On the surface, the first couple of scenes of Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream strike a modern audience as oddly regressive with regard to gender relations. One of the primary themes, male domination, is readily apparent within the first scene. In a matter of lines, utmost obedience to one’s father is praised and the punishment for disobedience is presented as a choice between the convent and death. Further, Shakespeare has tasked his audience with keeping track of three different women with remarkable similar names and obnoxiously, detrimentally stereotypical feminine behavior. If one takes a moment to analyze the play’s details and context, however, it becomes clear that it is inaccurate and anachronistic to write off the play and its author as merely sexist. One might posit that Shakespeare used dramatic hyperbole to, at the very least, call attention to ridiculous gender dynamics at play in the Early Modern period. While the Elizabethan era certainly could not be classified as progressive in the most contemporary sense, the period did see a flowering of culture and moderate shift in values under its eponymous queen. The England of Shakespeare’s day can safely be called patriarchal because women were, by and large, expected to serve in positions solely subservient to men as obedient daughters, faithful wives, and loving mothers. As some of these restrictions became outdated and the compulsion to marry for love became more acceptable, the opportunity to poke fun and lightly criticize traditional gender roles presented itself. Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare makes a mockery of some of the more ridiculous gendered dynamics—such as forcing one’s daughter to choose between death and a life of chastity if she doesn’t marry the man her father chose—while portraying others—such as stereotypical feminine preoccupation with physical appearance—as perfectly normal. The theme of gender in the Shakespearean comedy also dramatizes gender relations in the best that it could considering its time period. It is important to note that when these were written, the gender roles between men and women were much more distinct and throughout the play, Shakespeare also raises significant questions about gender roles and romance. The story shows us that the aggressiveness of men and the docility of women is not always the case. While sexist, it is also worth considering that this may be a satirization of gender roles. This then raises the question, are the plays of Shakespeare sexist or are they meant to make the readers critique society’s views about gender as well as their own.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is, by no means, a rigorous feminist critique of society and gender. Neither is it a celebration of patriarchal norms, however. The play, so far is, perhaps, sexist to a modern viewer because it is a product of its time. To label William Shakespeare as a sexist, however, is incorrect because the concept had yet to exist and he was working within the strictures that bound him and his peers. If these works had been written today, characterizing them as sexist and as instruments of the patriarchy would be correct. However, context is important, and it involves being cognizant of the times in which these pieces were written, centuries before the newest waves of feminism and women’s liberation. Although we have thankfully come a long way since these days, we must remember history for what it is and not attempt to revise it. For Shakespeare to have attempted such an overt critique of gender roles and feminist theory likely would have sent shockwaves throughout the literary and social communities in which he lived.
- William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2017), 1.1.60-75.
- Linda K. Alchin, “Elizabethan Woman,” Elizabethan Era, modified May 16, 2012. Accessed January 29, 2018. Web. http://www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/elizabethan-women.htm