The Feminist Subtext of A Midsummer Night's Dream
Shakespeare's 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 Shakespeare's works have been researched but one of the most popular topics since the 1960s has been the portrayal of women in Shakespeare's tragedies, comedies, histories and sonnets.
In order to accurately describe the role of women in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, one must first explore the female characters in the text. Shakespeare's 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 Night's 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 men-her father, the king, and the male authors of Athenian law-to 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 Demestrius's 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....