Shakespeare and the Problem with Proto-Feminism

Written Emily Ogden

Earlier this month, one of our contributing general staff members, Eleni Theodoropoulos, wrote an inaugural post for our “The Female Odyssey” column, about women and magic in fairy tales. Today, Emily Ogden contributes to that column as she talks about women in Shakespeare.

If you are a fan of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare, then I apologize in advance for this installment of our “Female Odyssey” column, in which I may just ruin this play for you. Shakespeare is widely regarded as a “proto-feminist,” one ahead of his time due to the strong female characters that often appear in his Renaissance plays. While I agree that he writes women who “talk the talk”—there are plenty of sassy, brilliant ladies that outwit their male counterparts—as far as being allowed to :walk the walk,” these same women are often completely robbed of agency in his stories.

This is a blog post and not a term paper, so I chose some particular instances in a single play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for two reasons: 1) because it is perhaps best known for its dreamlike whimsy, people are sometimes surprised that beneath the comedy, Shakespeare is discussing issues of gender and love, and 2) The Tempest or The Taming of the Shrew would have been too easy. When you look at this play beneath the surface, as we’ll do here, it’s not quite so funny. For example, Shakespeare plays a bit with gender roles, which is great, but there are some huge problems with his approach, especially when it comes to poor Helena. Hopelessly in love with Demetrius, Helena tells him to “run when you will. The story shall be changed: / Apollo flies and Daphne holds the chase” (2.1.237-238). Out of context, this role reversal looks like a progressive concept, but Helena’s desperation gives her no version of agency. In the scene, Helena is actually endangered by this gender role transformation, as an angered Demetrius threatens to “do thee mischief in the wood,” and since he is still the stronger, this is a very real threat (2.1.244). Therein lies the problem with gender role reversal in his time: despite a reversal in roles, there is not a reversal in power. Although Helena can chase Demetrius, she cannot overpower him.

While it’s probable that Shakespeare knew about the issues in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he doesn’t move to solve this issue of agency in his plays. By the end of this specific play, Titania the fairy queen was duped and subjected to humiliation, then only granted mercy after having to give up a child who was basically her godson. And after the wedding of Hippolyta and Theseus, guess which two people don’t say a single word? Helena and Hermia. Seriously, they don’t have a single line in the last act. All of this icky stuff gets brushed under the comedy rug, and then Puck shows up and asks us all to just move on with life. I am not saying that all of the women in Shakespeare’s plays need to be strong leaders, but I am saying that the ones who should are never given the option. The problem with accepting Shakespeare’s proto-feminism in today’s world is that while he appears to recognize some of the problems in his own world, he does not appear to try to fix them, even in his fictional play. He hints at progressivism, but does not grant agency along with his views. Fortunately, plays are subject to the creativity of the director, and while I do not hate Shakespeare, I am happy that modern directors are doing their best to fix the problems in his stories. Something that is read and studied so vigorously for centuries should be subject to scrutiny and change. Whether your favorite lady in Shakespeare is Isabella, Lady Macbeth, or Ophelia, for all their great characteristics, these women of Shakespeare deserve to have choice to go along with their voice.  

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