A Midsummer Night's Dream

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Men and Women Theme Analysis

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Love Theme Icon
Plays Within Plays Theme Icon
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Men and Women Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Midsummer Night's Dream, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Men and Women Theme Icon

The relationship between men and women echoes across both the mortal and fairy worlds of A Midsummer Night's Dream. More specifically, both the fairy and mortal plots in the play deal with an attempt by male authority figures to control women. Though Theseus and Hippolyta appear to share a healthy loving relationship, it is a love built upon a man asserting power over a woman: Theseus won Hippolyta's love by defeating her in battle. Oberon creates the love juice in an attempt to control his disobedient wife. Egeus seeks to control his daughter's marriage. And while the play ends happily, with everyone either married or reconciled, the love on display is of a very particular kind: it is a love in which women accept a role subservient to their husbands. To a modern audience this likely seems rather offensive, but an Elizabethan audience would have generally accepted that men are the head of the household just as the king is the head of society.

Also, A Midsummer Night's Dream suggests that love can also take a terrible toll on same-sex friendships. Even before the lovers get into the forest, Helena betrays her friend Hermia for love. And once they do get into the forest, all the intense feelings nearly cause the men to duel and brings the women almost to blows as well.

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Men and Women ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Men and Women appears in each scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Men and Women Quotes in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Below you will find the important quotes in A Midsummer Night's Dream related to the theme of Men and Women.
Act 1, scene 1 Quotes
But earthlier happy is the rose distilled
Than that which, withering on the virgin thorn,
Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness. (76)
Related Characters: Theseus (speaker), Hermia
Page Number: 1.1.78-80
Explanation and Analysis:

Hermia asks Theseus what her options will be if she does not marry Demetrius. He explains that the only alternatives are to become a nun or to be put to death but recommends that she elect marriage.

This quote displays the high value in the play placed on romantic love and on marriage. Theseus uses the image of “the rose” to stand for Hermia, and more generally for young women. To be “distilled” may mean literally to be purified and condensed into a single essence, but symbolically it means for her to select a single lover on whom to bestow her love. In this metaphor, “withering on the virgin thorn” means to remain celibate as she would in a convent. In that case, her life would be reduced to the simple progression of “Grows, lives, and dies” because it would be unmarked by significant amorous events. Thus life could be deemed a “single blessedness” because it would involve no meaningful shifts. Theseus recommends against such celibate monotony and encourages Hermia to instead marry Demetrius.

By couching his advice in the metaphor of the rose, however, Theseus makes a comment not just on Hermia, but rather more broadly on womanhood and romantic relationships. His justification, intriguingly, comes from whether one will be “earthlier happy” rather than from any religious or legal framework. Theseus thus shows himself to be acting not only out of deference to Athenian laws, but also out of a personal belief in the merit of romantic love. Shakespeare thus establishes the centrality of romance to the way these characters will act and find meaning in the world.


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She, sweet lady, dotes,
Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry,
Upon this spotted and inconstant man. (109)
Related Characters: Lysander (speaker), Helena
Page Number: 1.1.110-112
Explanation and Analysis:

Lysander speaks up and begins to defend his right to marry Hermia. He observes that Demetrius first won the favor Hermia’s friend Helena and is therefore a fickle lover.

To make his case, Lysander places Helena’s piousness in opposition with Demetrius’ capricious nature. In just two lines he says the word “dotes” three times to refer to Helena, each time with greater gusto. First, the verb is left unmodified; then he appends the adverb “devoutly” to underline the extent of Helena’s commitment; and finally he adds “in idolatry” to cast her behavior as entirely subservient. Demetrius, in contrast, is “spotted and inconstant” because he has deviated in his love. “Spotted” makes use of a physical image to show that the love is marred or impure, while “inconstant” more directly refers to mercurial behavior. That Lysander sees this behavior as justification for why Demetrius should not be with Hermia offers insight into the moral sensibilities of these characters. Although they may prize romantic love, greater value is seen in a consistent affection.

