November 10, 2000
The Feminist Subtext of Shakespeares Leading Ladies
Shakespeares works have persistently influenced humanity for the past four hundred years. Quotations from his plays are used in many other works of literature and some common phrases have even become integrated into the English language. Most high schoolers have been unsuccessful in avoidance of him and college students are rarely afforded the luxury of choice when it comes to studying the bard. Many aspects of Shakespeares works have been researched but one of the most popular topics since the 1960s has been the portrayal of women in Shakespeares tragedies, comedies, histories and sonnets.
In order to accurately describe the role of women in Shakespeares A Midsummer Nights Dream, one must first explore the female characters in the text. Shakespeares works had few females because women were not allowed to act in London in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Disregarding the standards imposed on women of his time, Shakespeare created many female characters that were strong-willed, intelligent, and daring. Hermia of A Midsummer Nights Dream is one such character. She disobeys her father, her king, and the Athenian law so that she might marry the love of her life. She discards all the luxuries of her familiar and comfortable existence for the uncertainties of a distant land in exchange for the freedom to love Lysander. The only complaint against Hermia by feminist critics stems from her willingness to defy one set of confinements derived and maintained by menher father, the king, and the male authors of Athenian lawto become the subordinate of yet another man. However, even though she rebels away from the limitations she ultimately runs towards, she is much more independent and admirable than her bosom buddy, Helena. Helena is desperate and pathetic in her attempts to love Demetrius. Being too lowly to ask for Demestriuss love, she instead begs to be in his presence saying,
I am your spaniel; and Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you:
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am to follow you.
These words and the entire alliance between Demetrius and Helena have the subtext of a sexually sadistic and masochistic relationship (Greene et al. 151). This correlation leaves little in Helena to be admired by feminist critics. Her only intelligent scene in the play spawns from her discovery of the Athenian lads infatuation with her as she screams, "Can you not hate me, as I know you do/ But you must join in souls to mock me too?" (III.ii.149-150).
Through Helena Shakespeare created a woman so pitiful and wretched that he openly mocked the modern sixteenth-century women who allowed themselves to be treated in such a manner. Had a man been the monarch of England when this play was written, the bard might have been more discrete in his support of feminism. Luckily, Queen Elizabeth was fond of autonomous women and showed little animosity towards such mockery.
The queen of fairyland, Titania is a deceivingly strong feminist at the opening of the show. She combats her counterpart, Oberon, with such a rage that diseases run rampant, seasons dangerously alter and all of humanity suffers from their discord. As a powerful and emancipated woman, she commands her own army of fairies and does not succumb to the persistent wishes of Oberon. Unfortunately, even as a deity she is fallible due to her sex. She inflicts her own sleep and in this venerability is entrusted to the protection of one inept guard who is overtaken by Oberon with menial effort on the gods part. From the moment of entrancement via Oberons potion, Titania is the epitome of weakness. She falls in unrestrained infatuation with a donkey and displays her affection so as to publicly ridicule herself. Only when her adornment of Bottom, who by no coincidence entomologically transforms into an ass, transgresses beyond the point of being grotesque does Oberon release her from the spell. She is nauseated by the vision of this half-breed donkey-man in her bed and turns to Oberon in meek embarrassment of her orgasmic acts instead of the anger rightfully expected for his fabrication of the entire ordeal. The character of Titania at the end of the play vastly differs from the goddess who fought viciously at its opening. She begins to act dolce, submissive, and humble as any good little goddess should.
The other two female characters are comparatively smaller roles, but no less significant in the feminist critics eye. Hippolyta is the conquered queen of the Amazon whose marriage to Theseus may or may not have been eagerly anticipated on her behalf. She shows no restraint, discounting the history of her recently crushed empire, but she displays no real excitement either. After her marriage to Theseus she maintains some independence which is demonstrated by sarcastically disagreeing with her spouse concerning the merits of actors. He comments on the use of ones imagination to compensate for poor acting and she retaliates stating, "It must be your imagination then, and not theirs" (V.i.13-14). Depending on interpretation of the Amazon Queens line, one can assume Hippolyta had not been conquered in spirit and would not be trodden over in her marriage as she was in defense of her kingdom.
The only other woman written into the script is Thisbe, the leading lady of Shakespeares play within a play, or mousetrap performance. Placing all hideous acting on Flutes behalf aside, the character of Thisbe is a reflection of both Romeos Juliet and Midsummers Hermia in her determination and strength in rebelling her fathers wishes, though Thisbe shows no signs of either Juliets or Hermias wit (or taste in lovers for that matter).
