Shakespearian Comedy Essay

Submitted By Hoffster16
Words: 1484
Pages: 6

Ryan Hoffman 10/25/12
Shakespeare Friedberg
Contesting Patriarchal Marriage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Marriage during Shakespeare’s time period was more than just a relationship between two willing parties but rather an arrangement for transferring property between families and generations of legitimate children. According to historian Lawrence Stone, “Marriage was used as an institutional device to ensure the perpetuation of the family and its property through multiple generations.” The transfer of property from generation to generation along the male line was a consequence of patriarchal rule during the Elizabethan age. Women were treated as property and their ownership was changed through the constitution of marriage. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s use of comedy serves to contest patriarchal law though the creation of a fantasy world in which love has no bounds. In 17th century society women were treated as property that the father rightfully owned. The father has the right to sell his property to a suitor of his choosing. A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins with the end of a struggle between Theseus, the heroic duke of Athens, and his future Amazonian wife Hippolyta. Having claimed Hippolyta with his sword on the battlefield, Theseus has a necessary lust for marriage to gain full possession of his property. The ancient traditions of Athens that disallow ones daughter from choosing a husband become an Elizabethan reality that dominates the patriarchal rule observed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play begins with a way of representing ancient mythic Athens though the contesting of patriarchal law. Egeus is introduced as a father full of complaints against his daughter Hermia. In the following passage Egeus asserts his right to the duke Theseus to choose whom his daughter is to marry in accordance with Athenian law: I beg the ancient privilege of Athens: As she is mine, I may dispose of her, Which shall be either to this gentlemen Or to her death, according to our law (1.1.41-4)

Through the allegation of this ancient privilege of Athens, Egeus’ insistence is that Hermia either respect his wishes or be punished according to Athenian law. Egeus claims that the law gives the patriarch the power to choose his child's mate because she is his property. She must become the sexual property of the man he has chosen or she must die. Theseus defends this declaration, in part because of his representation of power and order in the play, but also in an attempt to affirm his male dominance and to eventually claim his own property, Hippolyta, through the very act of marriage itself. Theseus states: To whom you are but as a form in wax, By him imprinted, and within his power To leave the figure or disfigure it (1.1.49-52)

In this play, male supremacy is viewed as a culture norm and not a biological inheritance. Patriarchal society is a perfect image of the kind of laws that govern courtship and marriage. Theseus denies Hermia of the privilege to own and use her own body. Egeus acts as the imprinter highlighting male dominance and property rights in Elizabethan society. He can thus ‘leave the figure’ or ‘disfigure it,’ meaning that Egeus has power over his possession Hermia and can dictate whom she is to marry. We will see that the patriarchal laws that reign supreme in this society fall apart within the whimsical dream realm of the forest. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare contests patriarchal marriage through the use of fantasy and magic. Magic is as the only way to resolve the dark contradictory sexual desire that cannot be fulfilled under patriarchal law. Fairies act as the benevolent and benign recurrent forces in nature to provide the solving of a seemingly insolvable problem in this society. In the play, magic takes precedence over rule and love has no restrictions. Shakespeare uses magic both to