At the same time, however, Helena's affection as it is described here seems overly devout. The language used to describe her also offers a subtle allusion to earlier idea that Hermia may enter a nunnery rather than marry Demetrius. That Helena's love is presented in similarly religious terms shows how parallels exist in the types of devotion. Yet the one-sidedness of her “idolatry” calls into question its romantic efficacy. Thus while Lysander may charge Demetrius with overly fickle tendencies, he also subtly mocks Hermia for being too devoted. True romance, it seems, must exist between these two poles.

Ay me, for aught that I could ever read,
Could ever hear by tale or history,
The course of true love never did run smooth. (132)
Related Characters: Lysander (speaker)
Page Number: 1.1.134-136
Explanation and Analysis:

Hermia and Lysander discuss their troubling situation in the aftermath of the confrontation with Theseus. Lysander observes that their predicament is not unusual, for it is characteristic of troubles faced by other lovers throughout history.

Lysander speaks in a grandiose tone that claims understanding of a wide range of context. “Ay me” expresses a strong sense of woe, while “for aught” is an emphatic expression that in contemporary English would be similar to “for all” or “in all.” Lysander is thus referring to the sum total of narratives with which he has come into contact. He considers both written and oral texts, both fictions and histories—and arrives at this summarizing, grand pronouncement.

Yet if the tone might seem to inflate the importance of his own romance, the content of the sentence normalizes it. To observe that “true love never did run smooth” in any of these tales is to show how his case with Hermia is consistent with those previous stories. Instead of seeing their love to be particularly woeful, he contends that it is characteristic of a common trend. Shakespeare thus places the story told in Midsummer Night's Dream in a cultural history of other similar romantic stories. He presents the tale of Hermia and Lysander as typical of great romances, while implying that the characters themselves are aware of this similarity—and will act based on those older narratives. At the same time, the play, being a comedy, will play with and make fun of these traditional narratives of "fated lovers."

Through Athens I am thought as fair as she.
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so.
He will not know what all but he do know.
And as he errs, doting on Hermia's eyes,
So I, admiring of his qualities.
Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind. (227)
Related Characters: Helena (speaker), Hermia, Demetrius
Page Number: 1.1.233-241
Explanation and Analysis:

After Hermia and Lysander leave to elope, Helena gives this moving soliloquy. She notes that love causes people to see incorrectly and act irrationally.

To make this point, Helena first compares two supposedly objective features: her beauty and Hermia’s. She reasons that if so many people “thought [her] as fair” as Hermia, then Demetrius’ perspective must be warped. He “errs” because he incorrectly favors Hermia though nothing about her would seem superior to Helena. Helena then applies the same type of criticism back on herself: Just as Demetrius’ assessment of Hermia’s physical beauty is marred by his love, so is Helena’s assessment of Demtrius’ character. What is “base and vile” becomes “form and dignity.” Intriguingly, in this speech Helena shows herself capable of recognizing her limitations. She observes how warped her perspective has become. Yet, even as she is aware how love has affected her, she is unable to escape its power and continues to see Demetrius as all "form and dignity."

Helena’s use of imagery pertaining to eyes here is worth noting. She references how Demetrius focuses on “Hermia’s eyes” as the basis for his love, yet observes that “Love looks not with the eyes”—for it does not correctly visually interpret the world. As a result, Cupid is “painted blind” because he represents a force that acts based on emotion rather than vision. Later in the play, however, the characters will fall in love when a potion is applied to their eyes—which will make them enamored with the first person they see. Helena’s claim that vision is unimportant is thus both accurate and ironic, for Shakespeare will make literal sight the basis for love’s metaphorical blindness.

Act 2, scene 1 Quotes
We cannot fight for love, as men may do;
We should be wooed and were not made to woo.
I'll follow thee and make a heaven of hell,
to die upon the hand I love so well. (226)
Related Characters: Helena (speaker), Demetrius
Page Number: 2.1.248-251
Explanation and Analysis:

Helena has followed Demetrius into the woods and continues to profess her affection. She reflects on how this behavior is not in line with traditional social norms, for such pursuits are normally the realm of men, not women.

