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Madison Giannattasio

Andrea Harbin
ENG 441
6 April 2014
Shifting Power Dynamics
Within Shakespeares A Midsummer Nights Dream there are two inherent power
structures that coincide with each other: Fairies versus mortals, and men versus women;
however, these two power dynamics come into conflict when a male mortal holds sway
over a female fairy, circumventing the hierarchy.
The most obvious and overarching of the power dynamics is the sway the fairies
have over the mortal world, as it is the fairies meddling that spurns on all of the drama in
the woods that drives the plot of A Midsummer Nights Dream. In any relationship where
one party cannot see the other, but the latter can see both, there is bound to be an
imbalance of power. Despite all of the meddling with their lives, Demetrius, Lysander,
Hermia, and Helena are none-the-wiser to their antics. As far as they can tell, their
switching affections and miraculous solution to the marriage problem by the end of their
night under the stars is perfectly normal, while the reader, and the fairies know otherwise.
Now, while the fairies could abuse this power differential, Shakespeare writes none of
that. Sure, theres a bit of trickery when Puck changes Bottoms head to that of an ass,
but hes never brought to any real harm. Take, for example, the scene between Oberon
and Puck where the former is explaining to Puck how to use the special flower to bring
about love:
Oberon: A sweet Athenian lady is in love
With a disdainful youth. Anoint his eyes,

But do it when the next thing he espies

May be the lady. (II.i.260-3)
Oberon is careful in his instructions to Puck that he anoint Demetrius eyes so that he
looks upon Helena, which would put an end to all of the problems set out in the
exposition. In theory, Oberon had the best intentions and did not want everything to go
awry. This holds true with a lot of fairy lore, as evidenced by Aubreys account:
When I was a boy, our country people would talk much of
them [fairies]. They were wont to please the fairies that the
might do them no shrewd turns by sweeping clean the
hearth and setting by it a dish where was set a mess of milk
sopped with white bread; and did set their shoes by the fire
and many times on the morrow they should fined a
threepence in one of them. (311)
Everyone was well aware what the fairies might be capable of, if they really existed, and
so they always left out gifts. In return, the fairies would leave behind trinkets or pennies
to return the fair tidings. While the fairies dont seek to do any real ill will, they have the
power to do so if theyre unhappy.
Within the power structure of fairies controlling humans, there is the gender
dynamic at play; evidenced in the fairy world between Oberon and Titania. One of the
several subplots of A Midsummer Nights Dream is the relationship between Oberon and
Titania. Titania has taken on a nymph boya child of a fairy in her court---and Oberon is
far from pleased. He wants her to give the child over to him, and she refuses, spurning on
a quarrel. Deciding to get back at her, Oberon instructs Puck to use the same flower he
used on the young lovers, thus using magic to control her while she is sleeping and
helpless to stop it. By disobeying Oberon and keeping the child, Titania has threatened
his male ego, and he must reassert his dominance to feel as if hes righted that wrong.
After mocking her for magically falling for an ass-faced Bottom, Oberon decides to

release Titania from loving Bottom, and uses the flower to make her fall hopelessly for
her again, against her will:
Oberon: But first I will release the Fairy Queen.
Be as thou wast wont to be;
See as thou wast wont to see.
Dians bud oer Cupids flower
Hath such force and blessed power.
Now, my Titania, wake you, my sweet queen. (IV.i.65-70)
By calling her my sweet queen, Oberon is claiming ownership over Titania, and thanks
to the bud of Cupids flower, she is helpless to do anything about it. He takes the
power dynamic of man over woman that Titania subverted with her disobedience, and
amends it to suit his needs.
Just like Oberon holds the ultimate sway over Titania, the futures of Hermia and
Helena are dependent on Demetrius and Lysander. There were many rules and customs in
the world Shakespeare was writing in for women like Hermia and Helena. It was these
rules and expectations that set a precedent for women and helped to build an
institutionalized power dynamic between men and women that can still be seen today.
For example, Vives wrote in his Christian Womans Instruction book:
Wherefore the words that the man spake of the woman,
saying for her sake a man should leave both father and
mother and abide with his wife, the same words the woman
ought both to say and think with more reason. For although
there be one made of two, yet the woman is as daughter
unto her husband, and of nature more weaker. (325)
In a simpler English, Vives is explaining that, when a couple is married, both must leave
their parents, but as the woman is the weaker sex, she is still like a daughter to her
husband as he is to have the same authority over her life as a parent over a child. Even
though Helena and Hermia show some kind of autonomy by making the decision to run

