Is it Titania or Oberon who is truly the rebellious upstart? According to Walter in “Oberon and Masculinity in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, the scholarly consensus is that Theseus’ patriarchal rule over Athens is mirrored by Oberon’s rule over the forest. As such, Titania’s refusal to hand over the Indian changeling to Oberon is an act of rebellion against her husband that must be punished. However, recent developments in the study of folklore have countered this scholarship by demonstrating that, for an early modern audience, fairy land would have been recognized as a domain where the queen had exclusive sovereign authority, or was at least a figure who dominated her partner, the fairy king. According to Walters, the implications of this more updated view is that Oberon is the rebellious subject. This perception is enhanced by both his lack of conformity to early modern understandings of masculinity and his resemblance to early modern assumptions about women. Furthermore, the power dynamics between Titania and Oberon and the other figures in the play provide a more complex representation of gender and sexuality than criticism has previously acknowledged.
To delve deeper into Walter’s argument, an early modern audience would most likely have been familiar with an omnipotent fairy queen who captured human babies, provided mortals with healing powers, and detained mortal men as sexual hostages. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon attempts to usurp many of these roles typically assumed by the fairy queen in popular lore. First, he demands the changeling from Titania. Then, once he secures the boy from Titania, he instructs Puck to lead the boy to his bower. Although the age of the Indian boy is unknown, such a location contains erotic undertones, since Titania led Bottom to her own bower as a willing sexual captive, where he is informed “Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no” (Shakespeare 3.1.127). Oberon further attempts to usurp Titania’s authority through trickery and manipulation: when he is unable to overtly assert his will against Titania’s rule, he resorts to drugging her. Oberon’s actions, rather than resembling those of a powerful patriarch such as Theseus, bear a closer resemblance to Renaissance perceptions of women as disorderly, unruly, and untrustworthy. As such, he is “an unruly subordinate creating chaos within a matriarchal realm” (Walters 158).
Within the text, fairy land is merely one of several matriarchal realms mentioned: Hippolyta ruled the Amazons, Hermia’s father threatens to send her to a nunnery if she continues to disobey him, Titania was worshiped in India by a votress of her order, and Lysander’s widowed aunt has enough power and wealth to offer the love-struck couple protection from Egeus and Athenian law. For the men of the play, immersion in these realms is not without consequences as Bottom is silenced and dominated by Titania, Demetrius is aggressively pursued and chased by Helena, and Oberon causes disorder within Titania’s realm.
In this sense, the men increasingly correspond to notions about early modern women, which held that women were naturally unruly subjects who needed to be governed to ensure that they remained obedient. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is, in this regard, somewhat characteristic of Shakespeare’s plays, insofar as it portrays fluctuation in gender roles. However, it is also unique in the sense that it interrogates gender categories in relation to power. When comparing the domains of Theseus and Titania, matriarchal and patriarchal modes of power oscillate back and forth throughout the play as well as gender roles, thus destabilizing male/female categories. At the end of the play, the transgressions of Theseus’s and Titania’s regime are returned to some sort of balance, insofar as in Shakespeare’s comedies gender disorder may be partially remedied with marriages. In conclusion, by better acknowledging the folkloric views concerning the fairy queen’s authority, literary scholarship could offer a different model of the play’s engagement with gender, sexuality, and power relations.