Manipulations of Emotions

Just having talked about this and watching James Earl Jones’ brilliant reading of Othello’s speech in the first act of the play, it seems appropriate to talk about how emotions are manipulated within the play, both by Othello himself and by the magnificent bastard, Iago. Before Othello’s appeal to the council, we are introduced to Iago and Roderigo, Roderigo being a gentleman of Venice, and Iago being Othello’s number three in the military. Very quickly Iago’s dissatisfaction with his current position is brought to the forefront as well as his hatred for Othello and admitting “I follow him [Othello] to serve my turn upon him. We cannot all be masters, nor all masters cannot truly be followed” (1.1. 41-44). Iago sees no problem with admitting to Roderigo that he is only serving Othello just to meet the end goal that he has for himself, which at this point is to tarnish Othello’s good name and reputation. To begin his plan, Iago and Roderigo decide to alert the senator, Brabanzio, that his daughter, Desdamona has married Othello in secret with Iago very quickly and smartly appealing to Brabanzio’s emotions and fears saying such inflammatory things as “Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul. Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” (1.1. 87-89). While initially aggravated at being disturbed at night and skeptical to Iago’s words, with repeated and similar words from Roderigo, Brabanzio decides to investigate and indeed finds that Desdamona is not at home and becomes terrified by the scenarios that Iago has planted in his head, immediately rounding up whomever he can to try and find Othello and to make him pay for having “enchanted her” (1.2. 64). This only falls in line with Iago’s plans however and makes Brabanzio seem like a puppet that Iago is playing with especially when he is only telling lies and half truths that allow his claims to attract that much more emotional investment.

Compared to Iago who uses words to manipulate to meet his own goals and means to an end, Othello seems to be doing the same thing, only with more innocent or “moral” goals. While Iago also lies and plays both sides against another, Othello comes off as incredibly honest and sincere in telling of his story of how he won Desadamona’s affections. “I did consent, and often did beguile her of her tears when I did speak of some distressful stroke that my youth suffered. My story being done, she gave me for my pains a world of kisses” (1.3. 154-158). As a military general, especially one who suffers prejudice from his superiors, Othello has no reason to tell of a story that depicts him as both vulnerable and emotional, but this appeal to emotion allows his story to hold much more weight and allows him to easily convince the council that Desdamona’s feelings for him are genuine, especially when the Duke himself admits, “I think this tale would win my daughter too (1.3. 170). Despite all this, I still find Othello’s speech to rely heavily on the manipulation of emotions and his convenience at being an effective general on the brink of war to be what ultimately saves him from being charged. Perhaps like Iago, Othello knows what words to use for the occasion that allows for what he wants.

Troubled Heroines

There are many powerful themes running through the lines of Twelfth Night but one that is most important in the lives of the two female leads is grief and how that grief is dealt with. Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s greatest works for a distinct reason. It is a play that uses comedy as a lens for facilitating much deeper ideas and desires. Viola/Cesario is probably my favorite character(s) in the entire Shakespearean canon. The lengths that she will go to expose the truth of her brother’s disappearance is incredibly inspirational and worth discussing. She decides that she, knowing her place in society as a woman, cannot seek the truth without blurring another truth. So, therefore, topples social standards in search of her most important truth. She is the embodiment of the lengths that hope will take a person when hope still exists. “…Mine own escape unfoldeth to my hope, whereto thy speech serves for authority the like of him” (I:II, 17-20). In that speech in act I, she reveals that her hope is what is going to propel her on her quest. She is grief striken, of course. Her brother and closest confidant has vanished and could be dead. But she lives, and in their given circumstances, Sebastian has just as good a chance at survival as Viola. This raises her stakes and propels her to embrace her abilities and individuality at all costs. She then infiltrates the Illirian society as a man. In order to prevent her greatest grief, she puts herself in a dangerous position. But that position is fueled by a powerful cause. “O that I served that lady,/ And might not be delivered to the world/ Till I had made mine own occasion mellow,/ where my estate is.” (I:II, 38-41). And throughout, Viola continues to keep her hope and optimism on the forefront of her mind, rather than give in to grief. Our other heroine, on the other hand, has a very different situation.