This passage shows how Helena is entrapped by traditional gender roles even as she tries to reject them. She describes, poignantly, how her active pursuit of Demetrius is something only “men may do.” And the term “fight” casts the pursuit of love in military terms, reiterating how it is a traditionally masculine enterprise. Shes describes the roles as being strictly divided between “should be wooed” and “made to woo”—pursuer and pursued—showing that Helena has internalized the traditional divisions.

Yet her response is, rather remarkably, defiance rather than defeat. She affirms first her own action “I’ll follow thee” and then more radically “make a heaven of hell”: This expression refers most simply to how she wants to improve her current horrific state of affairs. But more radically it implies that she hopes to invert the world order in which she cannot be the wooer. Indeed, her use of the violent reference to death places her in the traditional masculine role. Shakespeare thus presents Helena as a character who staunchly rejects the passive feminine role to which she has been assigned.

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania some time of the night,
Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell'd skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in. (235)
Related Characters: Oberon (speaker), Titania
Related Symbols: The Love Juice
Page Number: 2.1.257-264
Explanation and Analysis:

After watching Helena and Demetrius’ interaction, Oberon plots how to resolve their conflict at the same time as playing his prank on Tatiana. He describes to Puck his plan to make use of a flower that makes people fall in love.

Oberon’s language here is lush and evocative. He references a variety of different exotic plants at the site where the potion will be found, describing a scene of splendor and vibrance. Forming the speech from sets of rhyming couplets renders it deeply entrancing—thus foreshadowing the way the flowers’ juice will bewitch the lovers. (Note how the eloquence of Oberon’s rhymes is deeply in contrast with Bottom’s in Act 1 Scene 2.) That Tatiana is “Lull’d in these flowers” similarly foreshadows how flowers will be the instruments of enchantment for those who sleep. 

Yet within this tranquil environment Oberon describes, the reference to the “snake” carries a slightly more insidious note—in particular since the following reference is to entrapment: “Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.” Oberon could be showing here how the enchanting and luscious environment can at once carry darker notes of entrapment. Yet the play will ultimately only make those darker notes instruments of enjoyable deceit rather than true manipulation.

Act 2, scene 2 Quotes
When thou wakest, it is thy dear:
Wake when some vile thing is near. (22)
Related Characters: Oberon (speaker), Titania
Related Symbols: The Love Juice
Page Number: 2.2.39-40
Explanation and Analysis:

Oberon has snuck past Tatiana’s attendants as she sleeps. He places the love potion on her eyes and hopes she will spy something unpleasant when she wakes up.

These lines describe succinctly the way the love potion will affect Tatiana. Whatever she sees when she stops sleeping will be her “dear”: the thing she loves the most. And thus Oberon hopes that what she spies will be “vile,” causing her to fall in love with some odious being. By rhyming “dear” with “near,” he draws attention to the way that Tatiana’s love will be predicated on proximity rather than real romantic sentiment. Indeed, the rhyme is important to note here, for it presents these lines as sonorous rather than actually sinister. As is characteristic of this comedy, the plot resists entering a truly negative realm. Even as Oberon moves to deceive Tatiana, his lighthearted tone presents the behavior to be a mere dalliance or game.

Act 3, scene 2 Quotes
When in that moment, so it came to pass,
Titania waked and straightway loved an ass. (33)
Related Characters: Robin Goodfellow (Puck) (speaker), Nick Bottom, Titania
Related Symbols: The Love Juice
Page Number: 3.2.35-36
Explanation and Analysis:

The first being that Titania sees when she awakes is a bewitched Bottom who now has the head of a donkey. Puck explains those events to Oberon with what might be best described as delighted glee.

These lines fulfill Oberon’s earlier hope that Tatiana would spy something “vile” when she awoke. Indeed, his wish seems to have been fulfilled far beyond his hopes. For she has fallen in love not only with a “vile” human but actually a partial animal: an “ass” both in name (Bottom) and body. That Puck conveys this information with his characteristic singsong tone presents it to be lighthearted. But beyond that levity, he also adopts the distanced perspective of a theater director or storyteller. Puck describes Titania’s actions—“so it came to pass”—as if they were performed by a character in a different tale. Thus he presents himself and Oberon as the creators of the plot events being watched by the audience. Shakespeare forefronts, in this way, how people can function as playwrights, scripting their lives and those of others from a distanced point of view.

