Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as As You Like It present a complex interplay between passive opposition and aggressive resistance. Women reformulate the romantic love sphere, a sphere they can access despite an oppressive patriarchal system. They exclude men. In the course of their same-sex relationships with men, women take on roles that mimic the patriarchal order from which they were trying to escape. Instead of leaving the patriarchal system, women seek to create a power structure that is familiar and comfortable.
Hermia, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream specifically opposes patriarchal authority that dictates to her the terms of marriage. Her father is one of these male figures. She says, “I do not know what power has made me bold” before Duke Theseus.
It does not concern me at all.
It is a privilege to be here today and express my feelings.
Please let me know.
In this situation, the worst thing that can happen is me.
If I refuse Demetrius. (MND , 1.1.59-64)
By asserting that she is entitled to “plough [her] ideas” before a male dominated audience, she forces a man-dominated space and transgresses all the social boundaries placed on her. In compromising her femininity and modesty in front of the Duke, she negotiates her marriage with patriarchal authorities.
Helena’s memories of past interactions with Hermia reveal erotic images. She says to Hermia:
We, Hermia, like two artificial gods
Our needles have produced both a flower and a leaf.
Two samplers, each seated on a single cushion
Both songs in the same key, with both warblings
As if hands, side, voice, and mind were all one.
Had been incorporated. We all grew up together.
Double cherry: a split appearance
Yet an unification in division
Two beautiful berries molded on a stem. (MND, 3.2.204-212)
In the references to the flower, berries and fruit, the idea of life and renewal that emerges from their close interactions is introduced. Their voices, their bodies and their minds all fuse together as if they were compensating for the sexual fusion which cannot happen between two women. The images are used to compensate for homoerotic encounters that lack the fertility of a male-female relationship. The “double berry: two berries molded together on a stem” and “the double cherry: a separation that appears to be, yet is a union” are both erotic images. The color and split nature of the fruit could be a reference to the lips of Hermia or Helena, or more erotically to their genitalia. This would reinforce the sexually charged relationship between Hermia & Helena. Jessica Tvordi uses this passage as evidence of homoerotic innuendos, stating that the language used to describe their relationship is “emotionally and erotically-charged.” Tvordi refers to “head” and the “nest” being slang terms for female genitalia. The association between Hermia, Helena, and birds (“warbling of a song”) is sexualized by the focus on female genitalia.
Hermia, Helena, and their relationship as described in eroticized terms are a reflection of the past – before they entered into the forest. In the forest however, the lack of patriarchal authority causes the homoerotic relationship between Hermia and Helena to become a pseudo-patriarchy. The same-sex relation that was dependent on men oppressing each other collapses without the social order. Hermia, Helena’s equal relationship shifts to a hierarchy where Hermia is the pseudo-male while Helena is the victimized female.
Hermia is able to create a new heterosexual relationship order as a result of her subversion. Her rebellion was fueled by her boldness. She now assumes the role of a man in the pseudo patriarchy formed between her and Helena.
Helena, seeing that Demetrius and Lysander are suspicious of Helena’s feelings, accuses Hermia in a conspiracy with both men. She asserts
Are you going to tear our love apart?
How dare you insult your friend in the same way as men?
It isn’t friendly.
You may not like it but I will.
The injury is not only mine. (MND, 3.2.116-220)
Helena substantiates Hermia as a key player in the relationship. Hermia, in Helena’s eyes (and in her pseudo-patriarchy), joins a group of men to objectify females and degrade them. Hermia is alienated from all females by Helena, who says that “sex” may criticize Hermia for her relationship with men. Hermia also questions Helena, saying that her scorn is “not maidenly.” (MND, 3.2.286). Hermia’s willingness to give up her femininity to negotiate with the Duke is reflected in these questions. Hermia does not have the trait of “modesty”, nor can she claim to be “bashful”, since she admitted that she was bold in the first scene (1.1.59), and she stated she would oppose and argue against Demetrius’ marriage no matter what “how modesty [she] may feel” (1.1.60).
Hermia Helena’s homoerotic relationship is a prime example of patriarchal tendencies. As a result, the women cannot help but return to their heterosexual couples and patriarchal society. The play’s text secures the restoration in a way that is almost frightening and silences the women. Hermia answers Demetrius when he asks if the Duke has just told them to follow. Hermia says, “Yea. My father too” (4.1.192). Hermia’s response is “Yea, and my father” (4.1.192). Helena was not as dangerous to the patriarchal system, so her silence must have been more severe.