Lady Olivia deals with her grief in the exact opposite way as Viola. Real tragedy has befallen her. In Act I, Scene I, Valentine tells Orsino that Olivia is stricken by “a brother’s dead love, which she would keep fresh and lasting in her sad remembrance.” (30-31). This goes to show that once reality has set in, a person’s outlook will most definitely change. But we have to account for the fact that she has had two very important people in her life pass on recently. So, any optimism she might have had is all but diminished. And now she is dealing with her grief in a disillusioned and destructive way because of the lack of hope and optimism. She retires to reclusiveness and pushes away all opportunity and happiness because she is stuck in the unfortunate past. Whereas, Viola is looking toward the future, living in the present moment. This is obviously easier said than done in Olivia’s case. Depression can grip you so tight that you almost cannot move. Making major life decisions that may help to alleviate some of her anxiety, is nearly an impossible task when stricken by such grief. Her grief, however, subsides in a most interesting way upon meeting Cesario. Her hope for love is replenished and it comes in the form of a character so driven by hope and optimism that it is infectious. “…Love that would seem hid. Love’s night is noon.” (III:I, 139). Olivia takes Viola’s optimism as love and therefore ignites a fire that will propel Olivia into a position later in the play, to come out of her grievous reality, in order to create a better reality full of hope and positivity. Shakespeare’s comedies are all comments on deeper, darker realities of society. The way that it is handled so sensitively in this play, makes it a universally relatable work.

Innocent Love vs. Love as Means to an End

We see that even only after three days in his service, Cesario/Viola has earned Orsino’s trust to the point that they “know’st no less but all” and are given the task of wooing Olivia for him (1.5.13). Thanks mostly, if not entirely, on Cesario’s very feminine and by extension, unthreatening appearance, he is able to speak with an unveiled Olivia and deliver Orsino’s message of love, even if Olivia still outright refuses it. After expressing their confusion as to why Olivia would refuse Orsino’s affection when it is entirely genuine and passionate, Cesario makes the point that if they felt similarly towards Olivia they would “Make me a willow cabin at your gate And call upon my soul within the house, Write loyal cantons of contemned love And sing them loud even in the dead of night (1.5. 237-240). This very quickly catches Olivia’s attention and interest and after Cesario leaves to tell Orsino the bad news, Olivia thinks to herself “Even so quickly may one catch the plague” meaning very quickly she is already falling for Cesario (1.5. 265). Compared to Orsino’s very strong and even upfront approach towards expressing his love, Cesario’s hypothetical scenario is much more unassuming and passive much like Cesario, which could possibly be one reason why Olivia begins to fall for him. There is also the fact that Olivia places emphasis on Cesario’s words “above my fortunes yet my state is well” (1.5 260). The fact that at the time that Shakespeare wrote the play, single woman had much more power and rights than those that were married, especially when it came to owning land and inheriting titles and money, which could explain why Olivia is hesitant to marry Orsino and why she is giving attention to a man like Cesario who can potentially be more easily swayed and or even manipulated.

Viola and Olivia: No Strings Attached

At the beginning of Twelfth Night, Olivia and Viola, the female leads, find themselves independent of the men to whom they were once subservient. Olivia, who has lost her father and her brother, deals with her losses by “mourning” and refusing to speak with the high-status men who wish to marry her for her money and power. Viola, who believes that her brother was lost in a shipwreck, decides to dress as a man and make her own way in a new land. Women during the early modern period did not have the power or freedom to make their own decisions and travel on their own. Having gained new mobility, the women in Twelfth Night find ways to exercise their freedom during a period in which women had very little.

