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Shakespeare’s England was missing something. After its break from the Catholic church in 1534, national identity was a vacuum that needed to be filled. Since Henry XIII excommunicated the whole country, ended the monastic system, and essentially reformed every part of life, then left little in its place, the void was ripe for something to fill it. Herein comes William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s writings give us a window into the times, a way to look at England from the perspective of someone so socially diverse. Despite this diversity, Shakespeare’s England was one of strict social hierarchies and taboos. People were allowed to go certain places, live certain ways, and there even existed sumptuary laws that dictated how one of certain class could dress. The most oppressed of these peoples were women. Despite the fact of a female queen defying the standard of the country’s highest station, women were forced into stricter social taboos and limitations than anyone else. By using Shakespeare as a window into history, we can see how the social taboos of women and society in his day aren’t entirely alien to the time we live in now.
Shakespeare’s work that best illuminates this conflict is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Set against the backdrop of a wild forest and orderly Athens, a magical journey of four lovers through the chaos of love exemplifies the social taboos of his time. Shakespeare uses the play’s comedic nature to show us taboos by breaking them. Using these breaks of the social order, combined with historical texts from Shakespeare’s time, it becomes clear how his social order is connected to our current one. The most striking social conflict in the play, is its central divide of the lovers’ quarrel. The battle of, as Bottom would put it, “Reason and love, [that] keep little company nowadays” (3.1.147), is a divide showing us something greater than the mere dramas of young adults madly in love. The battle is one that breaks a major social taboo of Shakespeare’s time: it empowers women. This may seem strange, seeing as the play seems to fail the Bechdel test, with the whole battle between Helena and Hermia being over the men, but the mere existence of a battle is show of female independence, breaking a strict taboo of the time.
This seemingly non-feminist fight over men being rebellious to the social order is exemplified by John Knox In, “The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women,” Knox writes, “To promote a woman…is repugnant to nature, contumely to god” (211). This is a clear statement from someone who was associated with the likes of Calvin on the status of women during the time, especially under the Protestant church. He tells us that it is against nature and God to have women be in the forefront of anything, and yet, we have two trying to control a relationship. This can be read as a breaking of social standard and taboo due to its geographic location in the play. This battle is in the chaotic forest, where “The sharp Athenian law/cannot pursue” (1.1.162-163). By setting up the forest as a place free from Athenian (and therefore Elizabethan) social customs and rules, Shakespeare can use it as a “playground” that shows us how women were oppressed and what social taboos were enforced on them.
Within his play, we see further examples of history shown to us through the social empowerment, then fall, of Titania. When first introduced, she is presented as being free of Oberon, able to make the choice of avoiding him when angry, despite their married status. Even with this, she is eventually forced by Oberon (albeit indirectly, via Puck) to fall back in love, subjugated to become a doting woman, this time to Bottom. This is juxtaposed with the other “power couple” in the book, Theseus and Hippolyta. Hippolyta, once a powerful female ruler and now subjugated under engagement, seems to have no goal but to be united with her conqueror. If we again read the forest as the place to show us taboos by breaking them, we can read Titania as a stand in for England’s virgin queen, Elizabeth. Just like how Theseus’s main concern is to get him and Hippolyta locked in monogamy, as shown by some of the play’s opening lines: “O, methinks, how slow/this old moon wanes!” (1.1.3-4). Later in the play, Oberon wants to get Titania stuck married to a “lion, bear, or wolf, or bull” (2.1.165). Something that shows us just how desperate men were to get women married off and “squared away” “The chief worry of Elizabethan males was to get the Queen married off to someone so she could produce children,” according to Jeanne Gerlach, Rudolph Almasy, and Rebecca Daniel in their article “Revisiting Shakespeare and Gender.” This opinion is mirrored by Shakespeare. When Titania speaks before she had been bewitched by the love juice, she was always fighting, arguing, and in conflict with Oberon, something already established as counter to female status at the time. It’s only after she is “married off” to Bottom that she shows contentedness and calm, doting over her ass of a husband.
This idea of a woman not being equal may seem ghastly to our western ideal of gender equality, but looking at the state of women today, marriage is still considered an end goal. Most people still aspire to get married, have kids, and live the “good and simple life.” It may seem strange to think about how we may still be influenced by this Elizabethan social order. The taboo against a female ruler, especially an unmarried one, is still exemplified by the list of single or female American presidents. Shakespeare may have been writing a social commentary or satire, not knowing the great impact it would later have. But unwittingly, with his wondrous fantasy world of light, dark, chaos, order, love and hate, he gives us a way to look into his real world, one equally complex, intriguing, and important as ours.
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