage of the Duke they are women fully chastised and cowed to male desire. In this way the rightful order of the world is reinstated and the time of female frivolity over. In many ways the play demonstrates how the time of social inversion and the carnival have given over the righting of authority and the absurdity of the night passes into the well ordered structure of the day. The play concludes with each women being physically tamed in their marriage bed sealing the rightfulness of male authority not only for the women but also symbolically for civilization through their progeny that were, hopefully, conceived on that night.

Not only a ‘light’ Shakespearean comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the story of male subversion of female power and the fertility acts that are often the focus of classical as well as Elizabethan imagery. The male characters live in a world of order and of that finds women ultimately problematic. One must keep in mind when reading Shakespeare that though these plays havea great deal to offer in terms of the dissection of human nature, they are essentially plays written about men by men. The plays themselves, in their historical context, were presented exclusively by male actors and in this way there is very little authentic representation of females. What the work does offer, however, is a contemporary view of male attitudes towards women and the place that these women occupied in a male dominated society. Through the images of the festival play, generally celebrated at fortuitous events such as marriage it is clear that women in this culture represented the continuation of society through their fertility. As in nature, however, male attitudes towards fertility are themselves highly regulated by domination and force. Women, in setting up their own households, subvert this male power and the authoritative function of this text is to demonstrate the impossibility of truly achieving this in such a masculine environment. As in Dionysian festivals, women are celebrated for their ability to give life as done through the male dominated constraints of marriage. In the liminal environment of the forest these gender roles can be navigated and exposed and made ridiculous by the men who seek to congregate with women if only to master them.

One thought on “From Amazons to Wives: The gendered difficulties of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and its Classical foundations

  1. ExikeMibe

    May 1, 2010 at 12:48pm

    Thanks for writing, I very much liked your newest post. I think you should post more frequently, you evidently have natural ability for blogging!

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