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Profesora: Magister María del Valle Bulla de Molina

Año 2008
Women’s defiance of social standards in A Midsummer
Night’s Dream: illusion or reality?
Women’s defiance of social standards in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedy written by William

Shakespeare. In this particular work, through all the conventions
usually present in a comedy, the playwright depicts the situation of
two female characters, whose specific conditions within the play,
serve to reflect certain aspects of the reality Elizabethan women had
to face and act upon.

For most critics, the crucial viewpoint that creates the

conditions under which Elizabethan women lived is that they were
considered inferior to men. According to this, different features are
implied within this concept of women’s inferiority. One of them was
that women were regarded as property
( Moreover, women were
treated as mere objects, being disposed of by their families to attain
wealth and power through marriage
( Another issue
was obedience, which was present throughout women’s entire lives,
during singleness as well as in marriage. Women from Elizabethan
Times were expected to obey their parents and husbands. Male
figures were predominant. During single life, it was the fathers who
decided who their daughters should marry, while marriage meant
obedience to their husbands (

Finally, there was the oppression. In a cultural imperialism, the

dominant group redefines and establishes stereotyped images of the
others as a norm. In this way, the subordinate culture has to conform
to those images and to internalize them. And as a result, differences
are reconstructed as inferiority (
It is also possible for the oppressor to maintain this oppression
through verbal interaction (
Therefore, it is interesting that Katherine Koci notices how for
Elizabethan women silence was considered a virtue, and their verbal
self assertion was associated with sexual self assertion

Broadly speaking, Elizabethan women’s highest aspiration was

to become obedient housewives and mothers
( Consequently, society made
them believe that it was their ultimate goal in life. Shakespeare’s A
Midsummer Night’s Dream certainly supports this in that the
conclusion of the play depends on a process by which the women and
their unfit passions are dominated by men through marriage

The purpose of this work is to show in A Midsummer Night’s

Dream how two female characters, Hermia and Hippolyta face the
reality of the social conventions of obedience imposed on Elizabethan
women, opposing them, though in the end, they go back under those
same conventions through marriage.

Theseus, duke of Athens is preparing for his wedding with

Hippolyta, queen of the amazons, whom he has been taken captive.
They have a different attitude towards their forthcoming wedding.
Theseus will marry Hippolyta within four days. Hermia is brought by
her father Egeus to the duke’s presence because she refuses to marry
the man her father has chosen for her, since she claims she is in love
with Lysander. As a consequence, Theseus tells Hermia that she has
to either marry the man her father chose, or face death or live in a
nunnery. Therefore, she is given time until the Duke’s wedding day to
decide. However, Hermia and Lysander plan to escape to another
place outside the duke’s jurisdiction, and seek refuge with Lysander’s
aunt to marry there. They meet in the woods in order to escape.
There, in the woods, occur a series of confusing events involving the
four lovers. Meanwhile, Hippolyta and Theseus go on a hunt and come
near the woods. After the time the lovers spend in the woods, they
are found by Theseus, who grants Hermia his permission to marry
Lysander, thus overruling her father Egeus, and disposes that their
weddings be celebrated on the same day as theirs.

To start with, women’s inferiority to men is not only restricted to

the Elizabethan Period. Accordingly, Morton Deutsch asserts that the
Christian tradition as well as Hinduism, Islamism and the Orthodox
Jewish shared the belief in female inferiority. As a consequence,
History, made by great men, the law of nature with the survival of the
fittest, the will of god, through the literal or manipulated
interpretation of the word of god by few men; science, the criteria of
art, and even language, as well as social institutions have been used
to legitimize superiority over either of women or groups that
constitute minorities (

On the same line of thought, during Elizabethan Times,

specifically, men were thought superior. Therefore, they had more
needs and they were entitled to fulfill them. On the contrary, women
had less needs and did not need freedom

