Literature with a happy ending almost always results in a marriage. From ancient Greece to modern day, happy endings are found in uniting a couple at the end of the story, even if that is not everyone’s desire. Shakespeare’s plays A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Taming of the Shrew reveal the contradictions inherent in the ideological justifications for the institution that marriage depends on denying women agency. To have a happy ending’ resulting marriage means the woman must lose part or all of herself to her husband, to her marriage.
Shakespeare’s plays highlight this inequality in married couples, yet at the same time, he normalizes it as well.A Midsummer Night’s Dream is known for the convoluted love stories between a few of the characters in the play, and how confusing that love can be at times. The play starts off focusing on Hermia and Egeus, discussing marriage, where Hermia wants to have a bit of autonomy in this decision but cannot.
Hermia tries to gain this autonomy with Theseus’ ruling but her father begs the ancient privilege of Athens:/ As she is mine, I may dispose of her,/ Which shall be either to this gentleman/ Or to her death, according to our law/ Immediately provided in that case, (Shakespeare, I.I.41-45). Hermia’s father is demanding that she obey him, in front of the Duke and future Duchess of Athens, who represent and enforce the law. Egeus know it is his right to control who Hermia marries, as she is his daughter and his’ from the moment his wife gave birth to her, which gives him the right to hold power over Hermia according to law. Hermia’s only choices in the matter are either death for refusing the marriage, become a nun shunned from society forever, or consent to marry Demetrius. One might argue that these three choices prove Hermia does have autonomy, yet if they look closely, they will realize Hermia’s only options are either death or a lifetime of misery (either in an unwanted marriage or in a convent). Even Theseus, who prefers Hermia and Lysander, cannot overpower the right Egeus has to control what his daughter does. It is also very telling that Egeus would rather have his daughter die than see her marry someone that he did not choose, as quoted. Hermia has a similar option in Lysander to marry, one who she actually loves and cares for, but cannot marry him as Egeus does not approve.The similarities between Lysander and Demetrius only emphasize that lack of agency Hermia has over her own life, even in decisions that will affect the rest of her life. Even Lysander recognizes how unjust the institution of marriage is for women, or even if there was a sympathy in choice, (Shakespeare, 1.1.141). Lysander can clearly see that for those who argue that death, a convent, or marriage to Demetrius are options, Lysander says those choices’ have no sympathy. The choices result in Hermia’s misery no matter what, and Egeus has no sympathy for it. To Egeus, Hermia is property. He controls who she marries, and she has no agency, as Egeus’ claim over his daughter is backed up by law. Whether or not Hermia and Lysander love each other is irrelevant, whether or not Hermia and Demetrius love each other is irrelevant. Egeus is Hermia’s father, and therefore by law controls who she marries despite what Hermia wants, because she has no agency to stop it. In a couple that is already married, there is still a denial of agency; despite the power a woman might possess, she must still submit to her husband. With Oberon and Titania, one would think as a Queen, Titania would receive respect from her subjects and her husband, but soon after being introduced into the play it is clear that is not the case. Oberon knows how much the changeling boy means to Titania, as she explained to him (Shakespeare 2.1.121-138). It is as if Oberon knows the boy gives Titania more power, a bit more autonomy, and therefore wants to take the child and make him is page boy. He has no respect for the mother of the boy, nor his wife who wants to take care of the child; Oberon is King and husband and therefore knows he will just take the changeling in one way or another. Eventually, this is exactly what happens. Oberon knows Titania will not give up the boy willingly, so he decides to use a love spell on her by distracting her from what she truly values (the child). Oberon Having once this juice,/ I’ll watch Titania when she is asleep/ And drop the liquor of it in her eyes// I’ll make her render up her page to me (Shakespeare 2.1.177-179,186). Here, it is evident Oberon is going to alter Titania’s reality, against her will, and will then take the changeling boy for himself. Not only is Oberon defying his wife’s wishes though, he is also seeking to embarrass her by having her fall in love with the next beast that crosses her path (in this case a donkey). This behavior would be unacceptable for most, but because Oberon is the fairy king and the husband of Titania, there is nothing anyone could say to stop it from happening. Titania, a fairy queen, a being who practices magic, is still not powerful enough to defy her husband. Titania is still not powerful enough to gain autonomy from her husband.Though a much different play, Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew also revolves around marriage. Here, like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there is more than one couple being forced together, and the lead female protagonist is once again extremely opposed to the marriage proposed to her. While Katherine is very much against marrying, Petruchio is not”at least, when it comes to money. Once Petruchio learns of Katherine’s wealth, he decides to marry her since [He] comes to wive it wealthily in Padua/ If wealthily, then happily in Padua, (Shakespeare 1.2.76-77). Pertruchio does not care about Katherine’s reputation as a shrew, he cares about the wealth marrying her will bring him. For him, happiness in marriage derives from wealth, and as for the woman, he determines he will tame Katherine to fit into his ideal form of a wife for the rest of their married lives. Petruchio, like many men in his era, view woman as silent, docile, and obedient, and boasts of his talent to tame shrews. He looks forward to meeting Katherine, as she presents a challenge, as well as a lot of wealth to make the challenge desirable.As both plays are comedies with the conflict revolving around marriage, it makes sense that the plot would overlap from time to time. Just as Egeus and Hermia are at odds with one another, so are Katherine and her father, Baptista. Katherine is a shrew because she does not want to marry and is very vocal about it, yet in this time period, men control women. When Baptista expresses his desire for Katherine to marry, she unabashedly pray you, sir, is it your will/ To make a stale of me amongst these mates, (Shakespeare 1.1.57-58). The use of the word stale highlights the clear distaste Katherine has towards being married, comparing the search for a suitor to becoming a whore. Though Katherine has no desire to be married from this statement, it is obvious she recognizes ultimately her desires come second to what her father desires. In this time period, women are the property of men. Katherine knows this, clearly stretching her freedom as far as it will go, but still bowing to her father’s will as he controls her life until she is married off to a man (in this case Petruchio) who will then assume control over her life. It is natural that Katherine would be in such defiance of the marriage when she is just going to be handed off to someone else, without ever really getting a say. Ultimately, Petruchio proves this Katherine’s fears to be true. Once they are married, though it is clear Petruchio is attracted to Katherine, he does not see her as an equal. He treats her more like an object or pet than a person, declaring that I will be master of what is mine own/ She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,/ My household stuff, my field, my barn,/ My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything./ And here she stands, touch her whoever dare, (Shakespeare 3.2.235-239). Petruchio literally compares Katherine to objects, because that is how women of the Elizabethan era are seen. The use of the word master makes it evident that Katherine is beneath him, and that she is someone who must obey the master, (line __). He then goes on to list many objects and animals he owns, before declaring Katherine can be my anything, (line __). Now Petruchio is saying that it does not matter what Katherine is, using objects and animals to devalue and possibly dehumanize her, simply that she is his property and he owns her now. This was normalized in the Elizabethan era, with wives having to obey their husbands, adhering to their rules whether or not they disagreed.Katherine proves these societal rules of wives having to submit to their husbands by the way Petruchio treats her. After just having arrived at Petruchio’s home, missing out on dinner at her own wedding party, Katherine is then denied a meal by Petruchio again, placing blame on his only wanting food adequate enough for his new bride. Then, in an aside to his servant Curtis, Petruchio announces this his plan is to starve Katherine, ruin the bed, and watch her at all times. Then, Petruchio explains why he will behave in such an odd way, so that:Ay, and amid this hurly I intend/ That all is done in reverent care of her./ And in conclusion she shall watch all night,/ And if she chance to nod I’ll rail and brawl,/ And with the clamor keep her still awake./ This is a way to kill a wife with kindness;/ And thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humor. (Shakespeare 4.1.191-197)Petruchio does not care the cost this mental abuse will take on Katherine, and thus far has no reason to go to such lengths to teach an extreme issue. Shakespeare’s plays A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Taming of the Shrew reveal the contradictions inherent in the ideological justifications for the institution that marriage depends on denying women agency through the use of his female characters. Even within a happy marriage, women are denied agency. Both plays, though very different in plot, create a very relevant commentary on what marriage really means, and how women are subject to the wishes of fathers and husbands rather than to themselves.