Viola disguises herself as Cesario and becomes the courtier of the Duke Orsino of Illyria. Orsino immediately takes to Cesario, trusting him with his most delicate task: wooing lady Olivia. Being the confidant of a powerful Duke gives Viola a level of influence that she would never have as a woman. When Cesario goes to Olivia to speak with her about the Duke’s love, he is able to speak with Olivia by using a persistence that would have gotten a woman into trouble. Malvolio reports to Olivia, “Madam, yon young fellow swears he will speak with you. I told him you were sick-he takes on him to understand so much, and therefore comes to speak with you. I told him you were asleep-he seems to have a foreknowledge of that too, and lady? He’s fortified against any denial,” (1.5.123-128). If a woman were to contradict a man in that manner, she would not be as well received as Cesario when he insists on seeing lady Olivia. When Hermia, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, speaks against her father’s wishes, she is threatened with death or banishment to a nunnery. Even Olivia’s attendant Maria, who has great wit, has to be reserved and sneaky with her witticism, where as Viola is able to be persistent toward Malvolio because she is impersonating a man. Because of the way Hermia and Maria are received, it is surprising to me that Viola is able to act so bold as a man. Her boldness is attributed to how clever she really is. If she had been meek and shy, there is a chance she would not have gained the Duke’s favor. The power Viola gains in being a man is to act in whatever way she chooses.

After losing her father and her brother, Olivia finds herself able to choose her own husband, a privilege which most early modern women did not have. Olivia uses these deaths as a way to gain power through choosing a husband who is of lower social status than she. Olivia uses her mourning as an excuse to ward off men who want her money and power. The audience is first introduced to Olivia through news that is given to Orsino by one of his confidants, “So please my lord, I might not be admitted,/ But from her handmaid do return this answer:/ The element itself till seven years’ heat Shall not behold her face at ample view,/ But like a cloistress she will veiléd walk/ And water once a day her chamber round/ With eye-offending brine-all this to season/ A brother’s dead love, which she would keep fresh rememberance,” (1.1.23-31). This account is indicative of the spectacle that Olivia is putting on in order to get what she wants. Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, attempts to take control of her fate as well, but she is not in a position to actually change the mind of the man she is in love with. Viola’s need to act boldly as a man is paralleled with the acceptance that surrounds Olivia’s cold demeanor as a woman in mourning.

Viola and Olivia are given opportunities in Twelfth Night that women in the early modern period were not given. Women today take for granted being able to speak freely and decide who they marry, but the women in Twelfth Night take control of their lives with the power that they receive.

What You Will

The subtitle of Twelfth Night, “What You Will,” is easily ignored amid the madness that the play unravels: disguises, ambiguous letters, drunkenness and folly, and complicated love triangles. Or squares. Lines? Whichever, in Shakespearean fashion, they’re complicated. Regardless, the subtitle “What You Will” holds vast substance in a large thematic development of the play: Will. Will, in terms of Twelfth Night, is best defined by “desire,” what the characters are driven by, how they get what they want, and why they interpret their world the ways they do. It all comes down to will. It all, also, comes from Will.

We’ll get to that.

The stories main characters’ names even derive from the word “will:” Olivia, Viola, Malvolio. The repeated “I” and “L” sounds in each character’s name echoes the same sounds in “will.” The likeness here shouldn’t be ignored. The names aren’t just Shakespeare using assonance, they’re puns on the word will and the subtitle What You Will. Viola’s will, what she wants, drives her into disguise in order to become close to Orsino, whose will drives him to Olivia, who he desires. Olivia had no will to love anyone until Cesario (Viola) came around, then desire lead Olivia to seek Cesario out in order to fulfill her own carnal desire for love. Each character chases what they will throughout the play, leading to the consequential tangling of love interests.

And, of course, all of this was driven (written) by Will.