O spite! O hell! I see you all are bent
To set against me for your merriment:
If you we re civil and knew courtesy,
You would not do me thus much injury.
Can you not hate me, as I know you do,
But you must join in souls to mock me too?
If you were men, as men you are in show,
You would not use a gentle lady so;
To vow, and swear, and superpraise my parts,
When I am sure you hate me with your hearts.
You both are rivals, and love Hermia;
And now both rivals, to mock Helena:
A trim exploit, a manly enterprise,
To conjure tears up in a poor maid's eyes
With your derision! none of noble sort
Would so offend a virgin, and extort
A poor soul's patience, all to make you sport. (147)
Related Characters: Helena (speaker), Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius
Page Number: 3.2.148-164
Explanation and Analysis:

Helena is now being pursued by Lysander and Demetrius after they have both been bewitched by the love potion. Believing that they are making fun of her, Helena spurns their advances and scolds them for this behavior.

This soliloquy makes a sharp distinction between courteous and uncourteous forms of behavior. Helena considers Lysander and Demetrius’ actions to do her “injury” and “mock” her because, she believes, their behaviors do not accurately represent how they feel. To support this point, Shakespeare uses the language of performance and play: The men act from “merriment,” they act “in show,” and it is all done “to make you sport.” These descriptions corroborate the way Puck and Oberon have staged their own sport of romance in the play. Helena is correctly able to recognize the falsehood in the mens’ behaviors, but she cannot recognize that they are merely characters acting out their parts. And, meanwhile, the men have become so overwhelmed by their "parts" because of the love potion, that they don't even know that they are in fact playing parts.

Helena's speech also confirms the way she is ever-aware of gender role complexity. She implicitly denies Lysander and Demetrius's manhood by saying they are men “in show” rather than in actuality (which also would have been funny in Shakespeare's time, when women weren't allowed to be actors and so the actor playing Helena would, in fact, have been a man). And calling their behavior “A trim exploit, a manly enterprise” is a sarcastic way of saying that she finds their behavior manipulative and thus un-masculine. Similarly, she takes on the traditional role of “gentle lady” and “poor maid”—surprising considering that Helena had previously bucked gender roles by desiring to be the pursuer or wooer. Her new adherence to a division between manly and unmanly behaviors thus shows how rapidly the supernatural forest environment can shift the characters’ identities. Just as Demetrius and Lysander have been bewitched into love and into the roles of pursuers, Helena has been metaphorically enchanted in this new, more passive position.

Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
I know you two are rival enemies:
How comes this gentle concord in the world,
That hatred is so far from jealousy,
To sleep by hate, and fear no enmity? (129)
Related Characters: Theseus (speaker), Lysander, Demetrius
Page Number: 4.1.148-151
Explanation and Analysis:

Theseus has stumbled upon Lysander and Demetrius sleeping by each other. He wonders how their proximity is possible considering how they had previously battled for Hermia’s favor.

These lines return to the question of shifting identities, for Lysander and Demetrius’ current behaviors are highly surprising in light of their previous ones. Theseus begins with the firm affirmation “I know” and then wonders how their deviation—“gentle concord”—from his knowledge of their rivalry would be possible. He wonders how the “jealousy” that they feel of each other would not inspire “hatred,” for presumably if they did indeed hate each other they would fear “enmity” or some kind of negative retribution. His incredulous response shows that Theseus expects the two to have consistent identities and behaviors—and that he is surprised when Oberon’s exploits have pacified them.

Importantly, this conclusion requires an external viewer—Theseus—to make sense of the way these two men have changed. Others within the forest are similarly bewitched actors in Oberon’s play and thus unable to rationally recognize how quickly they have shifted allegiances. But Theseus is able to stand apart from the action and thus offer this insight. Shakespeare thus makes him an analog for the audience—one who questions character development like any good interpreter.

And yet, at the same time, Theseus's confusion at the change in Lysander and Demetrius's characters again emphasizes how a viewpoint based entirely around "law" and "reason" is insufficient to comprehend or affect a world full of the irrational human feeling of love.