While Shakespeare’s plays are largely plays about men, and men’s issues of power and authority, he was aware of the negative treatment of women in England before and during his time.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he clearly showed the discriminatory treatment women experienced in society in four distinct ways but then contrasted them by introducing the magical world of fairies where such expectations of society did not matter. Perhaps it was to contrast this silly notion of Elizabethan England to another royalty in a make believe world.
He also demonstrated that masculine domination is silly by transforming a weaver who wanted to dominate the play, into an ass in the mystical world. This transformation made him look ridiculous thus he became exactly what he appeared to be and the only ones who saw this were the fairies and the audience.
Shakespeare focused on the societal expectations of men and women in the world of Dukes and Queens, and conversely the lower world of mechanicals and lovers. The first sexist example showed that it was acceptable for a woman to be acquired by a man against her will. Furthermore, she must submit to him in all ways and not speak for herself. In the first scene, Theseus, a powerful Duke of Athens, joyfully anticipates his marriage to his recently conquered prisoner of war, Hippolyta, an Amazon Queen.
Shakespeare shows her to seem content with being wooed in this way but by the end of the play she was the triumphant one who subdued Theseus to agree with her. She does this cleverly by convincing him that the lovers have resolved their issues overnight by pointing out that the feelings of the lovers “grow[n] to something of great constancy.” Theseus submits to her will then.
The second way Shakespeare showed how society abused women is that a woman was owned by her father and therefore had no right to choose her husband. In fact if she did not comply with his desires she could be put to death. In the first scene that likelihood is made known to Hermia although the Duke modifies the punishment to offer a third less ominous possibility to live but in a convent. To avoid either sentence Hermia runs with her lover into the woods preparing to escape to his Aunt’s house far away. It takes the magical world to set this right when in the end they are united and invited to share the wedding ceremony breaking another societal expectation by mixing the classes. Her father acquiesced to the decision of the authority in his life, the Duke who obeyed his authority the Queen.
The third sexist expectation was that women only had value if they are valued or loved by a man. For example, Helena who loves Demetrius is distraught because she is despised by her man and cannot find solace in her own sense of self worth. She does in the end get her man and therefore her place in the world, unfortunately it is not as a woman but as part of a couple. Contrast this however with the magical world of the fairies where Titania, queen of the fairies, is content without her man because she does not have a societal expectation that commands her otherwise. Even though she succumbs to Oberon and gives him the child he craves, it is not so that she can gain status like the humans she just gave in as a child would do. She was not ashamed for doting on the ass. In fact she found it humorous and was curious about how it had happened in much the way a child who lives in the now would.
“Come, my lord, and in our flight
Tell me how it came this night
That I sleeping here was found
With these mortals on the ground.
The fourth sexist idea is that there is hypocrisy in sexual values for men and women. A woman could be tainted as invaluable or unlovable or even fallen if it is even perceived that she has been with a man out of wedlock. In the scene where Lysander and Hermia must spend the night together in their escape plan, she insists on avoiding the appearance that they had sexual relations by insisting that Lysander sleep a distance from her in the woods even though they were alone. Compare and contrast that with the fairy world where no such artificial boundaries exist and they can frolic and play sexually or otherwise with no stigma.
In Shakespeare’s world these infractions of man were not to be questioned by society at large because they were sacrosanct or divinely decreed. Paul the Apostle had dictated centuries before that women were subject to the man and most religious people complied with that teaching. However, by introducing the childlike and innocent world of the fairies, Shakespeare could differentiate those expectations with a world that did not think that way and offer alternatives that can resolve the negative treatment. Without this contrast, the only way for these women to receive justice is for them to disobey and be punished. This clever treatise on the foolish sexist society he lived in allowed to Shakespeare to hold a mirror up to let society see the hypocrisy.