Perhaps the most important pun, though, is rooted in Malvolio’s character. The Norton Shakespeare provides some etymological information on Malvolio’s name, saying that it means “ill-will” (1.5.28). This is an important detail after considering the relationship between Olivia, Viola, and “will.” Malvolio is another character in Twelfth Night that, by name, is tied to the pun on “will.” By utilizing his characters’ names this way, Shakespeare is paying attention to the more mechanical parts of his characters, the rudimentary things that form the structure of the play, not necessarily content. According to the OED, the prefix, “Mal” dates back to 1510 (before Twelfth Night was written) and implies “wrong”; “ill”; or “improper.”[1] With knowledge of Shakespeare’s intricate deliberation in names and language (and nearly everything else), the connotations associated with Malvolio’s name cannot be ignored. Considering for a moment Malvolio’s characterization, he is easily identified as a narcissist, an egomaniac who holds a great image of himself than the characters around him agree with. When Malvolio finds the fake love letter written by Maria, he predictably assumes that it’s meant for him. Malvolio wrongfully comes to the conclusion that “M.O.A.I,” as the letter addresses in 2.5, is a riddle for his name under the pretense that Malvolio and “M.O.A.I” both start with the letter M. This narcissistic display is highlighted as a negative trait by Malvolio’s peers when Maria says in 2.3:

he best persuaded of himself, so
crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is
his grounds of faith that all that look on him love
him; and on that vice in him will my revenge find
notable cause to work.” (134-136)

So, not only does his name insinuate something negative about his character, but that because of his character, and what he desires, he inevitably becomes Twelfth Night’s primary antagonist. Malvolio’s ill-will then, through characterization and through pun, becomes an important plot point. As the subtitle What You Will suggests a high level of attention ought to be paid to “will” throughout the play, connections between characters’ names and their relationship to will reveals, especially in Malvolio’s case, characterization that takes place outside of the content of the play’s story. This behavior between name mechanics and plotline in Shakespeare’s text is something identifiable across many of his works. Looking at Richard II, for example, before Richard’s usurpation of power, his character lines are always labelled “King Richard.” After he relinquishes power to Bolingbroke, however, his character lines are labelled only “Richard.” This coincides with the eventual demise of Richard’s sanity in the text. Richard’s loss of status is contingent with waning grasp on reality. Readers of Shakespeare’s work have to interact with all levels of his writing, whether they’re plot points, characterizations, poetics, or even the presentation of names. Shakespeare, through Twelfth Night, is demanding that attention.

Then there’s Will. It seems fair to consider another pun in relation to What You Will: The play’s main characters’ have names that echo “will.” In their echoing of “will,” they also clearly echo “Will.” As in William. As in William Shakespeare. With a play that pays great attention to its most narcissistic character, Malvolio, it’s hilarious that Shakespeare would tie many of the names to his own. There’s an ironic narcissism in Shakespeare’s weaving of his name into the play, especially most directly with Malvoilio. This doesn’t necessarily suggest anything about Shakespeare’s personality, or his view of his own personality, but because Shakespeare worked with such deliberation, it’s impossible to miss the relation of the pun and his name. Twelfth Night is centered on the desires and will of its main characters. Those characters are all tied, in name, to the word “will” and, consequently, the definitions attached to it. All of this was written by someone who willed, or wanted, to write the play, who even happens to be named William. The name William, shortened as Will, has a sort of narcissistic quality by nature if it’s broken up: Will-I-Am. Will, I am. The pun keeps unfolding. This writer might think the pun is better than the actual content of Twelfth Night’s story, though it’s fair to say that it’s a close call. Whether there’s validity to that belief or not is up for debate, but I’ll believe what I will. You believe what you will*.

*This is called: trying too hard.

[1] http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/112684?rskey=jUaPr9&result=2#eid

The Lovers’ Rhyme Scheme

There are three classes exhibited in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare has created a “voice” for each of the classes that make them distinct and unique. Hermia and Helena, the young lovers of the story, speak in rhyming couplets. No other characters in the play, up until the moment we meet these young women, speak in this way. The first time we are introduced to this kind of language, the two young women are in love. Hermia has just decided to elope with her love, Lysander and Helena is pining over Demetrius who, unfortunately for Helena, has feelings for Hermia. The first exhibition of rhyming couplets begins on line 171 in Act 1 Scene 1 when Hermia says:

“By the simplicity of Venus’ doves,/ By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves,/ And by that fire which burned the Carthage queen/ When the false Trojan under sail was seen;/ By all vows that ever men have broke-/In number more than ever women spoke-/In that same place thou hast appointed me/ Tomorrow truly will I meet with thee.”

