Analysis of Female Characters in William Shakespeare's Comedy "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

21 Pages, Grade: 1



1 Introduction

2 Analysis of Hippolyta

3 Analysis of Hermia

4 Analysis of Helena

5 Analysis of Titania

6 Conclusion

7 Bibliography

Primary Literature:

Secondary Literature:

1 Introduction

This paper will examine the four female characters of William Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream which is one of the early comedies of the playwright. Here we encounter four main female characters who come from three different backgrounds. While Hippolyta is about to be married to Theseus, one can say that she represents the leadership in the mortal world. Titania is another leading character who is the queen of the fairy land. Hermia and Helena represent young women who are trying to find the right partner for themselves.

As in many Shakespeare’s comedies, the married couples are confronted with a certain problem that seems to endanger their marriage, while the unmarried people make choices that are not accepted or a confusing love constellation exists, for instance the “love chain”[1] that can be found in this play, where Helena loves Demetrius who loves Hermia who loves Lysander. The play can be divided into three parts: at the beginning we face a world of Athens, where life is organized by law; the middle part of the play takes place in the magical wood where the fairies control the irrational events and cause a lot of discord, and finally a return to the ‘normal’ world occurs where all the mismatched couples can resolve their troubles and a triple wedding takes place which is the ultimate happy end for a comedy of Shakespeare’s times.[2] All four female characters will be analyzed in all three stages of the play: before the magic intervention of the fairy king, during the confusion caused by him and after the initial conditions are restored. Hippolyta remains the only character who is not manipulated by the love potion.

The female characters will be analyzed according to their behavior, their image of themselves and the relationship to the men. Each character will be introduced and analyzed in a separate chapter. The goal is to find parallels and contrasts between these characters which will be presented in the conclusion of this paper.

2 Analysis of Hippolyta

At the opening of the play Hippolyta, once a violent fighting Amazon leader, is about to marry Theseus who fought against her and her people.[3] He managed to defeat the proud tribe and he even admits to hurting his future wife and thus winning her heart in the battle:

Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword,

And won thy love doing thee injuries;

But I will wed thee in another key,

With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling. (I.i.16-19)[4]

This leads to at least two possible interpretation: either she was so impressed by his military skills and his superiority that she felt attracted to him and his masculinity or she was more or less forced into submitting to him, representing the won trophy from the war.

However, Hippolyta’s calm and passive behavior at the beginning of the play, “the soothing composure of Hippolyta”[5], seem to be quite unnatural for the former military leader. Yet, everything appears to be in the best order as the first act opens. Hippolyta and Theseus are watching the moon, impatiently anticipating their wedding that is about to take place in four days.[6] Although Ernest Schanzer points out that “[i]n the relationship of Theseus and Hippolyta reason and love have been made friends and keep company together”[7], one can argue that there is something that troubles Hippolyta. It is also remarkable that she does not say a single word concerning Egeus’ case. She stays out of the affair leaving the decision to her future husband. After listening to Egeus who is trying to marry his daughter Hermia to Demetrius whom she does not love and hearing the harsh punishments that Hermia might face if she does not obey, Hippolyta seems to be either pre-occupied with her own thoughts and situation or she simply stays out of her husband’s business. However, one might speculate that her own fate was based on such harsh conditions and as a captive she did not have many choices. When Theseus asks her “what cheer, my love?”(I.i.122), Hippolyta does not answer which might prove her deep thoughts which she is trying to hide from everybody else.

Her next appearance takes place in the fourth act when she accompanies Theseus, Egeus and a hunting party. Here she reminisces about the past loudly:

I was with Hercules and Cadmus once

When in a wood of Crete they bay’d the bear

With hound of Sparta; (IV.i.110-112)

This scene shows that she is still strongly connected to the past she spent in her home country. Thus her passive behavior seems to be enforced upon her and she seems to have come to terms with her fate.

When Lysander and Hermia, Helena and Demetrius are found by them, Hippolyta is the only character who questions the events that befell the two young couples during the night in the woods. Her feeling that there is something “strange”(V.i.1) is instantly negated by Theseus who has to point out that lovers seem to imagine more than there is. Nevertheless Hippolyta is sure that there is more to the story than “fancy’s images” (V.i.25) which shows that she has a strong mind and does not change her opinion that easily. As Harold Bloom puts it: “Hippolyta is shrewder and less defensive than Theseus”[8] who always has the need to explain situations that can cause discord, even if he is wrong.

