A Midsummer Night's Dream
How we cite our quotes:
O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires,
Like to a step-dame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man revenue. (1.1.1)
This is weird and kind of random, don't you think? When Theseus gripes about having to wait so long for his wedding night with Hippolyta, he compares the moon to a greedy stepmother ("step-dame") or widow ("dowager"), spending all of her son's inheritance. Theseus's complaint seems directed at women in general, so we're immediately aware that the play will dramatize some gender tension.
Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword,
And won thy love, doing thee injuries;
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph and with revelling. (1.1.2)
It turns out that Theseus and Hippolyta are getting hitched because Theseus conquered Hippolyta's people, the Amazons. As we know, the Elizabethans were fascinated by classical myths about Amazons, women who cut or burned off their breasts so they could shoot a bow and arrow more efficiently, raised their daughters to be warriors, dominated their husbands, and treated their sons badly by sending them away, making them do "girlie" housework and/or by killing them.
Why does this matter? Well, because Amazons dominate men, they flip the traditional European gender system on its head. In Shakespeare's play, though, men regain their positions of power over women. (Theseus marries the Amazonian Queen he won in battle and, also, Oberon humiliates Titania and takes away her foster child). At least that's how literary critic Adrian Montrose sees it. He argues that A Midsummer Night's Dream "eventually restores the inverted Amazonian system of gender and nurture to a patriarchal norm."
Brain Snack: In one of Shakespeare's major sources (Plutarch's "The Life of Theseus"), Theseus easily beats the Amazons in battle and captures Hippolyta after luring her onto his boat. (According to Plutarch, Theseus is the McLovin of the ancient world, so Hippolyta could hardly resist his charms.) You can read the story here.
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. (1.1.3)
Egeus has arranged for his daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius but Hermia refuses because she's in love with Lysander. Egeus is enraged because, according to him, he can "dispose" of Hermia as he pleases. (Yikes!) Hermia's struggle against her father dramatizes the kind of situation in which young Elizabethan women often found themselves. In Shakespeare's day, young, unmarried women were considered their parents' property and were encouraged to obey their parents' wishes when it came to choosing a husband.
FYI – Shakespeare dramatizes this struggle between daughters and parents repeatedly: in The Taming of the Shrew, Baptista arranges Kate's marriage to Petruchio against her wishes; in The Merchant of Venice, Portia's dad sets up a lottery to determine who his daughter will marry; in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet's parents try to force her to hook up with Paris.