The simple AABB rhyme scheme Hermia speaks in creates a sing-song quality to her speech. Hermia’s love for Lysander seems magical and melodic because of the rhyming couplets that she speaks to him in. The romantic way that Hermia speaks is also an indication of the magical adventure that she, her friend Helena, her love Lysander and her adversary, Demitrius are about to embark on. Hermia makes references to several greek myths, Gods and events that give the impression that her love with Lysander is equal to the power of these Gods and their elopement will be equal to events that she mentions in her speech.

When Helena enters, she is upset because the love she feels for Demetrius is not reciprocated. The rhyme scheme Helena speaks with contradicts the tone of her speech, which is unlike the way Hermia’s rhyme scheme enhanced the words that she was saying. Helena begins in like 181, Act 1 Scene 1:

“Call you me fair? That ‘fair’ again unsay./ Demetrius loves your fair-O happy fair!/ Your eyes are lodestars, and your tongue’s sweet air/ more tuneable than lark to shepherd’s ear/ When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear.”

After Hermia’s loving words and excitement at the prospect of eloping with her true love, Helena’s depressed moans about not being loved seem almost out of place. The rhyme scheme creates a tone like a lament rather than a love song. The rhythm of the speech, though the same as Hermia’s original rhythm, creates the tone similar to that of a funeral march. The self deprecating way that Helena describes Hermia indicates the envy and spite that she is feeling. The clichés Helena uses, which she obviously wishes Demetrius would use in regards her, are almost spit at Hermia. As soon as Lysander calls her “fair Helena” she is immediately set off complaining about her love that has not been reciprocated. At the end of her speech, Helena says, “Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,/ The rest I’d give to be to you translated./ O, teach me how you look, and with what art/ You sway the motion of Demetrius’ heart.” I think many young people know what it is like to have feelings for someone who has feelings for a close friend. It’s so awkward! I think that Helena is so relatable in this moment when she asks Hermia what she is doing wrong in relation to Demetrius.

The young lovers in this story are unlike all of the other characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They do not seem to have many responsibilities and are all quite wealthy. The rhymes they speak in are indicative of the cushy lives they live. These women are privileged enough, even when complaining of unreciprocated love, to speak with flowery language.

Truth and Lies in Act I, Scene i of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is well known for questioning reality. A pattern of constantly questioning of truth versus lies or dreams, veracity or deception, is established from the beginning of the play, and we see many examples of it in just the first act, and it is constantly built upon The first moment where authenticity can be questioned is the opening of the show, between Theseus and Hippolyta. Theseus is obviously impatient, but Hippolyta seems more reserved and refers to the marriage as their “solemnities.” While “solemnities” does refer to the full formal religious occasion of marriage, is also implies a dignified and serious attitude. We know that Hippolyta was Queen of the Amazon, and Theseus has told us that he won her in battle (1.1.16-17). He then says that he wants to wed her ‘in another key,’ but they only have four days for this drastic shift in their relationship to occur. The tenuousness of this relationship calls into question the nature of their affections; are they genuine love or fondness, or are the feelings being forced by the situation?

Later in that same scene, Lysander and Hermia plot to steal away from Athens in the night(1.1.156). This situation offers an interesting mix of truth and lies. They are going to cheat Egeus and Theseus of their say in Hermia’s marriage so that they can live truthfully to themselves. Were they to stay, they would have to lie and deny or suppress their love for each other. Yet, in their deception they are truthful to Helena, which later causes a great deal of complications, and makes one wonder whether this honesty was slightly misplaced. Helena’s betrayal of their plot to Demetrius is a form of deception as well; Hermia and Lysander implicitly place in her the trust of silence and secrecy, and she disregards that to gain Demetrius’s favor (1.1.246). In the same speech Helena has also told us of Demetrius’s lies to her, which Lysander also pointed out in lines 106-110. This web of lies and deception only gets more complex as the show progresses, and upon introduction of the fairies, also includes the question of where fairies and human worlds collide or separate, which is real, or if both can co-exist as reality.

