Until this early point in the play, Hermia is an admirable and even heroic female figure, especially for the feminist reader, for both in this and other examples from A Midsummer Night’s Dream she has succeeded in breaking the rigid mold of social conventions and expectations. In the rest of the play, however, Hermia reveals other dimensions of her personality that confirm how complex every human being is, whether male or female. For example, in her relationship with Helena, Hermia becomes trapped in a popular feminine stereotype, that of the jealous lover. While the two women had once been close friends, Hermia becomes profoundly jealous of Helena because both Lysander and Demetrius have fallen in love with her. Thus, the reader sees that while Shakespeare offers Hermia some possibilities, he takes others away, creating the “tensions and ruptures” of which Ehnenn (319) writes. Fortunately, magic intervenes and both couples are eventually sorted out before the happy ending, and all four of the lovers are described as “full of joy and mirth,” left to enjoy life with the partner each truly loves (V.i.29). Interestingly, this happy but magical ending suggests at least two possible interpretations of feminine power. First, Hermia contested traditional gender expectations and made the decision to be responsible for her own destiny; in doing so, she was rewarded for her courage. Second, women will not always be able to sort out their own problems; at times, forces beyond their own power—indeed, beyond human power—will need to intervene, which is a theme that carries through in other works by Shakespeare presenting women characters and the need for an outside influence to help them solve their problems.
In Twelfth Night, the reader meets two female characters who are different from Hermia in many ways, but who are affected similarly by the constrictions of the dominant social norms that determined how women should act and what they could reasonably expect from life. First, it is important to point out that both Olivia and Viola are women who enjoy certain social privileges relative to other women as a benefit of their social class, an issue that is important, particularly in the context of Twelfth Night, and which is often overlooked throughout the body of Shakespeare criticism. Although being of the aristocratic class permits both women some freedoms that poorer women did not enjoy, it also imposes an extra set of gender expectations upon them. Like Hermia, it is important for the women in Twelfth Night, especially for Olivia, to marry within their class so as to protect and sustain their social position. Also like Hermia, Olivia is determined to love who she wants and on her own terms; for this reason she invents the excuse that she is mourning for her deceased brother when gentlemen callers come to woo her. To Malvolio, she orders that suitors come to call, he inform them that “I am sick, or not at home” (I.v.120), as she wants nothing to do with the foolish men who try to curry her favor. The fact that Olivia uses her power as the lady of the house to compel a servant to lie on her behalf so that she can make her romantic and sexual decisions for herself is an affirmation of her agency and the subversive techniques that she uses to achieve it. Later in the play, the reader sees how Olivia bided time so that she could choose her own lover, and in a bold move, she asks Cesario to marry her, without waiting for any proposal from any other man.
Viola, also a woman of privilege, uses similar tactics to achieve similar ends. When the ship she is traveling on with her brother wrecks, she believes him dead and resolutely decides that she must support herself by finding a job. What makes this detail particularly interesting and important is that most women in Shakespeare’s day did not work outside the home, particularly if they were women of the upper class. Viola’s pursuit of a profession becomes even more compelling, though, when the reader learns that she, like Olivia, compels a man to collude with her in the promotion of the plan she has concocted to direct her own destiny. Identifying a job opportunity working in the house of Orsino, Viola convinces the captain to “conceal me what I am [,]…present me as an eunuch to him [,]…and shape thou thy silence to my wit” (I.ii.50-60). Curiously, the captain agrees without requiring much convincing on Viola’s part and without thinking twice, and Viola adopts her strategy and plays her part as a male page flawlessly.
The strategies of both Olivia and Viola have been criticized severely, even by feminist readers (Hutson 141). Critics have expressed their reluctance to praise Olivia and Viola as feminist heroes because both women use morally questionable tactics to advance and protect their own interests and to live outside of the social expectations that have been set for them (Huston 141). Olivia lies and cajoles others to collude with her by supporting her fabrications in order to assert her autonomy and what she believes is her right to make decisions about love and marriage on her own terms. Viola, for her part, denies her gender in order to seek gainful employment, which allows her to pass as a man and enjoy some of the advantages of masculine power and privilege (Hutson 141). This writer, however, considers such criticisms to be baseless and overly simplistic for they fail to take into consideration the fact that the only real strategies for women to assert and achieve some measure of autonomy and authority were subversive and not sanctioned by society. At the time, there were no other alternatives that were open to women who wanted desperately to try to forge their own identity, their own path, and their own lives. Had there been other alternatives, society would have conceded authority to women openly and more easily.
Finally, the reader encounters an altogether different type of woman in Gertrude, the mother of Hamlet. Gertrude, the Queen of Denmark, is obviously the most privileged and presumably powerful of the women who are considered here given her position as a royal. However, she is also the woman upon whom the most stringent and rigid social expectations are foisted and for whom it is the most difficult to achieve the kind of autonomy for which she yearns. In fact, her most strident critic is her own son, Hamlet, who finds it utterly despicable that his mother pursues his own uncle for a romantic relationship before her husband’s body has even cooled in its grave. Hamlet is outraged and embarrassed; he cannot understand why his mother would even want another relationship, but more importantly, he cannot accept that she flouts social norms and conventions by failing to observe the appropriate period of mourning for her deceased husband, the King of Denmark. Hamlet is cruel and unforgiving in his judgment of Gertrude, saying, “Within a month, Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears Had left… her galled eyes, She married—O most wicked speed, to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets, It is not, nor it cannot come to good….” (I.ii.153-157).