This stubborn and confident aspect of Hippolyta’s character, which was described in the previous paragraph, can be observed during the wedding ceremony when the play about Pyramus and Thisbe is presented. She openly expresses her opinion: “This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.” (V.i.208) Hippolyta comments the play with harsh remarks criticizing every flaw. Theseus insists that she relaxes and just enjoys the play without questioning every action. He even tries to explain certain situations as logically as he can in order to please Hippolyta who still remains the only one who is not happy with the performance and who recognizes all the mistakes and points them out publicly.

Hippolyta remains a puzzle because her background story and her affiliation with Theseus is left out by Shakespeare and because she is the character in the play “who has so little to say”[9]. Theseus who appears to be led by reason and care for her can be seen as the “predator lover” who shows “a certain barbarism when he marries the captive queen of the Amazons”[10], whom he humiliates by making her become his wife and cope with the passive role of the women in his society.

3 Analysis of Hermia

Hermia, Egeus’ daughter, appears already in the first act being accompanied by her father and her two suitors Demetrius and Lysander. Here we face the actual conflict of the play which is based on the father’s rule and on the Athens’ law.[11] Egeus wants his daughter to marry Demetrius whom he believes to be a better choice of husband. Hermia’s love for Lysander is stubbornly ignored by the father who accuses Lysander of following deeds:

This man hath bewitch’d the bosom of my child.

Thou, thou, Lysander, thou hast given her rhymes,

And interchang’d love-tokens with my child;

Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung,

With faining voice, verses of feigning love,


With cunning hast thou filch’d my daughter’s heart;

Turn’d her obedience, which is due to me,

To stubborn harshness. (I.i.27-38)

Hermia refuses to marry the man she does not love. She does not yield to her father’s decision although he believes that “[a]s she is [his], [he] may dispose of her” however he pleases. (I.i. 42) This shows clearly that Hermia is treated by her father as an object and that his fatherhood gives him the right to consider her as his possession. Even Theseus tells her: “To you your father should be as god; […] / To whom you are but as a form of wax,” (I.i. 48-49) Nevertheless, Hermia is a strong-willed character who wants to live her life the way she believes it would be best of her interest. She prefers Lysander and is not afraid nor intimidated to say it. She wishes that her father tries to show some understanding (“I would my father look’d but with my eyes.” (I.i. 56)), but Theseus advises her to follow her father’s advice despite of her own needs and wishes.

Hermia is very persistent and not willing to change her mind and accept Demetrius as her husband. She recognizes, however, that her behavior is not appropriate for a woman who should be submissive and timid. She cannot explain “by what power [she is] made bold” (I.i.59). When she finds out that her refusal to marry Demetrius will lead either into death or solitary life as a nun in a cloister Hermia expresses her acceptance of any punishment boldly as long as she does not have to do something she does not choose to:

So will I grow, so live, so die, my lord,

Ere I will yield my virgin patent up

Unto his lordship, whose unwished yoke

My soul consents not to give sovereignty. (I.i. 79-82)

In this opening scene of the play we are confronted with a serious situation in which Hermia refuses to obey her father’s orders and marry the man he chose for her. Her refusal is interpreted by Linda Bamber as “a rebellion of the feminine against the power of masculine authority”.[12] Hermia’s disagreement with her father is immediately followed by a threat of punishment. However, she is faced with limited number of options, summed up by Alfred Harbage:

It is a hyperbolic image of Elizabethan social facts: daughters of marriage age risked disaster (the death) as the only alternative to remaining single (the cloister) or coming to terms with their parents (unless, of course, their parents came to terms with them).[13]

Hermia’s two suitors are both interested in her: Lysander, as the man of her choice, loves Hermia and is willing to fight Demetrius over her because he knows that “[t]he course of true love never did run smooth” (I.i. 134). Demetrius is the man chosen by Hermia’s father and he is described as a man with a ‘wandering heart’ who already has seduced Helena and left her after she madly fell in love with him.

When left alone Hermia expresses her feelings of sadness to Lysander. She believes that it must be lovers’ fate to endure troubles and obstacles that might appear in the path:

If then true lovers have been ever cross’d,

It stands as an edict in destiny.

