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Treatment of Women in Society in Shakespeare’s Plays

The audience of all art forms perceives and forms different ideas from the works of art. In this context, some readers may find the treatment of women in William Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, unreasonable and, therefore, troubling. The readers may have several reasons for forming the opinion. Some instances, based on which the readers have formed such opinion, can be evidenced from Act-I, Scene 1, when Egeus brings forth a dispute to Theseus, the Duke of Athens, about his daughter Hermia, who refuses to marry the man her father has chosen for her. Instead, she chooses another man, with equal standing in their community. Theseus warns her that the denials can lead to a punishment of death or a sentence of life as a nun. I believe that this may disturb some readers; especially the fact that Egeus seems to be fine with this, which makes the audience believe that Egeus doesn’t really care about Hermia or her feelings. This implies that as a man, Egeus is only concerned with his honor and pride and he attaches no value to Hermia’s feelings. By portraying such instances, the play tries to illustrate how women are mistreated in society; but it does not intend to mistreat women.

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Another instance in this play where readers might find the treatment of women to be troubling is in Act-II, Scenes 1 and 2, where Helena chases Demetrius through the forest, proclaiming her love and adoration for him. But Demetrius insults her and tries to avoid her. He tells her, “I’ll run from thee and hide me in the brakes, And leave thee to the mercy of wild beasts.” (2.1.227). This will offend many readers because not only is Demetrius’ treatment of Helena quite harsh, but Helena also disrespects her femininity by continuing this pursuit and allowing this sort of treatment.

Similarly, Oberon’s treatment of Titania will also disturb some readers because of how they perceive it as mistreatment of women. Titania is Oberon’s wife and he makes her fall in love with the ass-headed Bottom, simply to get his way, or as revenge for not having gotten his way. Some people might believe that Oberon sees his wife’s love and emotions as things that he can just manipulate to fit his agenda.

The treatment of women in A Midsummer Night’s Dream may seem somewhat troubling, but I don’t see it as unfair. So far it concerns the scene where Egeus brings his daughter before the Duke, Shakespeare is simply painting a picture of situations that have happened in his time. Whether the situation is true or made-up, it speaks more of the injustices of the time than negatively about women. There is no evidence to prove that the author wanted to hinder the women’s movement or imply that women do not deserve respect and honor. It is, however, well documented that marriages in those times were more for social reasons than for love and affection. As Western society kept evolving, people came to understand how wrong it was; but for those who lived in that era, this was perfectly acceptable. So, judging this play on the basis of the social norms of today would be unfair.

The manner in which Egeus treats Hermia in this play is not much different from the way Capulet treats Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Initially, Capulet gives the impression that he really cares about Juliet’s feelings and well-being. He tells Paris, Juliet’s prospective husband, to wait two summers because his daughter isn’t even fourteen yet. Also, he makes it seem that Juliet’s choice matters. He says, “But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart; My will to her consent is but a part; And, she agreed, within her scope of choice Lies my consent and fair-according voice.” (R&J 1.2.16-19). But as soon as Capulet senses that his family may need the political influence that his daughter’s marriage to Paris will bring, the concept of caring gives way to his ulterior motives. When Juliet makes it known that she doesn’t want to marry Paris, Capulet sort of flies off the handle. He calls his daughter a disobedient wretch and tells her, “hang, beg, starve, die in the streets, For, by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee, Nor what is mine shall never do thee good.” (R&J 3.5.193-5). This sort of treatment is another characteristic of those times, rather than the author’s intention to tarnish the image of women. The play just conveys the truth that females in those days were expected to go along with whatever their parents decided was best for them.

In Richard III, also the author narrates instances where women were made to marry without regard for how they feel or what they think of their prospective mates. Lady Anne was persuaded to marry Richard after he was partly responsible for killing her husband. However, afterward Richard felt that it would be more politically beneficial for him to marry his niece Elizabeth, and murders Lady Anne in order to clear his way. This, once again, proves that marriage was strictly a social institution in those days and females never had the freedom to exercise their right of choice. Richard had to know that Lady Anne would or could never love him after what he had done and Elizabeth could definitely never love him after what he had done to her brothers. Even if he hadn’t done that, Richard was much older than her besides being a creepy uncle; the type of uncle that most kids would try to avoid. Richard did not care whether these women loved him or not, as it was accepted that these marriages were strictly for political gain.

So far it relates to the episode of Helena chasing Demetrius and demeaning herself, I believe that if the situation was reversed, and it was the man that was chasing the woman who was insulting him, it wouldn’t be controversial at all. This isn’t troubling, nor should it be considered troubling. Shakespeare is not saying women should act this way, and he is not advocating Demetrius’ treatment of her. On the contrary, the fact that Helena is made to look like a fool here may prevent some readers from thinking in this fashion, when they see how others perceive her.

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Titania’s treatment by her husband Oberon might also seem troubling, but how could anyone complain about Titania being mistreated when Bottom’s head was turned into the head of an ass. There may be mistreatment in this story, but I don’t believe it is discriminatory.

The way I see it, it is not troubling that women are mistreated in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is mostly a reflection of what happened in those times and probably for many generations before Shakespeare’s time. If I were to write a story about how Iran still approves of stoning women who commit adultery, I wouldn’t be mistreating women, nor would my story be mistreating women. I would simply be speaking of what I know is written in their code of laws as of last year. On the contrary, it might help their cause to bring it up to an audience who is not aware of it. Though this was probably not the case with Shakespeare, it would be unfair to say he or his story is mistreating women. It is known that Shakespeare was an avid reader of history and that he liked to write about what he read. I am sure he read about how women were treated in the past, and he had to be insensitive not to recognize it in his own time. The only way that I would find the treatment of women in this story to be troubling is if the story itself contributed to this mistreatment. If that is the case then I agree that it is troubling, but I know this was going on long before this play.

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