“To Thine Own Self be True”: The rebellion of women in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Updated: May 14, 2020
Best-selling author, R.H Sin once posed the question, “How many times have you been called beautiful by a man who eventually made you feel ugly on the inside.” This profound inquiry was continually being asked of Elizabethan women by William Shakespeare time and time again whenever he chose to touch the ink to parchment. Within the traditional patriarchal society of Shakespeare’s time, women possessed little power with which they could use to navigate their lives.
Nevertheless, When the works of Shakespeare are examined on a deeper level, one discovers that Shakespeare, himself, may have been one of the world’s first predominantly feminist writers. Shakespeare, throughout his work, consciously chose to feature female characters who continually fight to reshape and redefine the constructs of the female sex found within Elizabethan England. However, each woman found within the pages of Shakespeare’s many plays fight and stage the rebellion in her time and in a uniquely personal way. This Motif is exemplified profoundly within Shakespeare’s famed Comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream as each woman is forced to navigate the two worlds found within the play; which in the end prove to be more similar than different.
The structured and orderly world of Athens, Greece as well as the chaotic and mysterious forest that plays tricks on the minds of mere mortals and fair-folk alike. “Artistically, the dramatist weaves a complex, multifaceted plot that exposes the political and domestic challenges confronting women while creating situations that throw us into the world of comedy. Shakespeare begins his masterpiece] by first introducing women more clearly caught in situations of political or social subordination,” (Dash, 68). The first women the audience is introduced to is Hippolyta the once Amazonian queen, who has been thrust out of her own native culture which praised women into one that immortalizes the female sex; sees them as objects to be brought out and put on display like ordainments and expects them to remain silent. However, the act of remaining silent proves at times to be deadly when thrust upon either the giver or the receiver. With this in mind, the action of silence is a weapon that is wielded by more the one female character within the play itself; the first being queen Hippolyta and the second being Helena.
When the audience is first introduced to Hippolyta in the opening scene of the play, she has one line of dialogue, and beyond this one line, the Amazonian queen is not heard from much ever again. But later on, in act 4.1 lines 110 to 125, the audience is reminded of the strength and incredible power Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons not only possesses and is still capable of inflicting. Even though the audience has never witnessed the battle that the Amazon queen is describing they are put in touch with exactly how bad-ass this particular woman can, in fact, be when given a chance. Therefore, Hippolyta may not lend her voice to many lines in Shakespeare’s play; but, the mere idea of what she is truly capable of in the situation audience presently finds her coupled with the hypothesis of what she will do in the future off of the stage as ruler of Athens that makes her a threat. Helena differs in how she uses her silence to fight against the social formalities of her society in contrast to Hippolyta. In her vow of silence, Helena becomes the observer while Hippolyta is the strategist and plotter of future action. This proves to be useful for a portion of the production when none of the other characters are aware of Helena’s knowledge, and in this way, she is given the power to bestow that expertise.
Hermia chooses to resist in yet, a different way as Dash suggests, by using the idea of the “we” instead of the “I.” Hermia chooses to include Lysander in her fight against her father’s desire for her to marry Demetrius. The “we” instead of the “I,” is seen through the choice the two of them make to run away to the woods together rather than face the pressing issue on their own. Hermia understands the benefits of meeting the future as a couple happily married for love rather than being separated. She can see herself working alongside Lysander as an equal partner rather than some women who must be compliant to the wishes of her husband; Titania, the fairy queen, is, however, a different case.
Titania as a character takes her place on both sides of the spectrum and is subject to being both horrifically abused by her husband Oberon; While still all the while being one of Shakespeare’s most influential and memorable characters. It is well established that Titania and Oberon have a somewhat strained and possibly an abusive relationship with one another. This idea is slightly explored in the Skiles Howard article, “Hands, Feet, and Bottoms: Decentering the Cosmic Dance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in which Howard writes on page 333 of the article the following,
“It is probable that Oberon’s noisy brawl was this kind of dance and therefore represents a covert cultural assault on Titania. He imports tricky French customs that were designed for the privacy of a smoky hall and that cloak sexuality and self-promotion in the guise of civility; he replaces shared popular festivity with an aggressive performance and transforms dancing from a communal ritual into a conquest. His rejection of shared tradition results in abandonment of the site where gentle and common interact together. Seasonal festivity disappears from the neighborhood-“The human mor- tals want their winter here; / No night is now with hymn or carol blest” (2.1.101-2). The deterioration of common space is emblematic of the cultural break: ‘The nine men’s Morris is fill’d up with mud, And the quaint mazes in the wanton green, For lack of tread, are indistinguishable.’ (11. 97-99)
With this reading of the scene in mind the idea that Titania is resisting against an abusive relationship only become clearer when looking at the later confrontation with Oberon toward the end of the play after Titania has woken up to find herself having spent the night in love with an ass and therefore she is both humiliated and silenced by Oberon, himself. In the end, despite the fact that the overall outcome of Titania as a character has been and continues to be interpreted in many different ways she remains to be one of William Shakespeare’s remarkable women. This is exemplified at the beginning of the play when she has quite a lot to say in regard to the changeling boy of which both her and Oberon desire to have possession.
In fact, the argument over the changeling child is what many would argue sets in motion the action of the play itself. Besides this Titania also fights back against Oberon in that she has vacated Oberon’s bed; which by doing so she has attempted to actively remove herself from harm’s way of the abusive relationship she finds herself in at least for a time. As Marjorie Garber writes in Shakespeare After All,
“Because the wood world is a literalizing world, a world in which human ‘asses’ look like asses, the barrenness, and naturalism of Titania’s sexual abstinence is transferred to nature and weather of the country-side. We might bear in mind that the landscape, though officially Athens, looks a great deal like Shakespeare’s England. 220
It is here then where the audience is made aware of Titania’s choice of “fighting style,” Titania uses both her inherent power as a leader and her physical ability in an attempt to achieve what she desires to form her world. From a physical standpoint, this woman is powerful enough to control the weather and the natural order of the world that exist around her. The private part of herself as a character ultimately seems to work against her at the end of the play as she appears to surrender to her husband; but then again, her fight does not appear to be over just yet when the audience beholds her last.
The many-worlds found within the pages of Shakespeare’s work are presented not without their levels of complexity and mysticism. As Michael Taylor in his article “The Darker Purpose of A Midsummer Night’s Dream writes,
Does not the play, then, suggests that love is as much a dream as are the midsummer night’s happenings? And cannot this dream, comic, though it may be in this play, very easily be rocked into a nightmare? Shakespeare, of course, does not allow us to experience any more of this dream-as-night- mare than is sufficient to be grateful for the fact that it is not really dangerous. (272).
Likewise, the resilience found within the female characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and his works as a whole is found to be no different and perhaps they are echoes of so many women of the past, urging to crawl out from the past and enter into a new world and shake it by the shoulders.
Dash, Irene G. Women’s Worlds in Shakespeare’s Plays. Newark, Del., University of Delaware Press, 1997.
Howard, Skiles. “Hands, Feet, and Bottoms: Decentering the Cosmic Dance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 3, 1993, pp. 325–342. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2871422.
Garber, Marjorie B. “Shakespeare after all.” Shakespeare after all, Anchor Books, 2004. Pp.213-237
Greenblatt, Stephen; Shakespeare, William, et al. “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Norton Shakespeare: essential plays, the sonnets, 3rd ed., vol. 1, W.W. Norton & Co., 2016, pp. 209–267.Taylor, Michael. “The Darker Purpose of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 9, no. 2, 1969, pp. 259–273. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/449779.