Feminist And Queer Perspectives In Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night’s Dream shows the conflict between feminism and male dominance through themes of marital or sexual subjugation, as well as female rebellion. This essay applies Feminism and Queer Theory to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Werner (2005) notes that with regard to feminism, both historians as well as practitioners have rarely been able to agree or speak to each other in constructive ways. This is also seen in the arguments put forth by Sanchez (2012), who shows the distinction within feminist critiques themselves wherein feminists have been unable to agree on the role of sex in diluting or emphasising feminism. Feminists have either seen sex as degrading to women, or as empowering or a matter of choice (Sanchez, 2012). Therefore, there is a complexity in the relations between men and women, and indeed between other manifestations of sexual relations, which are brought out in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is the reason why feminism theory and Queer theory is applicable to the analysis of this Shakespearean drama.

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The beginning of the play itself sets the tone for the conflict between men and women, when Theseus says: “Hippolyta I wooed thee with my sword And won thy love doing thee injuries And I will wed thee in another key- With pomp, with triumph, with revelling” (1.i.16-19).

In this statement, we find the underlying currents of male dominance overtly displayed by Theseus who uses force to woo Hippolyta and then announces that he will wed her after having won her in this manner with pomp and triumph. One can surmise that the use of the word triumph is akin to the use of the word in a battle of war with enemy, as this can be the continuance of the force with which Hippolyta is won by him. From a feminist perspective, it may be noted that marriage between Theseus and Hippolyta is a continuation of military domination by the man over the woman (Loomba, 2016, p. 182). This domination is countered by the entry of the militant and rebellious Hermia, who provides the feminist counter to the patriarchal overtones of Theseus. Another rebellious female character is that of Titania the fairy queen, who is refusing to part from her changeling boy and is also refusing to be with her husband; however, her husband, Oberon, eventually masters her and gets the changeling boy from her. After this, the wedding festivities of Theseus and Hippolyta proceed. These festivities mark the domination of man over woman, the latter having rebelled but lost to the power of the man (Levine, 1996); and in a way that is culturally acceptable to all, as noted by Puck:

“Jack shall go to Jill, Naught shall go to ill, The man shall have his mare again, And all shall be well” (III.ii.461-4).

These lines suggests the cultural appropriateness of a situation where all is well only when the man has the woman and his ‘mare’. In other words, for order to prevail, the social conditions should be such that women, especially those that are unruly, rebellious and argumentative, are brought under control of their male masters and husbands (Weltsek, 2005). The institution of marriage is the socially recognised and accepted institution, and it is one in which the husband is the dominant party and the one who keeps order. The social acknowledgement of the importance of marriage is signified by the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta, the latter having to be won by sword and injuries for Theseus to declare his triumph in a wedding ceremony. The social acknowledgement of male dominance over woman in a marriage is seen in the relationship between Oberon and Titania, the latter having been brought under control by her husband.

The Oberon-Titania relationship is also more complex because of the fight over the changeling boy, whom both Oberon and Titania desire and who comes under Oberon’s control eventually. Control over the changeling boy not only signifies the control over Titania, but also a different kind of sexual relationship between Oberon and the boy (Green, 2001, p. 375). This is also seen in the statement by Oberon: “Now I have the boy, I will undo. This hateful imperfection of her eyes” (VI.i.62-3).

The Queer theory emerged in the 1980s, and it has stressed the “limitations inherent in privileging the gender of object choice as the only marker of sexual normativity” (Sanchez, 2012, p. 494). A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a complex text that explores affects and practices that are contrary to the cultural ideals of friendship, marriage, procreation and chastity. The erotic fantasies that are depicted in the drama are contrary to the ideals of normativity, both in the traditional and feminist sense (Sanchez, 2012). Nevertheless, the overarching message of the drama is that the normative heterosexual desire has at times to undergo certain deviation or corruption before arriving at the socially acceptable position of heterosexuality (Colebrook, 2009). That this position is achieved even by doing women injuries, as is the way for winning Hippolyta’s love by Theseus, and Egeus, and Demetrius, is not seen to be something that is wrong (Calderwood, 1991).