 

Shakespeare’s Looking-Glass: A Reflection Upon Gender Roles in The Bard’s Society and Beyond

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is always a fascinating play to revisit. As my life has progressed and as I learn more and more about society and culture, it has become a staple that constantly deserves a second glance. The social and cultural issues that arise upon reading the play are vast. Most notably is the role of gender. It is a comedy. And so, we all know the end result is going to be a happy one or at least a reconciled one. But when we begin to read it, there is a lot to speculate about what the perspective of Shakespeare could have been four hundred years ago. It makes sense that he would be satirizing the society of his native England within the piece, but how much is that outright social commentary? It is possible that he could have been spearheading a movement toward eventual social change by exposing the patriarchal system much of the Western world has lived by. But more likely (and obviously I am only speculating), he was making an observation about the role of gender in society that may or may not have been linked to any overt ideals about social change. However, I believe the play, from a contemporary standpoint, at least, has the makings of that.

The characters that signify the gender divide, at least in the first half of the play are the upper classes, in both the Athenian and Woodland societies. I find it puzzling that the great Amazon warrior queen, Hippolyta would be reduced to a trophy of Theseus. This suggests that within society, no matter how powerful or transcendent a woman might be, she is still inherently, and unfortunately dominated by the patriarchy. Hippolyta is notorious for hating and destroying men, yet when she is forced out of her Utopia,  we find that her power has been completely relinquished by the new society she has been adopted by. This has terrifying implications that resonates in contemporary society. Hippolyta, is no longer seen as a powerful warrior. She is seen as a prize, with her power diminished. She rarely speaks in the opening scene, once Egeus and Hermia arrive. And I find it puzzling that a woman of such strength would not stand up for another woman in a situation of overt masculine dominance. Hermia is her father’s slave basically. Amazonian Hippolyta would not stand for this. She would have destroyed Egeus. So, it appears that Shakespeare is suggesting the evolution of society was moving toward a much more male dominated one, as opposed to an equal one.

The realm of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream suggests something different. This magical, woodland oasis, is basically a mirror image of Athens, but just as it was when Alice or Mickey Mouse entered the mirror world, what is to be seen will be a distortion of the norms that have been set up in Athens. Oberon and Titania are just as regal as Hippolyta and Theseus, but unlike their two counterparts, they upset the patriarchal norms of Shakespeare day (and our day for that matter) and show a different perspective. Oberon, as opposed to Theseus, is outraged at the emasculation brought upon him by his wife Titania. Titania keeps the changeling child from him, hence igniting his anger. So, he must go to extreme lengths to try and gain back his pedestal. As opposed to Hippolyta, Titania has so much to say. Her poetry is eloquent and beautiful, she stands firm and tells Oberon how it is going to be. Contrary to what Oberon may strive for, there is much more equality in the fairy realm than there is in Athens. My ultimate criticism of this is that Shakespeare is suggesting that there needs to be a stroke of magic in order to create equality. And perhaps in the Elizabethan period, there did need to be miraculous events that shook the status quo. Hopefully, that kind of idealism was present in the mind of the Bard. But who can say? What we as contemporary readers need to do, is use this text as a springboard for social change. We don’t want to be Athens. And we don’t necessarily want to be the fairy realm either. We want to be a place where magic does not need to be in effect to bring about equality and social change.

