In the opening of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, conflict over marriage exposes the gender inequalities that lie at the heart of Athenian society. In Egeus’ domineering attitude towards Hermia, Shakespeare depicts the ways in which noblemen have control over females. In the introduction of a world in which humans and supernatural creatures co-exist, the play challenges the type of patriarchy represented by Egeus. The intersection of these worlds and genders brings about confusion and comedy that is most explicitly represented by the play Pyramus and Thisbe, the play within the play performed by the workers. Throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare uses the comedy of confusion to challenge and undermine the traditional power structures of society.
In the love plots involving Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius, Shakespeare generates comedy by making a distinction between authoritarian power structures and the individual desires of the lovers. The play begins with Theseus’ insistence that Hermia must either marry Demetrius or face exile or die. Theseus emphasizes the penalty she faces: “For disobedience to your father’s will,/ or else to wed Demetrius, as he would,/ or on Diana’s alter to protest/ for aye austerity and single life.” (Act 1 scene 1, 89-92) This decision represents the power structure of the Athenian state in which daughters are expected to demonstrate loyalty to their fathers, and are left with essentially have no freedom. A counterpoint to this strict law is provided by the comedy and confusion in the woods, which helps to restore natural and healthy relationships. Robin’s mistakes result in unstable identities, which contrast with the untenable focus on fixed identities in the Athenian law: “It is not Hermia, but Helena I love./ Who will not change a raven for a dove?/ The will of man is by his reasons swayed,/ and reason says you are the worthier maid.” Lysander, who was originally in love with Hermia, now regards her as a “raven” that he has swapped for a “dove.” Lysander believes that he is now seeing reasonably, but ironically his vision has shifted. The audience laughs at this moment because Lysander, like Demetrius, abruptly changes his preferences with little explanation. Yet it is only through the temporary loss of their identities that the four lovers are able to be truly reconciled to each other. It is Robin’s mistakes and the confusion that ensues that ultimately result in Theseus’ recognition of Hermia’s love and the overturning of Athenian power structures.
In the intersection of the supernatural and human worlds, Shakespeare uses the comedy of confusion to undermine social hierarchies. Amidst the chaos that takes place in the woods, Oberon’s flower juice causes Titania to fall in love with Bottom, a weaver temporarily wearing a donkey’s head. This comical scene demonstrates an inversion of traditional power relations. In contrast to the world of humans in which women are subservient to men, in the supernatural world, roles are reversed, and this leads to more comedy: “Out of this wood do not desire to go. Thou shalt remain here whether thou wilt or no.” (Act 3 scene 1, 153) Although the flower juice has caused Titania to fall in love with Bottom, she has complete control over him and doesn’t care about his needs or desires. By saying “out of this wood do not desire to go,” Titania also implies that Bottom himself can escape traditional power relations by staying in the woods, where normal social rules don’t apply. Even though Bottom himself is trapped, he is also living out a fantasy by being the one desired by the fairy queen. Through the comical image of Bottom’s relationship to Titania, Shakespeare mixes the human world with the supernatural world to demonstrate the absurdity of human hierarchy. This scene also subverts the traditional power of beauty. Titania claims “so is mine eye enthralled to thy shape” (Act 3 scene 1, 141). Here there is an inversion in the way in which beauty is experienced and perceived. One would not usually think of a part man-part beast as a thing of beauty. Through this satire, the audience questions social power structures and causes us to reconfigure our notions of power and beauty.
The play Pyramus and Thisbe challenges social convention and offers comic relief through its unwittingly confusing challenge to power structures. The play is comical because it isn’t appropriate for a wedding and it doesn’t fulfill any regular theatrical conventions, such as a good script and competent acting. Quince describes the play as “the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe.” (Act 1 Scene 2, 11-13) Here Shakespeare mixes genres, just like he does in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is significant because comedy alleviates the potential tragedy involved in the plot with the four lovers. Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding is a traditional Athenian ceremony that exemplifies the order of the state. This absurd and chaotic performance undermines the wedding, because the play and the characters themselves are at odds with, and therefore parody, the seriousness of the occasion. Theseus is intrigued by the perplexing description of the play, and indeed its confused agenda functions as a way of eliminating all the tension from the rest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both Bottom and Theseus are egotists, and Shakespeare mocks their egotism along with traditional power norms, because Bottom’s narcissism so clearly echoes the pomposity of Theseus. Bottom most obviously functions as comic relief from those who represent power. He and the other actors generate chaos and confusion while preparing for the wedding. Bottom’s head is turned into that of a donkey, Flute is forced to play a woman, and they all continuously edit and restage the performance to make it appropriate for the audience and the occasion. This chaotic preparation exposes the absurdity of the normally seamless occasion that is a wedding. It also mocks the notion of a “perfect” Athenian ceremony. However, the play’s nonsensical nature is well received and it essentially helps bring about social harmony. What could potentially be catastrophic is ultimately unifying.
In the final resolution to the conflict between parents and lovers, Shakespeare expresses his own opinions about power structures and the necessary freedom of the individual. In contrast to the beginning of the play, which is dominated by ugly power threats, the finale sees Theseus acquiescing to the desires of the four lovers. While the actual performance of Pyramus and Thisbe can hardly be considered a complete success, Shakespeare implies that theater itself has helped bring about the final reunification. By the end of the play, Athenian society appears tolerant and more harmonious.
Aquinnah Fox, Age 17, Grade 12, The Fieldston School High School, Gold Key