Despite his uniquely iconic position in the literary canon, Shakespeare is rarely kind to women in his work, which is not so much intentional as a product of his time. A Midsummer Night’s Dream demonstrates this as well as any other. Men treat women inhumanely at every turn: Demetrius constantly dismisses and insults Helena after having slept with her, Egeus threatens to have Hermia killed for her refusal to marry Demetrius, and Oberon plays with Titania’s mind because of his jealousy. In addition, Helena is petty and obsessive, her entire character defined by her unrequited love for Demetrius. However, there is one exception to this rule: Hermia. Despite the oppressive forces she constantly endures, Hermia is spunky, loving, and fearless, and through her refusal to obey Egeus, her relationship to Helena, and her refusals of both Demetrius and Lysander’s sexual advances, she reflects a feminist perspective so often lost in Shakespeare’s plays.
Immediately as the play opens, Hermia is blatantly defying her father, Egeus’s will despite lethal consequences: she and Lysander are deeply in love, but Egeus wishes her to marry Demetrius. Even as Egeus presents the issue to Duke Theseus, the residing authority of Athens, Hermia remains immovable, even as Theseus describes Egeus as being “as a god” in terms of his relation to Hermia and well within his rights to have her executed or sent to a convent (1.1.47). She goes so far as to stand up to the duke himself to refuse Demetrius:
“So will I grow, so live, so die, my lord
Ere I will yield my virgin patent up
Unto his lordship, whose unwishéd yoke
My soul consents not to give sovereignty.” (1.1.79-82)
While Hermia’s boldness is admirable, though, it does not make much of a difference in her position. She is still subject to either death or her father’s will, and so she and Lysander take it upon themselves to elope to the woods. This, though subverting Egeus and Theseus’s will, still puts Hermia at the will of another man: now her lover, Lysander. Hermia is bold and defiant but faces societal consequences accordingly.
Helena serves as a foil to Hermia: where Hermia is empowered by her love for Lysander, Helena is held captive by her affection for Demetrius. She is fixated solely on how “Demetrius loves [Hermia’s] fair” and builds up resentment toward Hermia, who has been her friend since childhood (1.1.182). Hermia remains ever kind to Helena, though, certain that their childhood bond is more important than whatever jealousies Helena harbors. She trusts Helena enough to tell her of her elopement with Lysander. Helena, however, is so bound by her affection for Demetrius that she betrays Hermia’s flight. When the fairies’ mischief with the love potion causes Lysander to declare his love for Helena, Hermia has had enough. Instead of collapsing into the stereotypical feminine hysteria, Hermia is infuriated and automatically attempts to instigate a fight with Helena. It takes both Lysander and Demetrius to hold her back while Helena protests,
“O, when she is angry, she is keen and shrewd.
She was a vixen when she went to school,
And though she be but little, she is fierce.” (3.2.323-325)
Hermia is full of untapped strength, and it is a further symbol of how well-rounded her character is that she chooses to remain kind and gentle to those around her.
Nothing illustrates Hermia’s independence, though, like her continued refusal of both Demetrius’s and, more importantly, Lysander’s sexual advances. It would be well within Hermia’s best interests to accept Demetrius’s proposal; he is approved of by Egeus and his “fortunes . . . fairly ranked” (1.1.101). It is not clear what Hermia’s particular grievances against Demetrius are, but she keeps him at a distance nonetheless, despite whatever drastic consequences may come her way. However, her love for Lysander is evidently enough to lead her to elope with him into the woods, and such situations for women in literature often lead them to succumb to whatever their lover wishes. Hermia, though, values her own integrity more, and she, like so many of her contemporaries, places a high importance on her own virginity. Therefore, she refutes Lysander when he comes onto her in the woods, saying, “ . . . for love and modesty,/Lie further off, in human modesty.” (2.2.62-63) Hermia maintaining her own purity despite having committed herself fully into Lysander’s hands is again representative of her strength in a society that exists to oppress her.
Hermia is not any sort of pinnacle of feminist representation in Shakespeare; she is not Viola of Twelfth Night or Beatrice of Much Ado About Nothing. Still, her empowerment is inspiring, and acknowledging such allows us to keep A Midsummer Night’s Dream refreshing and relevant in our modern age.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Edited by David Bevington, Bantam Books, 1988.
John Simmons. Hermia and Lysander. Watercolor. 1870.