Female Representation in Midsummer’s Night Dream acts I and II

While we already discussed the topic with considerable depth in class, I still can’t help but consider and mull over the thoughts about how the few women that have appeared thus far in the play are being treated by the men in their lives. While the treatment that Hippolyta, Titania and especially Hermia receive is not out of place for the time period that Shakespeare wrote this, it is still astounding, especially in regards to how some of them attempt to and even manage to resist their patriarchal constraints. Just within the first opening lines of the play, we can already see an established sense of power that Theseus has over Hippolyta when he says to her, “I wooed thee with my sword, and won thy love doing thee injuries” (I.I. 15-16). This type of relationship could potentially be seen as appropriate in regards to Hippolyta who is queen of the Amazons, a proud and fierce race of warrior women, and that the only possible means of obtaining her affection would be through combat, but the fact remains that she only has five lines of dialogue and in only regards to her upcoming marriage to Theseus, quickly making her seem much more subservient and meek compared to her normal station in life.

Comparatively, standing in opposition against the men in their lives, are Hermia and Titania. Upon being hounded by both her father, Egeus, and Theseus himself, with Theseus saying that Demetrius, the man that is to marry Hermia is a “worry gentleman”, Hermia’s first line of the play is to quickly counter with “So is Lysander” (I.I 52-53). Even after Theseus warns Hermia of the potential consequences for disobeying her father’s wishes could range from being an eternal virgin priestess for the moon goddess or even her own death, Hermia stands fast, saying, So will I grow, so live, so die, my lord, Ere I will yield my virgin patent up Unto his lordship, whose unwishèd yoke My soul consents not to give sovereignty” (I.I. 79-82). Even with all these threats, Hermia would rather wither away and die than give her virginity to someone she doesn’t love.

Finally, there is Titania standing in opposition against her husband, Oberon, with perhaps the most powerful and sentimental reasons for doing so: the defense of a child. Being the slightly selfish and manly man that he is, Oberon demands that Titania hand over the child so that he may be one of his “henchman”. Titania quickly tells him “set your heart at rest” and goes on to tell the story of a friendship she had with a vot’ress of her order and how “And in the spicèd Indian air by night Full often hath she gossiped by my side, And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands, Marking th’ embarkèd traders on the flood, When we have laughed to see the sails conceive And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind; Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait Following—her womb then rich with my young squire— Would imitate, and sail upon the land To fetch me trifles and return again As from a voyage, rich with merchandise. But she, being mortal, of that boy did die. And for her sake do I rear up her boy, And for her sake I will not part with him” (II.I124-137). Titania’s entire speech of her reasoning behind not giving up the child to Oberon not only serves as an act of defiance in the face of an oppressive patriarchal force, but also as a sort of explanation of a deep bond, possibly even the romantic kind of love that can be shared between two women.

On the surface it would appear that Shakespeare set up many if not all of his main female leads to be set up to crumble under the male influence and presences in their lives, but upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the women are much stronger and resilient. While all of them face some type of metaphorical and physical obstacle to overcome, much more can be said for a character overcoming adversity than simply walking through life unchallenged. It’d be interesting/nice to believe that this was Shakespeare’s intention when writing the women and their interactions with the men that way that he did. This way he could have at least been trying to say that it’s worth giving the woman room to speak up.

