Structure and Chaos: Binary Pairs in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

20 Pages, Grade: A- (= 1,3)



1. Introduction

2. Binary Pairs
2.1. Binary Pairs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
2.2. Binary Pairs in Max Reinhardt’s Midsummer Night’s Dream
2.3. Binary Pairs in Michael Hoffmann’s Midsummer Night’s Dream

Works cited

1. Introduction

Peter G. Philias assumes that Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play that lives off seemingly incompatible contradictions:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, a play it prefigures in important ways, share the distinction of illustrating better than any other plays Shakespeare’s device of juxtaposing extremes for the purpose of indicating a golden mean.[1]

Bipolar oppositions that can immediately be recognized are civilization and nature, which are juxtaposed in the confrontation of the court of Athens and the forest. In addition, man and woman are working against each other in the unequal couples of Theseus and Hippolyta, Oberon and Titania, and arch-conservative Egeus and his daughter Hermia. Concentrating on the opposition between town – the court of Athens – and wilderness – the forest – this essay is dedicated to an examination of the underlying force that drives the development of the plot: opposition. Furthermore, the essay will examine two filmic versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from different times, and compare their representation of the opposing forces. Max Reinhardt’s (1935) and Michael Hoffmann’s (1999) A Midsummer Night’s Dream have been chosen as the two different movie versions of the play that can stand as representatives for different time periods and different approaches towards Shakespeare on film. The comparative analysis of the films will be based on the results of the play’s analysis, which will deal with the primary opposition established in the play – the opposition between the court of Athens, the realm of law and order, and the forest, the realm of dreams and chaos – and its reflection in the relationship between man and woman, which also exhibits strong traits of a polarized, oppositional relationship.

The basic assumption on which the paper is based is that the 1935 movie version of the play subverts the play’s concepts of the orderly town and the chaotic wilderness. In the film, the court of Athens is in a state of disorderly flux – from carnival to a brief display of authority and back to carnival – whereas, paradoxically, the wilderness is governed by a sense of order. The characterization of Oberon as a haughty king who maintains order does not permit a portrait of the woods as ultimately unruly and chaotic. The opposition between male and female in the woods as well as in the town is a mirror image of the opposition between forest and wilderness: in the realm of civilization, Athens, the male, ordering force is unable to exercise its powers over the female, unruly forces, whereas in the realm of the wilderness, primordial rules apply that allow the male power representing order to overcome the female, which represents flux.

Michael Hoffman’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream of 1999 will be used as a contrasting image. It will be argued that it adheres more closely to the views of town and wilderness as they are presented in the play. Hoffman depicts an orderly, clean, thriving Athens governed by a sober and benign duke. Order and restriction determine the relationship between man and woman, which is conservative and therefore apparently perfect. On the other side, the forest is presented as a realm of wild, unruly, even licentious freedom. It is hard to determine the head of this state – is it Oberon, is it Titania, or is it the force that deep down drives them all? – and it is equally hard to find a governing principle in the relationship between man and woman.

2. Binary Pairs

2.1. Binary Pairs in the Play

The play introduces the first of the dominating forces that steer the plot’s course with the first scene, even the first lines. A couple appears, Theseus and Hippolyta, that seems to be forged by chance’s playfulness rather than by fate’s foresight and reason. Theseus, military and political leader of Athens, has defeated and abducted Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons – the cognomen alone indicates that he will find an untamed shrew in her – and now intends to take her for his wife. A second couple enters the stage, Hermia and Lysander, followed by what might be called a couple in mind, Egeus, Hermia’s father, and Demetrius, Hermia’s designated husband. The argument that ensues certifies that a strong force is at work here: the everlasting shifting and shuffling in the relationship between man and woman, which is determined by an uncontrollable force, “doting,” and a counteracting force, “reason.” It seems consensual to state that – on the deep structure level – the contradiction between “doting,” the fixation of a lover on a partner who does not return the affections, and “cool reason” forms the common ground of these and several other antagonisms. But although I consent to this view, I would deny the reduction of this play to a mere love story – a view expressed by Philias, who claims that it had been Shakespeare’s intention „to compose a play presenting sudden conflict between lovers as well as antithetical attitudes toward love.“[2]

The contents of A Midsummer Night’s Dream go far beyond the topics of family conflict or interpersonal relationship. The basic conflict between reason and emotion can only become the departing point of the story because it triggers an underlying conflict between man and woman, which also surfaces in the way the individual men or women interacts with society.

Every Shakespearean character lives within a political regime governed by laws and shaped by distinctive institutions. How a character lives, acts, and how he perceives his deeds is affected, sometimes crucially affected, by his parti­cipation in the corporate life of a city or realm.[3]

Right in the beginning of the play, we witness how Theseus becomes aware that a his own insistence on the dominating force of the male is necessary in order to render the relationship between him and Hippolyta successful.

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 reveling.[4]

Theseus assumes that conquest, regulation, and dominance is the basis for his relationship with Hippolyta. Thus the dominance of the male over the female is reaffirmed that has been the basis for an orderly society for a long time. This interpretation is justified by Theseus’s behavior towards Hermia: in the very moment he orders Hermia to completely subordinate to her father’s will, he presents himself as the merciless defender of a reason of state that demands un­questioning subordination of individual needs and wishes of the woman to the abstract authority of the law. The realm of reason and order is inseparably intertwined with the authority of the man. Disruption comes disguised as the women characters: Hippolyta the captured enemy is a potential danger to the state; Hippolyta the Amazon is a potential danger to patriarchal authority. Hermia, though no danger in the political sense, also threatens the dominance of the male with her refusal to yield to her father’s wishes. Theseus seems unimpressed by Hermia’s love for Lysander. His conviction that the order of Athens and the underlying patriarchal authority is flawless and justified as a necessity, he cannot compre­hend that Hermia is even willing to endure banishment into a convent in order to escape the male dominance subjugating her:

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.[5]

For Theseus, Egeus’ legal rights over his daughter, which he defends with the words “I beg the ancient privilege of Athens: / As she is mine, I may dispose of her“[6], outweigh Hermia’s individual rights. For Theseus, it is a law written in stone that women must be loyal to the men, or else the social and political foundations of the state crumble. As a result, he is not willing to accept that the objective laws of his state, which he regards as the basis of Athens’ political order, to be questioned and jeopardized by subjective decisions on the basis of the wishes of a woman. As a result, he announces that he is determined to enforce the law with all means:


[1] Peter G. Philias: Shakespeare’s Romantic Comedies. The Development of Their Form and Meaning. North Carolina University Press, Chapel Hill, 1966: p. 110.

[2] Philias: p. 122.

[3] John Alvis: “Shakespearean Poetry and Politics“. Shakespeare as Political Thinker. John Alvis/Thomas G. West (eds.). University of North Carolina Press, Durham, 1981, p. 3-26: p. 5.

[4] William Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night´s Dream. Harold F. Brooks (ed): The Arden Shakespeare. Methuen Press, London, 1997: p. 7, I/1, V. 16-19. (in the following quoted as MND)

[5] MND: p. 10, I/1, V. 79-82.

[6] MND: p. 8, I/1, V. 42-43.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Structure and Chaos: Binary Pairs in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
University of Massachusetts - Amherst  (English Department)
English 891 Honors: Shakespeare on Stage, Page and Film
A- (= 1,3)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
547 KB
Structure, Chaos, Binary, Pairs, Shakespeare, Midsummer, Night, Dream, English, Honors, Shakespeare, Stage, Page, Film
Quote paper
Silja Rübsamen (Author), 2002, Structure and Chaos: Binary Pairs in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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