Table of Contents
1. Women and the Forest in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
2. Empowered in the Woods? Female Power Struggles in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
2.1. “Apollo flies, and Daphne holds the chase” – Helena and Demetrius
2.2. “A virtuos bachelor and a maid” – Hermia and Lysander
3. The (Dis)empowered Women of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Feminist scholars have frequently presented Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a play sympathetic to women. By pointing to Hermia’s recollections of the forest as a place where women can refuge to and are able to speak freely (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1.1.214 – 19), the Athenian woods, in particular, have been viewed as a kind of female sanctuary free from patriarchal norms. Buccola argues that in the woods women enter the matriarchal domain of the powerful fairy queen and “Fairyland is a space free from sociocultural strictures” (62). Here, the female is “aligned with the fairies” (Buccola 61) and she is “linked with them in liminality” (Buccola 61). Therefore, in the woods women can “engage in socially aberrant behaviour” (Buccola 61) without being “subject to the harsh reprisals that might otherwise result from their conduct.” (Buccola 61) On the other hand, Roberts objects to this reasoning, contending that the “threat to patriarchy […] is quelled even in the more permissive world of the forest.” (45) For Roberts the forest is a battleground where male-female power relations are fought out, always resulting in the subjugation of the female. (cf. 36) Although the “forest trope allows the idea of matriarchy to surface [it] ends by denying it.” (Roberts 45)
As shown above, casting the woods in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a place of female empowerment, an Anti-Athens, is problematic and in my term paper at hand I am going to demonstrate why that might be the case. I argue that in the forest women are not free to act as they wish, for patriarchal norms do still apply to them there. To support my claim, I will analyse two sections of the play set in the woods, featuring two male-female power struggles: Helena and Demetrius (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2.1.214 – 46) and Hermia and Lysander (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2.2.39 – 69). Although the women in those chosen passages might, at first sight, give the impression of being self-assertive and independent of thought, a closer reading of the chosen passages will reveal that, in the woods, females are still operating within the confines of a patriarchal system that forces them to adhere to a specific moral code appropriate for women.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ed. Sukanta Chaudhuri. The Arden Shakespeare. Third series. London: Bloomsbury, 2017. Print.
Buccola, Regina. Fairies, Fractious Women, and the Old Faith: Fairy Lore in Early Modern British Drama and Culture. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna UP, 2006. Print.
Erickson, Peter. Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare’s Drama. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Print.
Moffatt, Laurel. “The Woods as Heterotopia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Studia Neophilologica: A Journal of Germanic and Romance Languages and Literature 76.2 (2004): 182-87. Print.
Roberts, Jeanne Addison. The Shakespearean Wild. Geography, Genus, and Gender. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991. Print.
Theis, Jeffrey S. . Writing the Forest in Early Modern England. A Sylvan Pastoral Nation. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2009. Print.
Williamson, Marilyn. The Patriarchy of Shakespeare’s Comedies. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986. Print.
Problem-Oriented Sample Analysis
A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2.1.214 – 46
The chosen passage features a male-female interaction set in the forest. It consists mostly of a dialogue between Helena and Demetrius (with Oberon on stage, not saying a word). After Demetrius exists, the dramatic communication shows monological tendencies. Helena has pursued Demetrius into the woods in order to put her plan of gaining his love into action. This passage is central to my research problem because it allows me to pose and answer the following questions: does the forest act as a place of empowerment for Helena? Does the change of venue, from city to forest, prove advantageous for her? Is she able to enact her agency in this setting? And if so, are her actions judged differently in the woods than they would be in the patriarchal society of Athens?
Helena is characterised by Demetrius via figural, explicit, commentary in a dialogue, in praesentia as a loose and immoral woman who is risking her reputation by following him into the woods (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2.1.214-19). Her propriety of conduct is called into question by him, stating that she does “impeach [her] modesty too much” (2.1.214) and warning her not to lose “the rich worth of [her] virginity” (2.1.219). Demetrius even forecasts via figural, explicit, commentary in a dialogue, in praesentia that he himself will be instrumental in bringing about Helena’s fall from grace. He threatens her that he will “do thee mischief in the wood.” (2.1.237)
This clearly shows that patriarchal norms are still in perfect working order in the forest. In contrast to Demetrius, Helena is not allowed to act and behave as she pleases without the risk of being judged negatively by the male. Her whole worth as a woman seems to depend solely on her virginity, which she is to protect at all costs. Throughout this passage, it is obvious that not the female, but the male dominates the interactions: It is Demetrius who limits her agency and openly condemns Helena’s character, because she deviates from the proper behavioural standards that are forced upon her by the prevailing laws of a patriarchal society, even in the forest. (2.1.214-19)
Helena characterizes herself through figural, implicit, non-verbal behaviour and figural explicit, self-commentary in a soliloquy as a forward woman who boldly asserts herself and confidently pursues her own goals: “I’ll follow thee” (2.1.243). She boldly announces, “the story shall be changed” (2.1.230), thus implying an impending reversal of gender roles brought about by her own doing. At first sight this could be interpreted as Helena being empowered in the forest. Instead, I argue that a closer reading might suggest otherwise.
For one thing Helena herself contradicts this possible interpretation via figural, explicit, self-commentary in a soliloquy, admitting her own lack of agency. She states that she “cannot fight for love as men may do” (2.1.241) and, as a woman confined by patriarchal norms, is “not made to woo” (2.1.242). She thus acknowledges her own helplessness.
Furthermore, Helena’s empowerment might also be called into question in another way. A closer look at the announced gender-role reversal reveals that an actual role-reversal will not occur: Helena is not going to take the place of Apollo, a powerful male god who is not being held accountable for his deeds and is able to get away with even the most hideous crimes, namely attempting rape (2.1.230-34). Instead, Helena remains in the weaker position of Daphne. This probably alludes to the fact that she, quite in contrast to the male, will be held accountable for her deeds, should she engage in any deviant behaviour that is not sanctioned by the Athenian laws.
All in all, a close reading of the chosen passage supports my thesis statement: although certain aspects of Helena’s characterisation might, at first, give the impression of her being able to act independently and assert herself in the forest, a close examination of the passage reveals the actual state of affairs: in the woods, the female is not free from patriarchal strictures. Helena is still operating within the confines of a patriarchal system that forces her to adhere to a specific moral code appropriate for women. Therefore, the forest cannot be considered as a place of empowerment for the female.
Passage that corresponds and/or contrasts
A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 2.2.39 – 69
This passage features another male-female interaction in the forest: At night-time Hermia and Lysander have left Athens and fled to the nearby woods. Having lost their way in the dark forest they decide to take a rest and go to sleep there.
- ISBN (eBook)
- Institution / Hochschule
- Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg
- Research Paper Outline