In all respects, women were regarded as property and thus

treated as possessions which could be disposed of without any
regards of their preferences. In addition, women were controlled by
fashion and their status in society was also determined by how well
they could present themselves wearing fine clothes and make up,
being this perceived as a success of their husbands. Moreover, the
dowry shows up to what extent a woman’s being and existence was
not enough in itself, since she needed to make up for her lack of self
value with material goods. Ironically, the husband usually set his
household with it and profited from the dowry during marriage (

Certainly, for Elizabethan women, being obedient was

equivalent to being accepted and acceptable. Women were expected
to obey the males around them. So fathers, brothers and husbands
infringed physical punishment in case of disobedience, for
disobedience was considered sinful. Definitely, It was a patriarchal
society where men used power and dominance over women
( For the Puritans, a woman’s
attempt to change the role imposed on her by God was considered
sinful. Socializing and indoctrinating institutions kept the oppressed
aware of the punishment for disobedience and of the afterlife reward
for enduring suffering ( Although
marriage implied obedience and a submissive attitude; all women
desperately sought a husband, since the only alternative to marriage
was being a spinster ( Moreover, singleness
meant that any man could dominate them. Unfortunately, it also
meant that they were likely to be considered witches.

Essentially, the oppression caused by Elizabethan male

dominance over women is an example of civilized oppression.
However, this type of oppression is the result of often unconscious
assumptions and reactions, usually supported by cultural stereotypes
and by structural features of bureaucratic hierarchies that is
systematically reproduced (
Thus conceived, the power to control others depends not only on
having but also on using the appropriate resources to maintain the
situation of oppression (

One way of maintaining oppression is through verbal interactive

power. Consequently, Deutsch claims that interactive power gives the
oppressor the prerogative of dominating interaction, initiating it or
ending it, expecting a reasonable answer to certain questions,
demanding the right of being listened to. Besides, all this has the
effect of reinforcing both images: that of the powerful as powerful and
that of the weak as weak and inferior
( However, one way of
increasing one’s own power is within oneself, not letting the
oppressor humiliate his victim in public. If the oppressed has a
positive view of him he will want to challenge the oppressor

From every point of view, silence was at the same time one of
Elizabethan women’s virtues as well as a means of oppression. Thus,
a woman who could keep her thoughts and opinions to herself, and
expressed them only when she was asked, was considered the
perfect companion and wife. On the contrary, verbal self assertion
was associated with sexual self assertion
( Therefore, a woman’s
expressing of her will was considered a challenge against the
established standards.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermia, with her behavior and

defiance of the realities she faces, walks a path progressing towards
the achieving of what she desires: marrying the man of her choice. In
this journey, three phases stand out.

The first phase shows the implications and consequences of

defying the established standards of obedience, mainly, causing the
whole system to react against Hermia. This stage gives the
opportunity to see how a daughter’s obedience or disobedience could
turn her fate around and how little her own wishes and desires
mattered. In her essay “Feminism in a Patriarchal society”, Katherine
Koci states that Egeus as well as Theseus are representative of the
Elizabethan natural order; they exemplify the patriarchal societal
relationship between men and women as they use power and
dominance over women. So it was a fixed order: men gave commands
and women had to obey. Actually, it is Hermia’s reaction with her bold
disobedience what causes the unbalance and the disturbance of this
pre established order, and the behaviour of every male involved in
the situation, shows how they cannot help it to be emotionally altered
by her provocative and insolent reaction. Naturally, defiance meant
the whole system would turn against the person who dared break it.
In the beginning of the play, Hermia’s first verbal interference
while her father is complaining in front of the Duke is to state a
simple but strong belief, that the man she loves is as worthy as the
one her father has chosen: ‘So is Lysander’ (I,i, 54 ). Hermia’s
defiance causes a strong reaction in her father. Next, Egeus reminds
her of her due obedience with a reply that cannot hide his anger at
his daughter`s conduct. Therefore, with his: ‘Full of vexation come I
‘(I,i, 23), Egeus illustrates how the girl’s contradictory attitude has
affected him, because he has already made a decision for her: ‘This
man hath my consent to marry her’(I,i, 26). For him, His decision is
beyond any questionable possibility, so he cannot comprehend that
Lysander: ‘Turned her obedience which is due to me’ (I,i,38). Egeus’
position is backed by Theseus’ reply: ‘Therefore, fair Hermia, question
your desires, / Know of your youth, examine well your blood (I,i, 69-
70). Theseus, also supports Demetrius’ worth and right to marry
Hermia, on the basis that he has been chosen by her father: ‘Wanting
your father’s voice, / The other must be held the worthier.’ (I, i, 56-

