On the surface, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a light-hearted comedy about four individuals who form two couples after a series of hilarious events that end in a wedding, as comedies typically do. However, Peter C. Herman argues that underneath the surface tale lies a tale of complex political tension that ends with an unwinnable choice from an increasingly hypocritical leader.
To start, Herman points out that setting a play in ancient Athens would have immediately evoked a set of political notions in the minds of early English audiences. At the time Athens was considered a common wealth “commonly associated…with republicanism, which implies a polity governed by law rather than the ruler’s will” (Herman 5). Setting the play in Athens thus establishes an environment where statutory law reigns supreme and which the common wealth’s leader is responsible for upholding. With this common knowledge assumed, Herman continues to explore Shakespeare’s intentionality of this choice by discussing the leader of Athens, Theseus.
Herman consistently jumps back and forth in regards to the specific “Theseus” he refers to. When regarding actions, he discusses the character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. However, he also brings into account a character of the same name from Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Herman argues on some level that the two individuals are one in the same as it is very likely that Shakespeare was well versed in Plutarch’s work. This connection is the foundation of Herman’s argument for a political reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Plutarch’s Theseus establishes himself as leader of Athens by vowing to “limit his role of the commonwealth to the waging of war and ‘the preservation of the lawes’” (Herman 11). If Plutarch’s Theseus is the same as Shakespeare’s, it follows that, above all else, Theseus must uphold the law. However, Shakespeare quickly establishes that doing so is easier said than done.
The politicization of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Herman argues, begins with the immediate conflict between Egeus and his daughter, Hermia, who refuses to marry the man her father has promised her to. Egeus storms onto stage to demand that Theseus maintain the law by punishing his daughter, specifically exclaiming that the only fit punishment is death. Herman notes that the specific phrase Egeus uses to refer to the law, the “ancient privilege of Athens,” would have resonated with Shakespeare’s audiences as a common legal term that “was closely associated with the authority of the Ancient Constitution, the privilege of Parliament, habeas corpus, and Magna Carta” (Herman 11). In addition to familiarity, this term creates an urgency and increased pressure on Theseus to do as he previously promised. A death sentence for disobeying a father being extreme even by Elizabethan standards, Theseus is not quick to agree with Egeus and is faced with a difficult choice: either obey the law and lose reason to an overly harsh punishment, or give into reason and sidestep the law.
Initially, Theseus finds a middle ground by providing an alternative punishment: “Either…death, or to abjure / Forever the society of men” (Shakespeare 1.1.65-66). Of course, as the play continues, and Theseus and Egeus later find Hermia in the woods along with her two suitors and Helena, Theseus completely goes back on his word. When Egeus demands that Lysander be punished, Theseus responds: “Egeus, I will overbear your will” (Shakespeare 4.1.179).
Herman emphasizes this response as an incredibly hypocritical stance by a supposed upholder of the law. While Egeus demands that Lysander be punished according to the law of Athens, Theseus reduces his claims to that of his own personal will and uses this to rationalize his decision to ignore the “ancient privilege of Athens” (Shakespeare 1.1.41). Herman then provides an epilogue for Theseus, explaining that this historic character is eventually overthrown as a result of similar “tyrannical” actions and arguing that Theseus decision to create a happy ending for Hermia and Lysander only foreshadows his personal downfall, and, as Herman puts it, “thus casting a subtle but significant shadow on the happy ending of the play” (22).
Herman, Peter C. “Equity and the Problem of Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Or, the Ancient Constitution in Ancient Athens.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 14.1 (2014): 4-31. ProQuest. Web. 7 July 2015.