Two Nights of Feminist Theories
The governing matriarchy of the Elizabethan era contrasted with England’s established ideals of patriarchal male power. The ascension of Elizabeth to the throne of England dramatically changed society on many levels. Since Shakespeare incorporated societal discourse into his writings, this shift in power inspired him to write about women’s status. Through the comedic lens of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Twelfth Night,” the deeper subject of feminist consciousness was at work. Shakespeare exposed preconceived notions of women as obedient to their husbands, their fathers, and their gender roles. Sexual equality, a new subject to the centuries old male hierarchy, gave way to a multitude of feminist ideas. Although Shakespeare wrote at a time when feminism itself was just coming into mainstream society, his characters Viola and Titania exemplify two of the currently dozens of diverse types of feminism. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Twelfth Night” are as relevant today as they were at the times of their original production in regards to women’s status; except there are now hundreds of years of theory that can be applied to what was, at the time of Shakespeare’s writing, a new concept.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” begins with a stalemate between daughter and father. Hermia loves Lysander but her father, Egeus, wants her to marry Demetrius. To resolve the situation, they all go before Theseus, the Duke of Athens. Egeus demands, “Relent, sweet Hermia, and Lysander, yield / Thy crazed title to my certain right…And she is mine, and all my right of her / I do estate unto Demetrius” (I. i. 91-2, 97-8). Women of this time were thought to be property of men, with the power over them changing from their fathers to their husbands, but never within or unto themselves.
At court, both Egeus and Theseus remind Hermia of the Athenian law. Egeus airs his grievance that she has “turn’d her obedience (which is due to me)... As she is mine, I may dispose of her; / Which shall be either to this gentleman, / or to her death, according to our law” (I. i. 37, 42-5). Theseus agrees with Egeus but adds an option “either to die the death, or to abjure / For ever the society of men. / Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires, / Know of your youth, examine well your blood, / Whether (if you yield not to your father’s choice) / You can endure the livery of a nun” (I. i. 65-70). Both men utilize exclusionary phrases in their speeches. “Our law” and “the society of men” both point out, as a woman, she must abide by laws which have been established by her oppressors and cannot be overthrown. Her decision to run away with Lysander and not conform to the patriarchal laws of Athens would make Hermia a feminist. Hermia’s actions might not appear extreme today, but Egeus’ reaction to them represents the absolute outrage and disbelief among fathers that their daughters did not want to be considered property.
Titania’s existence in the fairy world allows for her to be a strong female although Oberon wants her to obey him. She separates herself from him, stating “I have forsworn his bed and company” (II. i. 63). Titania’s refusal to forsake her changeling boy to Oberon causes him to drug and trick her. These actions exemplified the extremes of what husbands in Elizabethan England would go to in order to maintain control over their newly liberated wives. The placement of this trickery in the fairy world makes the situation less menacing than if it were to have been in the human world where it would have been more likely for the audience to think of domestic abuse. Titania’s role in this play is representative of an ecofeminist. An ecofeminist wants to “focus on human beings’ domination of the nonhuman world, or nature,” along with the domination of females by males (Tong 237). Titania tells Oberon that their arguments are disturbing nature. She says that
“with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport. / Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain, / As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea / Contagious fogs; which, falling in the land, / Hath every pelting river made so proud / That they have overborne their continents. / The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain, / The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn / Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard./ The fold stands empty in the drowned field, / And crows are fatted with the murrion flock; / The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud, / And the quaint mazes in the wanton green, / For lack of tread, are undistunguishable” (II. i. 87-100).
The fairy world is affecting the human world just as the feminist struggle is affecting the male dominant status quo. Also, as a female fairy Titania is doubly oppressed in that she is not male nor human.
Viola’s cross-dressing in “Twelfth Night” is the most obvious defiance of preconceived gender roles because it is physical in nature. Her assumption of the role of Cesario allows for her to be free of the restraints women were under at the time. While acting as the messenger for Duke Orsino, Olivia falls in love with Cesario/Viola, and later when she is revealed as a woman, Duke Orsino falls in love with Viola/Cesario. To add to the confusion, each of the female actors was actually a prepubescent boy dressed in women’s clothing. Each of these situations has underlying tones of lesbianism and homosexuality. The multiple levels of disguise allows for lines to be blurred regarding male /female as well as homo- / hetero- sexuality. Feminism is concerned with the oppression of all people and this defiance of compulsory heterosexuality would have fallen right in line with the oppression of women by men.
Viola’s actions as Cesario closely correlate to a current type of feminism referred to as radical-libertarian feminism. Radical-libertarian feminists believe “an exclusively feminine gender identity is likely to limit women’s development as full human persons” (Tong 50). They encourage “women to become androgynous persons, that is persons who embody both (good) masculine and (good) feminine characteristics, or more controversially, any potpourri of masculine and feminine characteristics, good or bad, that strikes their fancy” (Tong 50). Viola’s transvestism allowed for physical change but she retained her identity, (if only to herself) as a woman. She also did not use her male alter ego for “bad” purposes. Even if she would have, however, she still would be considered a radical-libertarian feminist.
The plays’ endings also reflect societal ideals of the time of production. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has such a dominant theme of patriarchy throughout the play, especially the theme of marriage as the ultimate achievement. The play ends with three marriages. The implication that children will follow ensures the continuation of male domination and women’s oppression. “Twelfth Night” however, has no domineering father or the heavy tone of patriarchy. The ending is disharmonious with the declaration of three marriages though they do not occur in the play. This is unsettling to an audience of the time because all is not resolved and order is not reinstated at the end of the play. This allows for the analysis of society’s changing ways and an audiences’ need for awareness of a shift occurring in the patriarchy.
Elizabeth’s crowning as Queen of England brought power to her female subjects. The male hierarchy was overthrown and the floodgates of feminist thought were opened. No longer were women to be thought of as property of fathers, submissive to husbands, and expected to fit centuries old ideals of gender roles. Shakespeare managed to capture a myriad of ways the status of women was being reconfigured without preference to any opinion of the time. His use of comedy allowed for an audience to be subjected to the situation without being serious. He gave multiple angles and changing outlooks to his characters to embody the many ways and differing opinions within society as a whole and within each individual.
Johnson, Dean, ed. Shakespeare Riverside Anthology. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1997.
Tong, Rosemarie. Feminist Thought 3rd.ed. Boulder: Westview Press, 2009.