In this Elizabethan context, Hermia’s desires are disregarded:

‘Rather your eyes must with his judgment look’ (I,i,59). The
conviction of women’s obligation to obey the decision made by the
men in charge of them was so strong that Egeus claims it as his right
to ask for her death, unless she makes up her mind: ‘ Shall be either
to this gentleman or to her death’(I,i, 44 - 45). The Duke’s and her
father’s attitude illustrate how a woman’s life lost its worth as soon as
she did not do what was asked of her: ‘…either prepare to die for
disobedience to your father’s will’ (I,i, 88). Even Egeus refers to
Hermia as if she were an object of his possession: ‘As she is mine, I
may dispose of her/ (I,i, 43). Accordingly, Theseus’ words show that
the bond between father and daughter was a tie mainly made up of
fear, a god who is not obeyed turns into a terrible threat since he is
mighty and can exert his power: ‘To you your father should be as a
god ’( I,i, 48).
When oppression is exercised, opposition tends to be the usual
reaction. In Javier Diaz Soria’s opinion, Hermia thinks she has the
right to choose who to marry ( In
rejecting what has been imposed on her, Hermia goes against the
Elizabethan natural order. Like every woman of her times, Hermia
knew her place and situation in regards the world around her. Yet, she
shows confidence and courage. She dares to break the expected
silence by expressing herself as freely as the circumstances allow her:
‘I do entreat your Grace to pardon me’. (I,I, 60). She tries to make up an
excuse for herself by pretending she does not know what she is doing.
Therefore, her: ‘I do not know by what power I am made bold,’ (I,I,
61) is in fact saying she does know what impels her to speak: her own
self and her individuality she has discovered thanks to the love she
feels. That is actually what makes up for her boldness. Surprisingly,
Hermia is a young woman fully aware of herself and the situation she
is in: ‘Nor how it may concern my modesty In such a presence here
to plead my thoughts;’ (I,i, 62-63 ).

In the second phase, Hermia decides for herself in front of her

father and the Duke, who have the power to sent her to a nunnery or
to put her to death, showing how strong and willing to endure the
consequences of her decisions has she become. Two moments are
important in this second phase, the first one is when she simple
states that is ready to put up with the consequences of her decision:
‘So will I grow, so live, so die, my lord (I,i, 81). The second moment is
even more essential to the developing of her journey towards
obtaining what she wants, because at this point Hermia acts upon her
wish. She takes actual control of her life, and is now determined to
escape with her lover, to be the author of her own destiny. This can
be read in her promise to meet Lysander in the woods. Notice, how
above all, it is the love she feels for him what prompts her answer and
helps her take out the strength from inside her heart to carry out her
intention: ‘In that same place thou hast appointed me / Tomorrow
truly I will meet with thee.’(I, i, 180-181).
The third phase takes place as Hermia actually marries the man
she wants, though there are two contradictory sides to it. On the one
hand, Hermia obtains what she wants, since after the confusing
events in the woods she is finally married to Lysander. On the other
hand, her marriage has not being the result of all her opposition and
struggle against the male dominance system that operates for the
women of her times. Thus, Hermia’s happy ending takes place thanks
to that established order she is immersed in.