Post #1: The Deconstruction of Hippolyta

A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, even in its first act, is packed with readily dissectible content that allows us to continue the conversation of whether or not Shakespeare may be considered a proto-feminist. Looking first at Hippolyta, Shakespeare offers a female character with a startling contradiction of what should be ingrain characterization. Hippolyta is the queen of the Amazon, which entails, necessitates, even, intense personality attributes. During our discussion in class, we talked about some general information regarding the Amazonians: a matriarchal society that only seeks out men in order to reproduce, asserting that these are a very strong, very independent people. These people make up a female dominated society where, unlike in Shakespeare’s world (and still unlike our own), men are generally powerless, a characterization that isn’t contingent in a male dominated society. After some quick research, it’s notable that, according to Greek Mythos, the Amazonians also took place in the battle of Troy. The Amazon queen at the time, Penthesilea, even fought Achilles[1]. That’s, as Shakespeare wouldn’t put it, totally badass. So, if the Amazonians are defined by such strengths and mythology, as mentioned in class, and in articles and research done on the Amazonians, why is Hippolyta mute during Theseus’ conversations with Egeus in 1.1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Why doesn’t she stand up for Hermia, who is being threatened with death for wanting to marry Lysander, urging the King to let Hermia marry who she wants to? Hippolyta, keeping in mind her cultural background, should stand up for another female character. She should probably even urge Hermia not to marry anyone. Hippolyta doesn’t defend Hermia though. She’s actually going to be married in four days herself. There is no stage direction or dialogue that dictates Hippolyta left the scene prior to the conversation (or after speaking her one line of dialogue, for that matter). This detail denies any question of whether or not Hippolyta overheard the conversation, making her involvement in the situation even more puzzling. Instead of developing on what ought to be inherently Amazonian traits (strength, independence, authority, and so on), Shakespeare seems to have removed them from Hippolyta altogether. She displays, in her silence, submissiveness to the patriarchy she should detest—a deconstructing of what should be her innate characterization.

Hippolyta’s silence brings to question a few matters: 1) Has she lost faith in the Amazonian matriarchy and the values that come with it? 2) Is she going to have a significant actualization of identity later on in the play? 3) Is she actually happy to be marrying Theseus, which might explain her silence, making it an action of agreement with Theseus, rather than submissiveness? I think question one can be answered by answering the latter two. Being familiar with the play, I’m fairly sure that Hippolyta fails to re-identify with her Amazonian culture. If memory serves me correct, and as per the rules of comedy, everyone gets married off and is, pretty much, happy. Which brings me to questions 3. I’m not sure how this will stand as we finish the play, but I don’t think she feels genuinely for Theseus. Looking at her dialogue in 1.1.7-11, we can note that Hippolyta’s lines aren’t adorned by any sort of exclamation marks or significant pauses that might indicate excitement for her wedding with Theseus. With the exception of two end stops, before the sentence finally ends, the line is especially concise for someone preparing to marry—it seems rushed. Hippolyta states:

Four days will quickly steep themselves in night,
Four nights will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
Now bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.

She doesn’t use any language that would suggest excitement, either. Hippolyta is merely stating facts: four days will quickly pass, four nights will quickly pass, and the moon will then witness the marriage between Hippolyta and Theseus. Furthermore, the image of the silver bow suggests a surrendering of Hippolyta’s independence. The moon, looking down like a “silver bow,” paints the picture of something more hostile than marriage. The “solemnities,” the ceremony that will take place between Theseus and Hippolyta sounds more like a misnamed hostage situation. The use of “solemnities” in place of “marriage” or “celebration,” is certainly telling of Hippolyta’s disdain for her situation. Incongruently, Theseus’ dialogue shows excitement, it shows that he is at least interested in the wedding. He talks about how “slow [the] old moon wanes!” and his “desires” to marry (3-4). Marriage to Hippolyta is something Theseus makes blatantly clear he wants. Shakespeare accents this interest with punctuation. Theseus is exclaiming his thoughts, he’s passionate, even if it’s not a romantic passion. Hippolyta completely juxtaposes this, though. She doesn’t make any clear insinuations that she is invested in any other way other than obligation, other than force, in the marriage. Maybe Amazonian Hippolyta is still in that conscious, somewhere? Shakespeare, despite his subdued representation of Hippolyta, leaves this suggestion open.

It’s not fair to conclude that Shakespeare is or is not a proto-feminist based solely on his representation of Hippolyta, but her character is certainly a considerable one to analyze under a feminist perspective. AMSND still offers Hermia and Helena for analysis that digs deeper into the possible anti or pro feminist readings in the text. I think this is a conversation worth having while analyzing this play, as well as Shakespeare’s other works, too.

[1] Check out this link: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/amazon-women-there-any-truth-behind-myth-180950188/?no-ist
It’s not exactly what we’d look for, as far as something peer reviewed or critically credible, but it’s interesting and backed by the Smithsonian. That counts for something, I think.