The Customs of Marriage and the Rights of Women in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

It is hard to imagine in today’s world that there could be or ever have been restrictions on the choice of one’s spouse or the bonds of marriage. Yet history shows that only recently has the freedom to choose one’s spouse become a reality, more so for women than for men. Women’s rights, especially when it came to choosing a mate, were minimal. Marriages for women tended to be arranged, pre-paid, or not allowed before, during, and after the 16th century. One might wonder what rights did women have concerning marriage and how can they be seen in the play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare.

According to “The Law’s Resolutions of Women’s Rights,” published in 1632, women were taught from birth that they were inferior to men. It was a common belief at the time that women were the “authors of original sin who lured men away from God and salvation” (Tudor Women, 2). Young women, from birth had few rights whether born into privilege or not. The women born into nobility or the upper classes such as Hermia, Helena, and Hippolyta, were given the opportunity to be educated, but mostly in the ways of housewifery such as how to manage a household, needlework, music, meal preparation, and duty to their future mate. All of these qualities were considered imperative in becoming a good wife. Very few women, even those from wealthy backgrounds, were able to become scholars. Some women were taught to read and write, but the majority remained illiterate as it was not deemed a necessary part of their education as future wives.

Women’s rights concerning marriage were even fewer. “Husbands of upper class girls were chosen for them by their fathers or other male relatives. Very few women of noble birth chose their own partners” (Tudor Women). Marriages were almost always arranged for political reasons, whether it was to fortify alliances, for land, money, social status, or to strengthen the bonds between two families. It was also considered foolish to marry for love.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare presents this very problem in the story line involving Hermia and Lysander. Hermia is in love with Lysander but her father, Egeus, demands she marry Demetrius, whom he has deemed the only man worthy of his daughter’s hand. Although we know that Demetrius and Lysander are both from similar wealthy backgrounds, Demetrius has Egeus’s approval for reasons we are unaware. When Lysander proclaims his love for Hermia, Egeus responds heatedly by stating,

Scornful Lysander! True [Demetrius] has my love;

And what is mine my love shall render him,

And she is mine, and all my right of her

I do estate unto Demetrius (1.1 95-98).

Exercising his rights as the father leaves Hermia unable to marry the man she loves. To add to this sad affair, if she does not do as her father wishes, her father will “dispose of her, / which shall be either to this gentlemen/ Or to her death” (1.1 43-45). As the law of the land and Biblical law both stated that women and children should submit and obey their parents and husbands, it would have been highly unlikely for Hermia to have married Lysander as she did in the play. This is just one of many political and societal changes Shakespeare made in his play.

Weddings during the Elizabethan time were much more time consuming and extravagant than most weddings of today. First there came the betrothal. Theseus and Hippolyta are betrothed although we know through classical history that Theseus captured Hippolyta and owned her. But readers can see that he has a deep admiration for her and we can assume that their betrothal is a somewhat happy one. According to the Compendium of Common Knowledge of Elizabethan England, the betrothal is the giving of what we know as the engagement ring to be put on the right hand. The contract is then sealed by a kiss. This same ring though also becomes the wedding ring and changes to the left hand at the wedding.

Also stated in the Compendium, were the rules of the betrothal period. “The intention to marry must be announced in the church three times; that is, on three consecutive Sundays or holy days, in the same parish” (Compendium, pg 1). If this announcement is not made, then the marriage is considered “clandestine, and illegal.”

Hard as it is to believe, women’s rights became even fewer after marriage. According to a Homily on the State of Matrimony from the Elizabethan period states that “yee wives, be ye in subjection to obey your own husbands. As for their husbands, them must they obey, and cease from commanding, and perform subjection” (pg 4). This belief is taken directly from the Bible and was considered the ultimate rule of marriages during this time. The Homily also says to, “Let women bee subject to their husbands as to the Lorde: for the husband is the head of the woman, as Christ is the head of the Church.” Shakespeare addresses this belief in an unusual and almost satirical way through Oberon and Titania. Titania is a headstrong and independent fairy Queen who defies her husband’s will. Oberon in turn, plays a deviant trick on her to make her fall in love with Bottom, a mortal turned into a donkey.

The trick is played because Oberon desires a little changeling boy that Titania has obtained. Another common belief during this time was “That which the wife hath is the husband’s” (Laws pg 5). As it states in The Law’s Resolutions of Women’s Rights, For thus it is, if before marriage the woman were possessed of horses, meat, sheep, corn, wool, money, plate, and jewels, all manner of moveable substance is presently by conjunction the husband’s, to sell, keep, or bequeath if he die. And though he bequeath them not, yet are they the husband’s executor’s and not the wife’s which brought them to her husband (Law’s pg 4).

As we do not know whether Titania or Oberon were married when she obtained the boy, belief was still that Oberon had the rights to the little changeling boy and not Titania, whether he was given to her or not. She was not submitting to her husband’s will and therefore, was punished by being tricked into loving an ass.

Throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare addressed numerous political and social customs of the aristocracy. Although not much changed for the rights of women during the Elizabethan period, readers today can gain a better understanding of the time through historical documents and literary works. To be unable to marry for love, to have no choice in your mate, and to be completely submissive to your husband’s every whim, had to have been depressing no matter what the customs were. A great deal has changed now since then, but in all actuality it has only been a few decades since women have been allowed so much freedom in their own lives.

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