One of the persistent topics of interest in the field of Shakespeare studies is that which considers the various roles that women play in the bard’s comedies and tragedies. Literary and historical scholars affirm that women did not enjoy political, economic, or social parity with men during Shakespeare’s time and this historical reality is important to keep in mind when analyzing the variety of female characters in the plays of Shakespeare. In this Shakespearean society, it was men who held exclusively the official posts of authority and power, and men who possessed the agency and influence to direct the outcome of events.
Nevertheless, the careful reader notices a curious trend in many of Shakespeare’s plays: many of Shakespeare’s female characters exercise a rather great deal of subtle forms of power and influence, and often do so in unusual and even subversive ways that challenge traditional gender roles. Although the male characters generally fail to notice or refuse to acknowledge women’s authority and influence openly, they are affected by it, often significantly so, and although Shakespeare himself might not have been “aware of the dissonances he create[d]” (Lindheim 679), the contemporary reader cannot help but be aware of them and in many cases, to view many of the characters present in several plays by Shakespeare as some of the main motivators of action as well as some of the most complex characters overall.
Some of the most interesting female characters in Shakespeare’s oeuvre are Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Viola and Olivia in Twelfth Night, and Gertrude, the Queen of Denmark and Hamlet’s mother, in Hamlet. Although each of these women finds herself in a social position and challenging situation that differs from the other, and though each employs a unique strategy for coping with her problems and contesting gender roles by exerting authority and influence subtly and subversively, these four women are similar in that they all insist upon their right to direct their own destinies and, at times, the destinies of others as well. Furthermore, all three of these female characters from the aforementioned plays are all quite developed and are in many ways some of the most complex characters presented in their respective plays. As literary critic Ehnenn remarks regarding the women in many of Shakespeare’s works, these characters, both in their own time and in ours, “reveal tensions and ruptures” in traditional gender roles and ideologies that are not resolved easily (319). Although Shakespeare permits some of the female characters to exist fully outside of conventional norms, others are put back into their place, so to speak, provoking an anxiety that gender roles are “neither stable nor essential” (Ehnnen 319). In other words, there is a constant tug-of-war in terms of gender and power in many of these works where women are at once exerting a great deal of power and influence while on the other hand are often being set back or marginalized at other points; there is no certainty.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the reader recognizes right away that Hermia is no ordinary woman. Her father, Egeus, has dragged Hermia off to Theseus’s court in a desperate attempt to compel his daughter to comply with his wish that she marry Demetrius, rather than her beloved, Lysander. Egeus does not choose the court on a whim; rather, he is hopeful that by taking Hermia to the literal and symbolic seat of the highest authority of the land, she will recognize and honor masculine authority and, by extension, will comply with traditional gender roles, which dictated that a woman should marry to either preserve or advance social ties and familial goals, not to gratify her own romantic or sexual needs or desires. Egeus, who has arrived at the court “full of vexation…and complaint against [his] child” (I.i.22-23), is so insistent about the importance of maintaining the dominant gender paradigm that he entreats Theseus to use the full weight and penalty of the law to punish his daughter if she does not obey, even if the punishment means death. Theseus, clearly invested in maintaining the prevailing social order because it advances his own interests, concurs with Egeus, and admonishes Hermia, saying, “To you, your father should be as a god…/[O]ne to whom you are but as a form in wax/By him imprinted….” (I.i.47,49). In other words, gender roles and expectations are being stated to this strong female character in no uncertain terms.
What is remarkable about Hermia’s response to both her father and to Theseus is that it is impassioned but logical, convincing but calm. She protests, but is neither aggressive nor apologetic in doing so. In fact, Hermia deploys a clever and intelligent argumentative strategy to respond to the men and to maintain her own position and the right to direct her own destiny rather than have it chosen for her and uses the fine art of rhetoric to defend her ideas as opposed to simply her gender or sexuality. “I know not by what power I am made bold,” Hermia begins thoughtfully but not tentatively, “But I beseech your grace that I may know the worst that may befall me in this case….” (I.i.58, 61). With this statement, Hermia demonstrates respect for authority by using the formal address of “your grace,” but articulates clearly that she is a woman who will decide what she deems best for herself based on a consideration of the consequences of the alternatives that are available to her. Interestingly though, she is using the delicate but weighty issue of power within her own defense, thus is offering a nod to the fact that there are such power differences between genders but not allowing this to completely dominate her and not allow her to make her own decision. When Theseus replies that Hermia has two choices—either to “die the death or abjure for ever [sic] the society of men” (I.i.64-65), neither of which is palatable—Hermia replies, again with calm assertiveness, that her soul “consents not to give sovereignty” of itself to another, even if that other is a powerful man who holds the highest authority in the land (I.i.80). It is clear that this is a bold statement to make and the reason why this is so enervating is that she is openly refusing to offer her own right to make decisions to authority simply because it should be respected because it is a male-based authority.