The relationship between Helena and Hermia has undertones of sexual activity as noted in the words of Helena who contrasts the gentle and serene quality of their love with what Hermia chooses to replace it with in a relationship of violence and domination by man (as perceived by Helena). Helena’s words echo staunch feminist perspective of the modern period, which sees love between women as being purer and gentler as compared to love between a man and a woman, which is lustful, dominating and degrading to women. This is seen in the following description by Helena of her past relationship with Hermia:

“Two lovely berries moulded on one stem; So, with two seeming bodies but one heart, Two of the first—like coats in heraldry, Due but to one and crowned with one crest. And will you rent our ancient love asunder. To join with men in scorning your poor friend? It is not friendly, ’tis not maidenly. Our sex, as well as I, may chide you for it, though I alone do feel the injury” (3.2.203–19).

Helena is reproaching Hermia by contrasting what they had together – a perfect harmony and oneness of union, with what Hermia is seeking in a relationship with man. Helena says that Hermia leaving her for a man is unmaidenly and it is something that Hermia can be chided for not only by Helena but by their sex in general. This is a very feminist perspective in the modern sense, although in Shakespeare’s times, there wasn’t a development of the feminist perspective as seen in this century. However, the injury of being left by Hermia for a man is something that Helena feels strongly and sees it as an insult to sisterhood and feminism.

Curiously, Helena denies Demetrius the prerogative of rejecting her, by saying that: “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. What worser place can I beg in your love— And yet a place of high respect with me— than to be used as you use your dog?” (2.1.203–10). The final scene in the drama is the most telling in how gender relations are brought in control by the men who have finally subjugated the women, where the men speak and the women remain silent, including the once powerful Hippolyta (Parker, 2016). Therefore, feminism is muted and even silenced in the play towards the end. In the context of the Queer theory as well, A Midsummer Night’s Dream puts the notion of heterosexuality as the normal, in the centre of the play (Shaughnessy, 2013). The idea seems to be that despite Oberon’s misguided homosexual tendencies or the pleas of Helena to Hermia to not leave her for a man, the right idea is that of heterosexuality. The play’s ultimate object seems to be to negate homosexuality, both male and female and portray marriage between man and woman as the most appropriate social condition (Shaughnessy, 2013, p. 386). To conclude, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a drama that uses the themes of feminism and homosexual relationships, but it comes back to the standard accepted notions of love and marriage in the society by the end of the play. In order to do that, the drama normalises the institution of marriage as the socially accepted relationship between man and woman. For this purpose, Theseus and Oberon subjugate their women and by the end of the play, even strong women like Hippolyta are silent and suppressed. Therefore, there is a suppression of feminism in the play and normalising of patriarchy as the dominant social construct. In the same way, there is normalising of heterosexual relationships and othering of all other kinds of relationships.

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Bibliography

  • Calderwood, J. L., 1991. A Midsummer Night's Dream: Anamorphism and Theseus' Dream. Shakespeare Quarterly , 42(4), pp. 409-430.
  • Colebrook, C., 2009. On the very possibility of queer theory. In: C. Nigianni, ed. Deleuze and Queer Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 11-23.
  • Green, D. E., 2001. Preposterous Pleasures: Queer Theory and A Midsummer Night's Dream. In: D. Kehler, ed. A Midsummer Night's Dream: Critical Essays . London:Psychology Press, pp. 369-400.
  • Levine, L., 1996. Rape, repetition, and the politics of closure in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Feminist readings of early modern culture: Emerging subjects , pp. 210-28.
  • Loomba, A., 2016. The Great Indian Vanishing Trick- Colonialism, Property, and the Family in A Midsummer Night's Dream. In: D. Callaghan, ed. A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare . London: John Wiley & Sons, pp. 181-205.
  • Parker, P., 2016. Routledge Revivals: Literary Fat Ladies (1987): Rhetoric, Gender, Property. Oxon:Routledge.
  • Sanchez, M. E., 2012. “Use Me But as Your Spaniel”: Feminism, Queer Theory, and Early Modern Sexualities. PMLA , 127(3), pp. 493-511.
  • Shaughnessy, R., 2013. The Routledge Guide to William Shakespeare. London:Routledge.
  • Weltsek, G., 2005. Using Process Drama to Deconstruct" A Midsummer Night's Dream. English Journal , pp. 75-81.
  • Werner, S., 2005. Shakespeare and Feminist Performance: Ideology on Stage. Oxon: Routledge.

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