Titania portraying herself as dominant male while her female counterpart, her voss, represents a similar trend towards pseudo-patriarchy. Their relationship is not portrayed as a masculine oppression and degradation, like Hermia’s and Helena’s, but patriarchal concerns of progeny. We must first look at Theseus’s threats against Hermia, which occured at the start of the play. Theseus tells Hermia that if she does not marry Demetrius he will make her a nun. Theseus portrays women as being in a tight space, sexually frustrated, and bored with their religious duties. “In shady convents, she mewed…a barren sister her whole life,” (1.1.71-2). His depiction of a sterile convent in early modern England raises ironic questions about homoerotic activity. Although it is hard to believe, Judith C. Brown has written a book entitled Immodest Acts – The Life of a Lesbian nun in Renaissance Italy.
The threat by Theseus to “wither on a virgin’s thorn” is rendered meaningless if homosexual activity occurs within the walls of a convent. Hermia is technically a virgin but can engage in creative erotic acts with other women. Since nuns practice homoeroticism and sexual activity is not restricted to human reproduction, Theseus’ comment about barrenness becomes irrelevant. Women who choose to only consummate with others of the same gender have accepted barrenness. The choice of women to only consummate with those of the same sex is already a sign of barrenness.
She describes their time together saying, “We spent a lot of time together. She says, “It was a wonderful time together.”
The night air is filled with the aroma of Indian spices
She has gossiped a lot at night
I sat next to you on Neptune’s Yellow Sands.
Marking the merchants who have flooded onto the river
We laughed when we saw the sails come into being
The wind is a big-bellied wind.
This woman with a pretty gait and swimming
The womb of my young squire was then filled with hers.
Would you imitate…? (2.1.124-132)
It is interesting to note that Hermia’s description of Helena and Hermia’s time together, “On faint primrose beds they were wont into life/Emptying [their] breasts of sweet counsel”, (1.1.215-16) rings true. After the description of how they spent time together, the picture of Titania’s enlarged womb suggests that the lesbian relationship between her and her voss was responsible for her pregnancy. Titania does not mention the voss’s sexual relations with other men, but she describes them in great detail. This leads one to believe that Titania is the father of the child.
Titania obliterates the biological basis for men’s role in reproduction by describing her voss’ womb as “rich with [her] young squire” (2.1.131). Titania destroys the biological basis of men’s reproduction role by describing [her] jeune squire’s womb (2.1.131). She does not acknowledge the biological role of men in creating the child when she refers to the child inside the voss’ womb as “my young Squire”. Her claim on the child “render[s] (Oberon] temporary superfluous”(Traub Lesbian Desire 159). Oberon’s challenge to Titania, who has displaced the male out of the social and reproductive reproduction, is to gain access to and adopt the boy. This will engraft the boy in the patriarchal system. Oberon restores the patriarchal system of family that Titania shattered through her homoerotic sexual relations with her voss.
Oberon claims that his restored control of reproduction is not just in his marriage, it’s also in marriages for all couples in the show. He stated that
Then until dawnbreak
This house is the home of every fairy.
The best bride’s bed is ours!
We shall bless you,
The issue is that there are two sides to the story.
Never shall you be unlucky. (5.2.31-36)
The use of “we”, by Titania, confirms their intention to bless couples’ beds together. They may also be planning on blessing themselves, without the unwanted attentions of Titania.
Celia is the dominant female in their pseudo-patriarchy. Rosalind may be the Ganymede of public life, but Celia still dominates them in their private lives. Celia has the same level of authority socially over Rosalind as Duke Frederick did in the beginning. Rosalind hears her say, “And indeed, after [Duke Frederick] has died, thou will be his inheritor, and I shall return my affection once again.” By my honour I shall” (AYLI 1.2.15-17). Rosalind’s only chance to become Duke Frederick Frederick’s heir is through Celia and her honor. This places Rosalind under Celia’s authority. Celia, writes Tvordi, “impersonates the authority of her father to control Rosalind.” She does this by assuming a masculine personality.
Celia verbally challenges the authority of males in front of a men’s court, defying their conscripted roles. In Celia’s case, she challenges her father to expel Rosalind. Hermia also claimed authority within her pseudo-patriarchy. Rosalind’s role as Ganymede and Celia hers of Aliena do not supplant Celia; their private interaction affirms Celia authority.
Celia is silent and obeys “Ganymede”, the pretend wedding ceremony of Rosalind (as Ganymede). She also agrees that they should “marry”. Celia shows a bit of impatience when she says, “Go there,” (AYLI.4.1.111). However, Celia doesn’t take over her role as dominant until Orlando leaves. Then, Celia rebukes Rosalind because “she misused [their] intimacy in [her] romantic prate.” Celia accuses Rosalind of being too affectionate, which is in line with her refusal to accept femininity. Rosalind’s excessive adoration of men offends Celia in her attempt to present herself as unaffected and unconquered by men. Celia’s pseudopatriarchal power is not threatened either by Rosalind’s assumed masculinity in the form of Ganymede, because Ganymede says bold things that contradict Rosalind.