Women in "A Midsummer Night’s Dream". Sex, Gender, and Social Norms of Feminity in the Elizabethan Age and in Shakespeare's Comedy


Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015
11 Pages, Grade: 0,7

Excerpt

Table of contents
1 INTRODUCTION
1
2 THE SOCIAL SITUATION OF WOMEN IN THE ELIZABETHAN AGE
2
2.1
S
EX AND GENDER IN THE
E
LIZABETHAN
A
GE
2
2.2
S
OCIAL NORMS OF FEMININITY IN THE
E
LIZABETHAN
A
GE
3
3 WOMEN IN A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM
4
3.1
F
EMALE
­
FEMALE BONDS
4
3.2
F
EMALE
­
MALE BONDS
5
4 CONCLUSION
7
5 BIBLIOGRAPHY
9

1
1 Introduction
The comedy play A Midsummer Night's Dream (henceforth A Dream), presumably
written between 1590 and 1596 by William Shakespeare, opens with the end of a
conflict between the powerful Theseus, Duke of Athens, about his conquest over the
Queen of the Amazon warriors Hippolyta and forced marriage as he exclaims:
"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"
(Shakespeare 1979: 1.1.16-19). Furthermore, the play continues with the second scene
that exhibits a similar gender conflict between the rebellious daughter Hippolyta and her
father Egeus. Female characters experience male sovereignty throughout the play. Three
out of four interlinking stories, namely the fairies, the Royals and the four lovers,
emphasise, amongst a number of different themes, the aspect of female and male power
(Loomba 2001: 163). Similar to Shakespeare's other comedy plays, in A Dream familiar
and romantic relationships appear to cause gender tensions in the light of parenthood,
courtly love and marriage. A number of metamorphoses enable the reader to analyse the
gender roles and norms appropriate to female and male characters in different ways.
The aim of the present paper is to examine the role of women in Shakespeare's
A Midsummer Night's Dream. The first section investigates women in early modern
England and is divided into the subsections Sex and gender in early modern England
and Norms of feminism. Section two explores the role of women in A Dream. More
precisely, the emphasis here will be upon the analysis of female-female and female-
male bonds of the characters.
Shakespeare, marking the beginning of the English Renaissance, questions
stereotypes about traditional gender roles when it comes to romance in his plays. Men in
the beginning of early modern England were usually expected to be aggressive, superior
and powerful and women to be passive, silent and docile. Feminism criticism started not
before 1975 (Buccola 2010: 31) and A Dream clarifies that this prevalent notion was
about to change considering also Queen Elizabeth's reign from 1558 until 1604. While
other Shakespearean plays such as in Macbeth have been studied in detail regarding
gender roles, A Dream has received comparatively little attention.

2
2 The social situation of women in the Elizabethan Age
2.1 Sex and gender in the Elizabethan Age
In order to provide a general overview, it is important to be clear about the terms sex
and gender. Male and female refer only to the sex and are a biological distinction.
Masculine and feminine, however, refer to gender, which is formed by a society and
culture. Queen Elizabeth I for example was known to be a rather masculine type of
person when it came to politics, while being more feminine in her privateness. She was
able to be enticing, virginal, unreachable as well as strong as a fighter at the same time.
Elizabeth considered herself to have a female, hence feeble body, but a heart of a king.
Later on in her reign the Queen considers and describes herself as more masculine in
various occasions. She started naming herself a king instead of a queen (Laqueur 1992:
122).
According to Montrose, it is important to stress that sexuality and gender should
be examined individually but influencing themselves on certain levels in a reciprocal
way (Montrose 1996: 109). In a domestic home, a hierarchically structured and
organised system marked by the husband's sovereignty as well as the wife's obedience
are representing Elizabethan doctrines. Those patterns can be found within the play
(Montrose 1996: 110) and other Shakespearean plays, too. It represents precepts and
furthermore, a change in society where female or lower ranked individuals aimed to
rebel against the prescribed order. Patriarchy within A Dream as well as in the
Elizabethan reign does not appear stable and is enfeebled by several instances
(Montrose 1996: 117).
In early modern Europe, women had the right to vote but it was, except England
and Scotland, who where both ruled by a female monarch, the norm to have men
occupying all higher positions. Only men were allowed in educational institutions such
as universities and women had no further right to own their property after marriage. To
beat women was generally accepted (Rackin 2005: 7). Female will, rebellion and the
possibility of verbal power created anxiety and were oppressed (Rackin 2005: 11).
Disparities shall be deemed to be normal. Hence, amongst the status hierarchy, the

3
gender hierarchy existed. This does not result in a state that every man can be seen as
superior to women during the Elizabethan era anymore but in a tendency towards
patriarchy (Rackin 2005: 27). In Shakespeare's plays it can be noted that female
characters, particularly Hermia in this case, exhibit certain masculine characteristics.
2.2 Social norms of femininity in the Elizabethan Age
Renaissance, the French term for rebirth, was a patriarchal period where men assumed
to be able to accomplish remarkable things and people got inspired by Greek's and
Rome's achievements in various realms and wanted to adapt them. Similar to other
European countries, in early modern England marriage was a substantial change in a
woman's life and women hoped for a pleasurable togetherness since divorce was a
difficult if not unachievable process (Wiesner 2000: 52). Women's place was supposed
to be not outside but inside a home (Huntley 2010: 4). Furthermore, they were
controlled first by their fathers and then by their husbands (Huntley 2010: 5). They
could be married from 13 years on and their personality should include obedient, calm,
humble and pious attributes (Huntley 2010: 10).
A woman's central role was to be a mother and hence, marriage was influencing
their life in a significant way. While men were characterised mainly by their occupation,
women were categorised into their sexual maturation such as being a mother, daughter,
wife or widow. According to humanist Juan Luis Vives, a woman in early modern
England had to pass the following three stages: "youth until marriage, married
domesticity, and widowhood" (King 1991: 23). No matter if unwillingly or willingly
married, women had to execute a role of a subordinate assistant to her husband and had
to follow certain rules (King 1991: 35). To ensure procreation and the maintenance and
continuity of an early modern organised society, it was important to build upon the
stable system of marriage and offspring. The fertility of socially upper class women was
higher in order to assure the prosecution of their domestic household (King 1991: 2). It
was normal for a woman to give birth to up to seven or eight children. Ten per cent of
the mothers died in the process of childbirth (King 1991: 5). Then, foundlings were first
brought into orphanages, where boys should learn to read and girls should learn things
Excerpt out of 11 pages

Details

Title
Women in "A Midsummer Night’s Dream". Sex, Gender, and Social Norms of Feminity in the Elizabethan Age and in Shakespeare's Comedy
College
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen  (Anglistik)
Grade
0,7
Author
Year
2015
Pages
11
Catalog Number
V375648
ISBN (eBook)
9783668534780
ISBN (Book)
9783668534797
File size
1030 KB
Language
English
Tags
Shakespeare, Midsummer, Women, Gender, gender studies
Quote paper
Martha Nisi (Author), 2015, Women in "A Midsummer Night’s Dream". Sex, Gender, and Social Norms of Feminity in the Elizabethan Age and in Shakespeare's Comedy, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/375648

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