Hermia is definitely a character who represents Elizabethan

women, for she lives a situation which was common for young
unmarried ladies. Nevertheless, she symbolizes, if not a conscious
awareness of a situation of oppression, at least the necessity of
reassuring herself through her own words and actions. And even
though her marriage is not the consequence of everything she does
to obtain what she wants, it is worth noticing that she actually ends
up having exactly what she started fighting for: the love of her live,
her Lysander. However, her journey towards freedom from oppression
is as short and as deceiving that it only leads her back to another
submissive situation which is marriage. It is at this point that she
fully shows a woman of her times, she has been raised to marry, to
become an obedient and dutiful wife. Thus, in defying the rules and
trying to oppose them, she is only desperately running back to where
she begun. In the end, everything falls back into place according to
the rules of her times. Hermia goes back to being accepted and
acceptable, for she will become somebody’s respectful and obedient
wife. She has married due to the strongest institution of oppression of
her times, the supreme authority of the Duke, who represents the
highest expression of power, and who imposes his will and dominance
over everyone else: ‘Of this discourse we more will hear anon. Egeus,
I will overbear your will (IV,I, 182).

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hippolyta has been captured by

Theseus and is now forced into marriage, facing a situation of
oppression that she needs to deal with. As a result, she decides to
endure her captivity in a way that will defend and maintain her
dignity, which is through interactive self assertion, her attitude and
language being her principal and only means of doing so. For Morton
Deutsch, civilized oppression is the result of often unconscious
assumptions and reactions of well-meaning people in every day
interactions, usually supported by cultural stereotypes and by
structural features of bureaucratic hierarchies
( Consequently, dominance can
be exercised through verbal interaction, though actions of oppression
do not always meet an act of submission as a response. Theseus does
take advantage of his position of authority. However, in this particular
case, Hippolyta reacts not with submission but with defiance, with a
subtle way of using her speech. According to Katherine Koci,
Hippolyta reacts choosing silence as part of an aristocracy game in
which she uses some restraint to keep Theseus taking her into
consideration (

In Hippolyta and Theseus’ dialogues, there are three stages of

verbal interaction. These stages are important to demonstrating how
Hippolyta gains verbal space and presence during their exchange, so
as to change the tone and lower the tension between her and the
duke. There are differences in those three moments, regarding who
initiates and maintains the dialogue, concerning the tension of the
situation and the topic of the conversation.

Referring to Act I scene I and offering a wider view on the

issues exposed in their first interaction, Aileen Liu claims that in the
opening conversation, the themes of gender power struggle and the
power in marriage are established. It shows a different interpretation
of time by both, and the problematic nature of their relationship. It
has been shaped by violence, and love seems not to be part of it. It is
Theseus who reminds her of the circumstances that led them to
marriage, and this reminder becomes also a threat. For them,
marriage is a tense situation in which Theseus asserts his power over
Hippolyta ( Their marriage is
the result of a violent act and it is a political maneuver, humiliating
and denigrating for the bride. There is an imbalance, seen in the
language they use from the beginning, that needs to be solved, and
this task is taken up by Hippolyta.