into the woods that night in persuit of love and freedom, by entering marriage, they are
handing over that same autonomy to Demetrius and Lysander when they put the rings on
their fingers. Furthermore, Demetrius and Lysander have the power because they are the
ones who have the final say over who they marry, and can choose a bride that best suits
their needs. Niccholes wrote a guide to this very process entitled, A Discourse of
Marriage and Wiving, in which he wrote:
It is a fashion much in use in these times to choose wives as
chapmen sell their wares, with Quantum dabitis? What is
the most you will give? And if their parents, or guardians
shall reply their virtues are their portions, and others have
they one, let them be as dutiful as Sara, as virtuous as
Anna, as obedient as the Virgin Mary. (337)
Essentially, Niccholes is dictating to men that they must choose their wives as they
choose their other possessions. Are they getting a good price? Will they be dutiful and
virtuous and obedient? While women must stand around like wares, men can hold the
final say over what becomes of the rest of their lives. Helena and Hermia are completely
dependent on what Demetrius and Lysander think of them, and whether or not they are
desirable will impact their lives forever. Its that fact that reinforces the overarching
power dynamic.
With all of the above evidence in effect, an interesting discourse is opened when
both power dynamics cross, putting forth Shakespeares reinforcement of the typical
status quo of power. As the rest of this essay has highlighted, there are two predominant
power dynamics: fairies versus mortals, and men versus women. In both cases, the former
holds a powerful sway over the latter. So that raises the question of what would happen if
there was a relationship between a male mortal and a female fairy? Would her
classification as a fairy give her ultimate control over the male mortal, or would his sex

be the determining factor in the relationship? The relationship between Bottom and
Titania is a prime example. When Oberon puts the drops from the flower in Titanias
eyes, she awakens and espies Bottom with an ass head and falls deeply in love. There are
several aspects of this that are problematic. Firstly, that Titania had no autonomy or
choice when it came to falling in love with Bottom as it can all be attributed to the
magical drops that Oberona manput in her eyes. Next, it was a mortal man, which
disrupts the power dynamic ingrained in the world of A Midsummer Nights Dream.
Finally, to add insult to injury, Bottom has the head of an ass, adding in the symbolism of
Titania, a fairy queen, being reduced to falling in love with an animal. Any questions of
her submission to Bottom can be dismissed with their interchanges:
Titania: What, wilt though hear some music, my sweet
Bottom: I have reasonable good ear in music. Lets have
the tongs and the bones.
Titania: Or say, sweet love, what though desirest to eat.
Titania is wholly devoted to giving Bottom everything she can to make him happy with
no regard to the position of power she has as a fairy queen. And on top of it, Oberon
allows it because it reasserts his own masculinity to see the woman who dared disobey
his wishes subjected to loving an ass. With this relationship, Shakespeare firmly sets his
stance in alignment with the patriarchal society he lives in, and does nothing to subvert
those norms; no matter fairy or mortal, a woman is meant to be second to a man.

Works Cited
Aubrey, John. "The Remains of Gentilism and Judaism." A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Ed. Gail K. Paster and Skiles Howard. Boston: The Bedford Shakespeare Series,
1999. 310-13. Print.
Niccholes, Alexander. "A Discourse of Marriage and Wiving." The Merchant of Venice.
Ed. Lindsay Kaplan. Boston: The Bedford Shakespeare Series, 2002. 336-39.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night's Dream. Ed. Gail K. Paster and Skiles
Howard. Boston: The Bedford Shakespeare Series, 1999. 12-85. Print.
Vives, Juan L. "The Instrution of a Christian Woman." The Merchant of Venice. Ed.
Lindsay Kaplan. Boston: The Bedford Shakespeare Series, 2002. 319-27. Print.

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