A Midsummer Night's Dream | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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A Midsummer Night's Dream | Themes

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Patriarchy

The first scene of the play introduces a conflict that hinges on male dominance in the social hierarchy. Egeus wants his daughter to marry Demetrius, and according to the law, she must obey or be punished. Theseus has won his wife, the Amazon queen Hippolyta, by defeating her in battle. The patriarchal nature of Athenian society is the focus of the scene. This theme further develops as the setting shifts to the woods, where Titania refuses to obey her husband, Oberon. Her refusal to give in persists, causing disturbance in the natural world and prompting Oberon to play a cruel joke on her in retaliation.

In contrast, the enchantments placed on Demetrius and Lysander cause them to want to please Helena. This shift in gender roles places Helena, a woman in a position of social power over two men. In these ways Shakespeare establishes and then challenges traditional notions of gender in romantic relationships.

Love as a Magical Force

In the play, love is characterized as an external, magical force. Egeus accuses Lysander of bewitching his daughter, as if Hermia's love for Lysander were a magical power that forced her to love him. In the woods, the flower imbued with the magic of Cupid's arrow is a concrete representation of the magical, bewitching nature of love, as people are literally put under love spells that cause them to fall in love with the first living creature they see.

Furthermore, love's magic proves to be unpredictable and not subject to rules or laws, tying this theme closely to the theme of order versus disorder. Demetrius once loved Helena but has, at the beginning of the play, fallen out of love with Helena and into love with Hermia. Helena's love for Demetrius, who scorns her, is out of control, causing her to follow him around like a beggar hoping for a crumb. The fact that there are two eligible young men and an equal number of eligible young women sets up an expectation that they will become two couples, making the situation at the beginning of the play seem unstable (which the ending resolves, of course). Fortunately, since all love comes from without, not within, Demetrius's enchantment doesn't reduce the satisfaction felt by the audience when everyone is happily married.

Order versus Disorder

Athens is the pinnacle of civilization. It is a place of law, as Act 1, Scene 1 makes clear. In Athens, Theseus maintains order by enforcing the law and by observing the correct ceremonies at an appropriate time—the new moon. He is the duke, and as a noble and a military man (he won Hippolyta's hand when he defeated her in battle), order and hierarchy are very important to him. He stresses that Hermia's obedience should be to her father because in the social hierarchy, her father is in charge of her decisions. The only disturbance in the order of Theseus's world is love: Demetrius's inconstant love first toward Helena and then toward Hermia and Hermia's love for Lysander, whom she is not allowed to love.

In contrast, in the fairy woods, disorder reigns. Titania, Oberon's wife, continues to defy him rather than submit to him as might be expected in Athens. Nature itself, with its unseasonable weather, is disordered because of their long-term quarrel over the changeling boy. The lovers who enter the woods end up in total disorder because of Puck's mistake. The mechanicals are disordered as they become terrified at seeing Bottom's transformation.

As the Athenians emerge from the woods, the world goes back to being quite orderly. The couples pair up and are married. The play is chosen and performed (if poorly). Yet somehow the disorder of the dream-woods leaves its mark on the lives of those who entered it, resulting in even greater order afterwards. The couples are happy, and the mechanicals possibly even more so.

The play shows that not all order is good; in fact, order can cause tragedy. Also, not all disorder is bad; in fact, it can be a blessing.

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