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Modern vs Contemporary View on "A Midsummernight's Dream"

In: English and Literature

Submitted By Viiinc
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Modern vs Contemporary perspective on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

At first glance, none of the characters in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” seem to react out of the ordinary. Although the setting does seem a lot more favorable for men, a modern reader gets used to it quite quickly, since this is often the case in literature. However, when thinking and reading like a contemporary reader, the play appears in a whole new light. There are women in the play, which take the situation in their own hands and are making their own choices. A contemporary reader would have seen this agency that the women do possess much differently than we do today.

Hermia is the prime example for a woman in the play with a lot of agency. Very shortly into the play, the standing of the women in society is clearly established. Theseus says:
“What say you, Hermia? Be advised, fair maid.
To you your father should be as a god,
One that composed your beauties, yea, and one
To whom you are but a form in wax
By him imprinted, and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.” [1.1 46 – 1.1 51]
Hermia is not enabled, by the men around her to make her own choices. She should clearly have no agency; the paternal law doesn’t allow her to. At the time, this was the way of the world and most societies at the time had some variation of this law. A reader back then would’ve thus just nodded in agreement and continued reading. Modern readers, however, don’t agree with this law. We’ve been trying to establish gender equality for years. It seems wrong to us, to see women treated this way. When Hermia thus decides to run away with Lysander, a modern reader supports her. She’s forcefully getting her own agency, which is a big success for her, she gets to make her own choices. Back in Shakespeare’s days, the reader would most likely condemn her actions. It’s not normal for a woman, to have agency, that’s foolish and wrong. If a reader was progressive, he would have grasped how symbolic these actions are and how the society should maybe allow women to have more agency. Those readers, however, were rare. The two readers thus look at her from opposite sides of the spectrum: She’s seen as progressive by the modern reader, and foolish by the average contemporary reader.

Another example of a strong woman in the play is Titania, if she can be called that. Oberon demands the boy from her, but she sees right through him and does not apply to his orders. She is sure about what she wants to do and expresses that very clearly:
“Set your heart at rest.
The fairyland buys not the child of me.” [2.1, 122 f.]
“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.” [2.1, 135 – 137]
She clearly made this choice for herself. She choses not to give in to make a point against a man which is clearly in a more favorable position. Although the fairy world doesn’t seem to be as divided, he still is the king a she the queen. This clearly upsets Oberon. His wife prefers this boy to him, the fairy king. This is then why he uses the magic of cupid to bring her back on his side. That’s how a contemporary reader sees it. He needs to discipline his disobedient wife by making her fall in love with a stupid creature. As he puts it himself:
“Well, go thy way. Thou shalt not from this grove
Till I torment thee for this injury. —“ [2.1, 146 f.]
He completely robs her of her agency, just to help his cause. A modern reader, again, also thinks about the women’s rights, and thus criticizes this approach. Oberon uses unfair methods and controls her mind, essentially enslaving her. For a modern reader this is wrong on many levels, but for a reader at the time, this is how it should be.

The opposite example shows the different perspectives as well. Hippolyta is won by Theseus in war. She is just his prize, as he even states himself:
“Hippolyta, I wooed 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 revelling.” [1.1, 16-19]
This is completely accepted in the society of the book, nobody lifts a finger against this. From a modern, western point of view, this would be simply unacceptable, but at the time it was still all right. After they marry, Hippolyta is exactly the wife she should be. She simply does everything her husband tells her to. At the time, she would have been the perfect woman, she has no agency and no free will, for the reader today, she just seems dull and too passive. She lets herself be oppressed way too much and should stand up for her own rights.

A modern reader then interprets all of the women’s actions differently than the contemporary. Everything, which makes a woman more independent of men is interpreted positively from todays perspective, and for the reader at the time it would’ve been exactly the opposite way around. The historical context of the play thus changes a lot of how we decide to read it, the modern reader can see it as a socio-critical play while a reader at the time could’ve seen it as such, but also as a reminder to pay attention that the women don’t get out of control. After all, the men need to keep all the agency they have.

Word count: 957…...

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