Then let us teach our trial patience, (I.i. 150-152)

However, when Lysander mentions that his aunt lives outside of Athens where the law does not apply and where they could live happily ever after, Hermia does not hesitate and agrees to run away. Here, we are faced with a determined female character who is not willing to subdue her real emotions in order to please her father. She takes the destiny in her own hands and is eager to break out of her father’s narrow-minded world without thinking about the consequences. As Victor L. Cahn puts it:

Hermia’s vigorous rejoinder (I.i. 79-82) indicates that she will not accept her fate meekly, and, as is typical in Shakespeare’s comedies, we empathize with the woman, the victim of society’s rules that have been determined by the males.[14]

The next scene in which we meet Hermia takes place in the woods which is supposed to be the starting point of their escape route. There they find themselves disoriented and decide to sleep and continue their flight the next day. Lysander insists that they sleep next to each other (“One heart, one bed, two bosoms, and one troth.” (II.ii. 42)) but Hermia refuses because she has certain rules that she obeys. Although Lysander stresses his love for her and is convinced that it would strengthen their relationship if they spent the night together, Hermia stays true to her principles. She says: “But, gentle friend, for love and courtesy / Lie further off, in human modesty;” (II.ii. 56-57) This scene clearly points out Hermia’s determination and straightforwardness.

Nevertheless, her strong will turns out to be crucial for the following confusion: Puck believes that they are the quarreling young couple which was observed by Oberon previously because of the fact that they sleep apart from each other. Thus he drops the love potion onto Lysander’s eyes setting off the confusing but comic plot when Helena arrives and the waking Lysander instantly falls in love with her. The following scene presents a changed constellation because Hermia, who awakes from a nightmare, has to realize that Lysander is appalled by her and in love with Helena. Her dream has a warning function because she dreams of a serpent which eats her heart away while Lysander is watching and laughing. Her decision to sleep away from him might imply that she does not trust him fully and her dream would confirm this emotion. When she wakes up she finds herself in desperate need for comfort and soothing words of her lover who could help her overcome these negative feelings. Instead of receiving consolation Hermia has to face an irrational situation.


[1] HOLZKNECHT, Karl J., The Backgrounds of Shakespeare’s Plays. New York: American Book Co., 1950. p. 273.

[2] Compare in FRYE, Northrop, On Shakespeare., ed. Robert Sandler. New Haven / London: Yale UP, 1986. p.40-41.

[3] Hippolyta and Theseus are both characters taken from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale. Compare in CAHN, Victor L., Shakespeare the Playwright: a Companion to the Complete Tragedies, Histories, Comedies, and Romances. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996. p. 583.

[4] All the quotations from the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream are taken from the following edition: SHAKESPEARE, William, The Complete Works, ed. W.J. Craig. London : The Guernsey Press, 1992.

[5] HARBAGE, Alfred, William Shakespeare: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Noonday Press, 1963.p. 106.

[6] The information about time, here counted in hours, is imprecise, because instead of four days, as Theseus implies, the action takes place on only three days.

[7] SCHANZER, Ernest:, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, ed. Kenneth Muir, A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall,Inc. 1965.p. 29.

[8] BLOOM, Harold, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. p. 130.

[9] QUILLIGAN, Maureen: „Tough Love: Amazon Encounters in the English Renaissance”. In: Shakespeare Studies. Volume 31. 2003, P. 279.

[10] RICHMOND, Hugh M., Shakespeare’s Sexual Comedy: A Mirror for Lovers. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.p. 106.

[11] Compare in FRYE, p. 39. Frye elaborates here the function of the “irrational law, of a type we often do meet at the beginning of a Shakespeare comedy […]”

[12] BAMBER, Linda: Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender in Shakespeare. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1982. p. 29.

[13] HARBAGE, p. 106

[14] CAHN, p. 585.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Analysis of Female Characters in William Shakespeare's Comedy "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen  (Anglistik)
Hauptseminar: The History of British Comedy
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Analysis, Female, Characters, William, Shakespeare, Comedy, Midsummer, Night, Dream, Hauptseminar, History, British, Comedy
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MA Dusica Marinkovic-Penney (Author), 2005, Analysis of Female Characters in William Shakespeare's Comedy "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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