In the first stage Hippolyta and Theseus are involved in a

situation of tension and struggle regarding their forthcoming wedding.
On the one hand, Theseus is anxious and eagerly looking forward to
their wedding. The tension between them is established by the
contrast of the words he uses against the ones she chooses. Theseus
speaks of a nuptial hour: ‘Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour …/ (i.i,1),
thus reminding us of the illusion of a lover’s wedding night, the hour
in which the lovers actually show their love for one another in the
intimacy of their chamber. According to this, he complains of how
slowly the moon wanes, that is how slow the time passes not bringing
that expected moment any closer. Therefore, he expresses himself
accordingly: ‘O, methinks how slow / This old moon wanes! she
lingers my desires,’ (I,i, 3-4). On the other hand, Hippolyta seems to
see her marriage with the Duke as part of an inevitable destiny,
something she cannot prevent from taking place. And the inevitability
and the fate like view she has of her marriage are implied within her
reply: ‘Four days will quickly steep themselves in night; Four nights
will quickly dream away the time (I,i,7-8). Those few days are quickly
leading her from the brightness of her maiden days to the darkness of
her solemn wedding: ‘Shall behold the night of our solemnities (I,i,10-
11). She is tense, and so her words let it show: ‘And the moon, like to
a silver bow / New bent in heaven,.’ (I,i, 9 - 10). A silver bow, it might
be her heart, or perhaps her will, both cold like silver and both bent,
obliged to be in a position which is not natural, and which in order to
be kept that way, it needs to be held with strength, perhaps the
strength exercised by Theseus to capture and maintain her as his
At this point in the play, the power of initiating interaction is still
on Theseus’ hands and he exerts it for the second time: ‘Hippolyta, I
wooed thee with my sword. And won thy love by doing thee injuries;
(I,i, 17 – 20). He is actually proud of having made Hippolyta his
winning prize. Yet, there is the contradictory combination of woo and
love on the one hand, and sword and injuries on the other; being
wooed by the sight of someone actually means that love will gently
flow afterwards, and with it anything may come but swords and
injuries. Even his wedding will be another chance for him to show his
glory and the trophy he has won for himself, a wife who will be
exhibited as though she were a mere object of his possession, without
any regards on her wanting to marry him or not: ‘But I will wed thee
in another key/ With pomp, with triumph, and with reveling. (I,I, 17 –
20). Another key is not a different attitude than that of the power and
dominance he has exercised so far; it is just changing the sword and
injuries for the brightness of celebration of an imposed wedding. The
last time Theseus addresses Hippolyta in Act I as he is dismissing
Egeus; he is concerned with the change in her mood: `Come, my
Hippolyta. What cheer my love?’ (I,i,124).

The second stage is about giving and taking, negotiating and

coming to an agreement, just like in any woman and man
relationship, progressing towards understanding and to less tense
verbal interaction. Though different as their pasts have been, their
concord can still be reached. Differences and similarities between
Theseus and Hippolyta find an expression in this dialogue. They both
like hunting, but not both of them have had the same experiences.
Hippolyta has felt the glory of riding and hunting with higher heroes,
while Theseus is now offering her the joy of their hunting together. In
Act IV scene I, Theseus tries to impress his future queen as he uses
language that focuses on concord versus discord, giving a sense of
what permeates their relationship and it is one of the themes within
the play. On the one hand, there is love and music: ‘My love shall hear
the music of my hounds. (IV,i, 109), though the music is confusing and it
comes from animals. On the other hand, it all seems to lead to
harmony: ‘We will, fair queen, up to the mountains top’ (IV,i,112), the
duke and his queen going up the same path. So the tone of the
interaction changes at this point.

Hippolyta’s reply, being longer than her previous responses,

yields two important notes. Firstly, she uses the name of her previous
hunting companion, letting Theseus notice how he is not of their
match: ‘I was with Hercules and Cadmus once / When in a wood of Crete
they bayed the bear / With hounds of Sparta. / (IV,i,115 – 117). By telling
him this, she reminds Theseus of the lower place he occupies in
regards to Hercules. However, after their shared like for hunting is
marked, she lets her tone change and be soothed. After all she will
become queen of Athens and there is more advantage in
diplomatically taking the safe road of agreeing with him at last.