Knowing this array of female characters in A Midsummer Nights Dream builds a base for analyzing Shakespeares perspective on feminism but does not begin to answer the question of Shakespeares view of women. By analyzing female bonds one can derive more insight on Will Shakespeares outlook (Kolin 40-41). A prime example of a contorted friendship lies in the relationship between Hermia and Helena. These ladies had been like sisters in their love for each other and yet Helena betrays Hermia by relating Lysanders plans of eloping with Hermia to Demetrius. By doing so Helena displays her own stupidity for without Hermia in Athens Demetriuss admiration may have returned to Helena, but she would rather risk the marriage and life of her best friend for a lone word of thanks from her love. She shows her jealousy by stating, "How happy some oer other some can be!" (I.i.225). Still one cannot justify her actions to be anything less than blind foolishness attributed to low I.Q.
Through this relationship Shakespeare demonstrated his belief that some women are as daft and dippy as Helena and Thisbe while others can be as intelligent and brave as Hermia and Hippolyta. This theme was reiterated as Titania narrated her story of woe over her dearest friend in India who was stripped of mortal life while giving birth to an Indian prince. In this case both women are portrayed as carefree, wise and in a state of bliss probably due to the fact that there is no male figure to disturb the peace. This tale also explains Titanias reluctance to give the boy to Oberon and reflects her own limitations as a goddess for her inability to prevent the death of her only real friend. Typical sexism is shown by Oberons success in gaining this boy, for society can not allow a woman to rear a prince for he should romp and play and not be adorned with flowers by foolish women. The boy, and all boys in general, should "trace the forests wild" in a train of mischievous lads (II.i.25).
One of the most mischievous lads in all of Shakespeares works is Midsummers character of Puck. Puck is neither a fairy nor a deity, but has abilities that lie somewhere between these two distinctions. Puck differs in that he does not take a human form, but is usually the image of an elf or male nymph. He leads the life young lads desire and grown men remember with glee. Puck is a prankster who curdles fresh milk, topples chairs from under old women, misleads night wanderers only to laugh at their folly and frustration, and performs innumerable other knavish acts of injustice all in the name of fun. Though Shakespeares characters are frequently scripted to perform cross-gender roles in the playing out of their lives, by cross-gender casting traditionally male roles an entirely new element is added to the themes of the play (Kolin 6-7). For example, as played by a male, the character of Puck is the mans dream of youth and harmless trouble. If this role is undertaken by a female and likewise played as such, Puck evolves more to a modern day sexual fantasy, which could even include a hint of homosexuality as Puck encounters Titanias fairy in the woods. As a woman, Puck becomes infinitely intriguing. The relationship between Oberon and Puck is re-evaluated and much of the dialogue between the two denotes sexual connotations. The discord between Titania and Oberon breaches another level of inflamed jealousy, he still of her changeling boy and she now of Puck. The same playfulness that defined the male character of Puck transforms from simple knavery to delightful evil in the female version. She becomes an ideal feminist as she disagrees with her higher-ranking officer yet suffers no repercussions for her deeds. She obeys the orders of her king, but is by no means submissive in her actions. Indeed Puck as a woman has many traits of Shakespeares strongest female characters and none of their faults. Because Puck is non-human, Shakespeare had no need to create a realistic, well-rounded character and Robin Goodfellow enjoys the freedom of perfection. For even the practical jokes this hobgoblin performs are lovable and because they are remedied before they become harmful, Puck is not faulted for the turmoil he/she causes. Feminists enjoy Puck as a woman because she is infallible and by far the most resilient of Shakespeares female characters.
Feminists truly enjoy all of Shakespeares women. Even though some are annoyingly submissive, the mockery of these women counteracts any animosity felt by feminist critics. Queen Elizabeth I certainly influenced many of Shakespeares plays and characters and he may have become more feminist due to his desire to please her. The general public may also have preferred strength in female characters as a reflection of pride for their beloved monarch who was one of the few highly competent English rulers in spite of her gender and the sexism of the time in which she lived. Regardless of his reasoning for scripting women the way he did, Shakespeare was most certainly an advocate for feminism when he wrote A Midsummer Nights Dream. From the feminist perspective, liberal thinking and open-mindedness like William Shakespeares are welcome to invade our modern literature and lives for the next four hundred years.
Greene, Lenz, Neely, eds. The Womans Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1980.
Kolin, Philip C. Shakespeare and Feminist Criticism. NY: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1991.
Shakespeare, William. Four Comedies: A Midsummer Nights Dream, As You Like It, The Tempest, Twelfth Night. NY: Washington Square Press, Inc., 1962.