Well, This is Another Fine Patriarchal Mess You’ve Gotten Us Into

When we enter the world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we enter a clear patriarchy, a place where men (seemingly) rule, where the word of the father is law.

Speaking of their upcoming wedding, Theseus, Duke of Athens, tells Hippolyta,

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.

— I.i.16-19

Hippolyta is a spoil of war, wooed by Theseus’ sword, and won because Theseus was able to physically overcome (and injure) her.  Though he claims to want to change the tone (“key”) of their relationship, it is he who gets to decide how the wedding and its celebrations are to take place.  Note, too, that Theseus “wooed,” Theseus “won,” and Theseus “will wed” (ah, alliteration), but nowhere do we see love or desire, or even reciprocation or equality in action.

When Egeus arrives — “full of vexation” (I.i.22) — it is because he seeks governmental sanction for his proposed punishment in his legal “complaint // Against (his) child, (his) daughter Hermia” (I.i.22-23).  It’s interesting that he uses words (vexation and complaint) in his very first line that carry with them legalistic connotations or meanings (“The action of troubling or harassing by aggression or interference” and “A statement of injury or grievance laid before a court or judicial authority” both Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]); this diction implies that his “rights” as a father (particularly to a female child — as Egeus himself corrects himself to more specifically say “daughter”) are not just familial standards but community edicts as well.

This patriarchy is longstanding, as Egeus claims,

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.

— I.i.41-45

Again, Egeus’ diction here is measured, legal.  In ancient Rome (yes, I know this is Greece, but the classical definitions are often melded in the plays), a privilege was “A special ordinance having reference to an individual” (OED); while in Shakespeare’s day, “dispose” not only had a simple management connotation, but also “To regulate or govern in an orderly way; to order, control, direct, manage, command” (OED).  In other words, Egeus wants to use a special law to govern his daughter, “our law” — the law of fathers — which allows the father to doom his daughter to “death” if she disobeys the law.

If there was hope that Theseus, with his wedding just days way, might look at these matters with a more loving and forgiving perspective, that hope dies quickly as the Duke immediately asks,

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.

— I.i.46-51

Father as a god.  It doesn’t get more clear than that, unless it’s in Theseus’ proclamation that the father has the “power” to “disfigure” the daughter if he so chooses.  Furthermore, Theseus tells her,

For you, fair Hermia, look you arm yourself
To fit your fancies to your father's will;
Or else the law of Athens yields you up
(Which by no means we may extenuate)
To death, or to a vow of single life.

— I.i.117-121

which is wonderfully ironic, since it is the human women in this play who have the constant feelings of love; the men change their affections according to the pansy potion

Again, word choice here says all we need to know about the patriarchal perspective.  Hermia has “fancies,” which can mean anything from a “fantasy” to “imagination” to “a supposition resting on no solid grounds; an arbitrary notion” to a “caprice, (or) changeful mood” (all OED). Regardless of the specific meaning, all connotations are weak, subordinate to reality (and that last one speaks to a concept we’ve discussed before–the changing, capricious, fickle moods of women).

Hermia’s “fancies” are in opposition to her “father’s will,” which could mean

  • the movement or attitude of the mind which is directed with conscious intention to (and, normally, issues immediately in) some action, physical or mental; volition
  • intention or determination that something shall be done by another or others, or shall happen to take place; (contextually) an expression or embodiment of such intention or determination, an order, command, injunction (all OED)

Again, we see the subordinate nature of Hermia’s thoughts to the power of Egeus’ “volition,” “intention” and “command.”  Interesting, too, is Theseus’ perception of his own power: he (or in his royal second person) “may (not) extenuate” the punishment.  “Extenuate” is easy: “To lessen (a quality, etc.) in degree; to weaken the force of (a blow), mitigate (a law)” (OED).  More difficult is the use of “may”: it’s not that he CAN not overrule Egeus, Theseus feels that the law does not give Theseus the power to take such actions.

but more on that later… oooohhhh, foreshadowing

One (actually two) more quick examples of the patriarchal view in Athens: when Lysander discusses Helena in Act One, and Egeus points her out in Act Four, they both relate her to her father: “Nedar’s daughter, Helena” (I.i.107) and “old Nedar’s Helena” (IV.i.129), respectively.  Notice this reference come from the mouths of two men, firmly entrenched in the philosophy of fathers (though Egeus’ use is even more proprietary).

What happens in this fourth act, however, is a double-edged sword.  When Egeus demands punishment for Lysander and Hermia’s flight to the forest (and Demetrius states his newly re-found love for Helena), Theseus proclaims, “Egeus, I will overbear your will” (IV.i.178).  While it may appear that Theseus is destroying Egeus’ right of fatherhood and breaking the chain of patriarchal rule, this is really Theseus’ overruling Athenian law; his use of “overbear” is crucial–“To overcome, put down, or repress, as by power, authority, or influence; to overpower, oppress; to exercise an oppressive influence upon” (OED).  He has taken the authority to exercise oppressive influence upon even the fathers in Athens.  Thus, Theseus becomes the ultimate “father,” the symbolic one for his entire city-state (is it any wonder that Theseus is the legendary FOUNDER and king of Athens).

we’ve got to ask ourselves a question:  why the shift?  was Theseus already unsure of his decision in the first act?  in the first major speech of Theseus to Hermia above, the line following “disfigure” is a statement that “Demetrius is a worthy gentleman” (I.i.52).  that is a pretty radical shift in tone from a threat of disfigurement to a hint to possible happy marriage.  later, his statement that he “may” not be able to lessen the penalty is not as strong (in either a statement of helplessness or in conviction) as it might be.  so why the change in act four?  does Hippolyta have anything to do with this?  she does not speak to him in the opening scene after he delivers his edict.  in fact, he must ask her what is bothering her (“Come, my Hippolyta.  What cheer, my love?” [I.i.122]… again with the possessives!).  has she — an Amazon and a powerful woman — impressed upon him a different point of view, one that allows him later to free Hermia of her father’s rule (and grants Theseus an even greater sphere of influence)?

and one more thing: does this patriarchal system carry over to the fairy forest world, too?  because Oberon is upset that he has not had his way regarding the Indian changeling boy, the natural world is in chaos, the fairy world is at war, and he sets into motion the whole complication of the play: the pansy potion.  it’s only after he has the boy that all is set aright.

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