Theseus boats of his Spartan hounds: ‘My hounds are bred out of
the Spartan kind;’ (IV,i,122), which are famous for their value and worth,
and which will ensure the future couple’s success in hunting.
Metaphorically in what regards his relationship with Hippolyta,
Theseus is in a hunting match, at this point he is boasting of the best
he has to carry out their hunting/marriage days that lay ahead. Thus
we see another change in attitude, He is now willing to offer her
something, not just take her as he has previously done, but to indulge
her: ‘So flewed, so sanded; and their heads are hung / With ears that sweep
away the morning dew;/………Thessalian bulls’(IV,I,123 – 125). Moreover,
he is now actually taking her into consideration her: ‘Judge when you
hear’ (IV,i, 130). Theseus still initiates the interaction, but the tension
has been lowered. Deutsch asserts that one way of increasing one’s
own power is within oneself, not letting the oppressor succeed in
imposing his own definition of the oppressed, or humiliating his victim
in public ( So far Hippolyta has
succeeded in not being publicly humiliated, and their verbal
interaction has lost the crude tone of injuries and weapons.
The third stage shows the disappearance of any tension in the
dialogues between Theseus and Hippolyta. We see that the topic
developed by the future marriage couple is about love, the core
reason to marriage: ‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains’
(V,i,5). And though, it may be not their own love they speak about, it
is a leading excuse to a happy mood and a more appropriate
disposition towards their wedding night. In Act V, scene I, the third
stage of interaction between Theseus and Hippolyta, the lovers have
been found and they are now happily matched. Hippolyta takes the
initiative of the verbal interaction at his point: ‘Tis strange my
Theseus, that this lovers speak /of (V,i,1-2). The topic connects
fantasy, love and poetry, and so we find it in Theseus’ reply: ‘The
lunatic, the lover, and the poet, /Are of imagination all compact’ (V,i,
8-9) .With her reply Hippolyta does not only agree with Theseus but
also has the final word for the first time: ‘But howsoever, strange and
admirable’. (V,i, 28).

Analyzing her journey, we see how Hippolyta began a prisoner

of and a future wife to her captor. However, she succeeded in finding
a way of opposing this situation of oppression. And, like in her own
words: ‘Strange and admirable’ as it is, her story shows how men and
women, most of the times, have the means of deciding how they want
their relation to be, and whatever means they use, they can shape it
to their own necessity. In this case, Hippolyta, through verbal
interaction did help herself to be acknowledged by Theseus in a way
that led to agreement by both of them. On the other hand, she merely
changed one situation of imprisonment for another of submissiveness,
which is marriage, though we can say that her behavior made it a
happier marriage than what it looked it would be like at the
beginning. Surprisingly, by the end of the play, Hippolyta has become
the wife who follows after she is called upon: ‘Come, Hippolyta’. (IV, i,
190). And by doing this, however relaxed and happy she can seem,
she has come to fit the standards of what is expected of an obedient
and acceptable queen.
Strong, determined, submissive and daring at the same time,
Hermia and Hippolyta have taken a step forward to overcome and
oppose certain conventions of obedience of her times. Hermia is in
love with Lysander and she wants to marry him, though in the end, it
means that she will change one socially imposed form of oppression
for another. On the other hand, there is Hippolyta, a prisoner under
male dominance, who chooses a way of keeping her individuality in
front of Theseus and of being acknowledged by him, not only as a
winning prize but as his queen to be. Nevertheless, at the end of the
play Hippolyta has not only accepted marriage, but also agreed to live
her life with a man who has caused her harm in order to dominate
her. Perhaps the question to ask is: Was it all worth it if they are
trapped again under male dominance? For some of us, the answer
may be no. However, the question being: Did Hermia obtain what she
wanted? Or Did Hippolyta surrender herself, her individuality and her
status as queen? The answer might be different. What we should
perhaps keep in mind is that, these women were not at any time
willing or determined to change or revolutionize the world around
them. They were only pursuing their own happiness, even if it meant
returning to oppression in the form of marriage. In the end, both,
Hermia and Hippolyta, showed the most intelligent women, for they
did not just go straight into marriage, but into a happier and more
promising relationship which they have definitely in Hippolyta’s case
shaped or in Hermia’s chosen for themselves.

Elizabeth Dulce

MUNº 2145

Shakespeare, William “A Midsummer Night’s Dream “


Works cited

Choynowsky Briana, Elizabethan Women.

Del Campo Frederik Martin, Feminist interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s


Deutsch Morton Forms of oppression; Maintaining oppression; Overcoming

oppression; The Nature and origins of oppression (2005).

Diaz Javier Soria, Women’s oppression in Elizabethan Times.

Koci Katherine, Feminism in a Patriarchal society.

Liu Ailen, Love and Marriage Go Together Like a Horse and Carriage.