Study Guide

A Midsummer Night's Dream Gender

By William Shakespeare

Gender

Act 1, Scene 1
Theseus

THESEUS
Hippolyta, I wooed 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 reveling. (1.1.17-20)

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.

THESEUS
Take time to pause; and, by the nest new moon
(The sealing day betwixt my love and me,
For everlasting bond of fellowship),
Upon that day either prepare to die
For disobedience to your father's will,
Or else to wed Demetrius, as he would;
Or on Diana's altar to protest
For aye austerity and single life. (1.1.85-92)

Hermia is left with very few choices if she refuses to marry the man her father has chosen for her.  Here, we learn that she must either wed Demetrius or choose from the following: 1) become a nun, or 2) die.  It seems that Egeus and Theseus attempt to control Hermia's sexuality by trying to force her into an unwanted marriage or, alternatively, a nunnery, where she will be forced to live a life of "austerity." 

THESEUS
O, methinks how slow
This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires
Like to a stepdame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man's revenue. (1.1.3-6)

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.

THESEUS
What say you, Hermia? be advised fair maid.
To you your father should be as a god,
One that composed your beauties, yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.
Demetrius is a worthy gentleman. (1.1.47-53)

Theseus says that fathers are like "gods" and daughters are like globs of wax.  (This is a pretty common idea in 16th-century literature, where kids are often said to look like their fathers because they're "imprint[ed]" by their dads' images, much humans are said to be made in God's image.)  Here, Theseus's metaphor is sinister because he says that, because Egeus had the power to make Hermia in his own image, he also has the "power" to "disfigure" her (body/face) if he feels like it. 

Lysander

LYSANDER
You have her father's love, Demetrius.
Let me have Hermia's: do you marry him. (1.1.95-96)

Lysander makes a pretty good point here—Egeus and Demetrius get along far better than Demetrius and Hermia.  In fact, Hermia has been left out of the marriage negotiations altogether.  The contract has been put together by two men.

EGEUS
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. (1.1.42-46)

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.

Act 1, Scene 2
Flute

FLUTE
What is Thisbe?—a wand'ring knight?

QUINCE
It is the lady that Pyramus must love.

FLUTE
Nay, faith, let me not play a woman. I have a beard coming.

QUINCE
That's all one. You shall play it in a mask, and
you may speak as small as you will.

BOTTOM
An I may hide my face, let me play Thisbe too, I'll
speak in a monstrous little voice: "Thisne,
Thisne!"—"Ah, Pyramus, lover dear! thy Thisbe dear,
and lady dear!" (1.2.43-52)

When the Mechanicals discuss how Flute will cross-dress and play the role of Thisbe, we're reminded that all female roles were played by male actors on Shakespeare's stage.  Usually, these parts were given to prepubescent boys with high-pitched or "monstrous little" voices.  Shakespeare is always joking about this in his plays.

Act 2, Scene 1
Helena

HELENA
Ay, in the temple, in the town, the field,
You do me mischief. Fie, Demetrius!
Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex.
We cannot fight for love, as men may do.
We should be wooed and were not made to woo. (2.1.245-249)

Here, Helena points out that, even though it's not socially acceptable for women to be aggressive in the pursuit of love, she doesn't care. On the one hand, Helena acts like a creepy stalker when she chases Demetrius around after the guy's made it perfectly clear that he's not in love with her.  On the other hand, Helena's point about double standards raises an interesting question: Why is it OK for men to "fight for love" when women are expected to be passive?  Remember, Theseus literally won Hippolyta with his "sword" when he conquered her people (see quote #2).

Oberon

OBERON
Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.

TITANIA
What, jealous Oberon? Fairies, skip hence.
I have forsworn his bed and company.

OBERON
Tarry, rash wanton: am not I thy lord?

TITANIA
Then I must be thy lady. But I know
When thou hast stolen away from fairy land,
And in the shape of Corin sat all day (2.1.62-68)

King Oberon and Queen Titania's tumultuous relationship is often described as the ultimate "battle of the sexes."  Like Kate and Petruchio in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, the fairy King and Queen are constantly at each other's throats.  Their feud over Titania's foster child (Oberon wants him to be his private page but Titania won't give him up) is so fierce that it throws nature into disarray and causes the worst weather imaginable.

Act 3, Scene 2
Puck (a.k.a. Robin Goodfellow)

PUCK
My mistress with a monster is in love.
[...]
Titania waked and straightway loved an ass.

OBERON
This falls out better than I could devise. (3.2.6; 36-37)

Remember when we said that A Midsummer Night's Dream restores social order by reinstating traditional gender hierarchies?  Well, here's the evidence.  By sloshing the magic love juice in Titania's eyes, Oberon manages to make the Fairy Queen 1) fall in love with the ass-headed Bottom, and 2) give up her foster child to Oberon.  In other words, Oberon wins the battle of the sexes by humiliating Titania and stripping her of the mother-son relationship she enjoyed with the little "changeling" boy.