A Midsummer Night’s Dream vs. Measure for Measure
Nuns in Midsummer Nights Dream and Measure for Measure Similar to the sky finding its reflection in thelake’s surface, historical circumstances and the current state of society find their reflection in culture and art. The norms and standards dominating in the society at the current stage of its development live their imprints on the bulk of contemporary works of art as art is the mirror for the society. Thus, literature as one of the most expressive and straightforward forms of art giving the most succinct image of the epoch in which it was created. Literary heritage of William Shakespeare reflects vividly life and social standards cultivated in Elizabethan England, including social stratification, social roles, religious background, life standards of the upper class, and gender relations. Particularly the plays Measure for Measure and A Midsummer Night’s Dream cover a wide array of themes including one which relates to fundamental principles of social organization in Elizabethan England – the theme of women’s role in the society of that time.
The Queen Elizabeth I reigning at the time William Shakespeare created his masterpieces was an outstanding personality in the history of England. She herself was an unmarried woman on the throne whose reign is now referred to as the Golden Age, whereas the society she reigned was entirely patriarchal, and the role of women in it was limited (Sharnette). In fact, women were considered to be inferior gender and weren’t treated in the same way as men. Education that was at women’s disposal consisted mainly of disciplines related to housekeeping and everything that could make home more cozy. In other words, women were expected to serve men. As they were considered “the weaker sex” they were thought to be in need of care on the side of men (Sharnette). Thus, women – especially in the upper classes – were under constant control of male relatives passing form fathers (brothers, uncles) to husbands. Shakespearean plays reflect this attitude towards women and the fact that they were generally inferior; women are never “totally free” in his plays (Jamieson).
Taking the plays mentioned above as examples, one can pick out two bright characters to explore the role of women. Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Isabella in Measure for Measure are the specimens of Elizabethan women who are treated as inferiors. What is also peculiar is that women weren’t allowed to choose husbands and were expected to tie the knot with those who were chosen by their parents as the most favorable and beneficial candidate. Otherwise the only way for women to preserve their chastity was to devote themselves to God and go to the nunnery. Thus, Hermia who doesn’t want to marry the man her father has chosen for her, being in love with Lysander, stands at the parting. Theseus offers only two options to her: either to yield to her father’s choice” (Shakespeare) or to become a nun, retracting “the society of men” forever (Shakespeare). This conversation implies the idea that women need constant protection, and they must be protected either by their male relatives or by God in order to preserve their righteousness. Thus, nunneries in Shakespearean England were seen as the last resort for “pure” women who didn’t want yet to comply with their fathers’ will.
However, looking at Theseus’ replies to Hermia concerning her possible option of becoming a nun instead of marrying Demetrius, one could notice that the duke doesn’t see the nunnery as a favorable option: “You can endure the livery of a nun, // For aye to be in shady cloister mewed, // To live a barren sister all your life, // Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon” (Shakespeare). These words seem to illustrate explicitly the duke’s negative attitude toward nunneries – the word “endure” alone implies negative opinion as it possesses negative connotations only. Thus, to Theseus’ opinion, life in the nunnery is an unfavorable option. This might also be related to the conventional perception of women as created for childbearing and motherhood. If we adopt this view, it turns out that nuns are “fruitless” – as the moon to which they chant hymns is (according to Theseus).
Addressing the second play under consideration, Measure to Measure, we see Isabella, Claudio’s sister, a nun. First, this character embodies the image of an upper class women in Elizabethan England who would choose either marriage or the lifelong service to God. It should be emphasized that Shakespeare illustrates mainly noble upper class women to resort to God, whereas women of lower classes are granted more freedom in discovering their sexuality (Jamieson). Being loyal to God to the full extent, Isabella refused to surrender to Angelo “yielding her body to the shame” (Shakespeare), even though life of her brother was at stake. And in the end of the play, a chaste and noble nun gets a proposal from Duke Vincentio who has noticed her pure heart and mind being in disguise of a monastic. However, Isabella’s response isn’t depicted in the play, but this “silence” is predominantly interpreted as consent. Furthermore, the noble intents the duke has for Isabella remind those of a savior, it seems that he is willing to turn Isabella loose from the solitude of a nun’s life.
Keeping all the above mentioned considerations in mind, one could draw a conclusion that social expectation imposed on women in Shakespearean England were mainly limited with the roles of either a queen of hearth or a nun – these were two ways for women to remain chaste and righteous in the eyes of the society. Once a woman refused to marry a man of her father’s choice like Hermia did, she was doomed to either solitary life of a nun or death, as Theseus insisted. On the other hand, nunneries were treated as the last resort for righteous women, and the general opinion of them seems to have been rather negative in comparison to prosperous life of a flourishing wife and mother protected and controlled by her husband.
Jamieson, Lee. Introducing Shakespeares Women, from: http://shakespeare.about.com/od/criticalapproaches/a/intro_women.htm
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/midsummer/full.html
Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure, from: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/measure/full.html
Sharnette, Heather. Elizabethan Women, Elizabeth R, 1998-2014, from: http://www.elizabethi.org/contents/