Hathaway Brown School
Instructor: Scott Parsons
Shakespeare's Motif of Animals: An Examination of the Dehumanization of Women
Shakespeare's Motif of Animals: An Examination of the Dehumanization of Women
In A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare, Shakespeare employs the motif of animals to explore the dominant theme of dehumanization against women. Dehumanization is a powerful means by which a person is reduced to the status of, and is viewed as, an animal, rather than a human being. A dehumanized person is stripped of her humanity by the very act of being treated as an animal. Furthermore, as a result of the dehumanization, she is denied the basic human attributes of respect and dignity. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hermia is dehumanized by her father, Egeus. Egeus determines that it as his "right" to "beteem" Hermia to Demetrius and simultaneously "give" her away because of his self-determined "ownership" of her, just as he would exert ownership over an animal in his possession. Similarly, Oberon dehumanizes his wife, Titania, by treating her as his puppet, in order to filch the changeling boy away from her. Oberon issues orders to Titania, telling her what to do, in much the same manner and tone that he would use in speaking to his animals. While Hermia and Titania are the victims of dehumanization by others, Helena dehumanizes herself. Helena implores Demetrius to treat her as a dog, in the misguided hope of enthralling Demetrius' love and attention. Implementing the motif of animals, Shakespeare dehumanizes women in general, and Hermia, Titania, and Helena, specifically, and highlights the broader and related theme of male dominance over women.
Egeus dehumanizes his daughter, Hermia, by treating her as his property, rather than as a person. As such, Egeus views the decision of whom Hermia shall marry as his sole "right" to determine. Similarly, Egeus wholeheartedly believes that males are the superior species while females are inferior and subordinate to men. He feels that he owns his daughter, in much the same way that one owns animals. Egeus endeavors to woo Theseus to this point of view by decreeing that Hermia must marry Demetrius; he says, "'Consent to marry with Demetrius, / I beg 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 (1.1.40-44) [My emphasis].'" The words "mine, dispose, and death" are provocative because through Egeus' eyes, Hermia is an inanimate object that he owns and controls, rather than a living human being able to think and make decisions for herself. Egeus uses the words "she is mine," alluding to his complete and unchecked power over his possessions. Additionally, his words "dispose of her", suggest that Egeus is throwing away an invaluable object or animal, and further illustrate his characterization of his daughter as a possession or animal, rather than a cherished human being. The striking polarity of male hierarchy versus female submission, as evidenced by "marry, privilege" and "dispose, death", embodies the concept that Hermia lacks authority in determining her own fate. The motif of order, "Athens, law", further illustrates the societal structure of male dominance and female inferiority in this patriarchal European society; there is a preexisting law that sentences women to death who refuse to follow their fathers' wishes regarding whom they will marry. By asserting his "duty" to find a suitable husband for his daughter Hermia, Egeus dehumanizes her by determining that she is incapable of making the decision for herself; this in turn, lowers Hermia to the status of an animal or possession, for which his contention is then proven necessary.
Similar to Hermia, Titania is dehumanized; however, in Titania's case, it is by her husband, Oberon. Oberon beguiles and dehumanizes Titania by placing the love potion on her eyes in order to filch the changeling boy. The love potion serves as the agent of the dehumanization because once Titania is under the potion's spell, Oberon plays her like a puppet, ordering her to do as he says, in a fashion similar to how one commands his animals. As Oberon recalls how he accomplished his mission of obtaining the changeling boy, he states, "I then did ask of her her changeling child, / Which straight she gave me, and her fairy sent / To bear him to my bower in Fairyland. / And now I have the boy, I will undo / This hateful imperfection of her eyes" (4.1.56-60). The significant motif of possession: "gave, sent, have" signifies Oberon's manipulation of his wife to obtain the child. By placing Titania under a spell, Oberon takes advantage of her when she is most vulnerable and unaware of her surroundings. Oberon treats Titania as though she has no mind of her own; as his puppet/pet, required to do as he, the master, instructs. Dehumanizing Titania is necessary in Oberon's eyes, because prior to giving her the love potion, she was an impenetrable impediment to what he wanted; that is, the changeling boy. Oberon makes the concession that once he has what he desires, he will "undo" the "hateful imperfection of her eyes" because he no longer needs to control Titania. Oberon's manipulation and dehumanization of Titania is rooted in the belief of male superiority and dominance as valid justification for attaining the means to the end. Titania is his unwitting victim; a mindless puppet while under the effects of the potion, whose objective is to unknowingly concede the changeling boy to her "master".
Helena's dehumanization differs from that of Hermia and Titania, because unlike Hermia and Titania, Helena brings the dehumanization upon herself. Helena lacks confidence and self-respect, and as such, dehumanizes herself, leading to feelings of inferiority with regard to Demetrius. As Helena beseeches Demetrius to show her affection, she says, "I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius, / The more you beat me, I will fawn on you: / Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me, / Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave, / Unworthy as I am, to follow you. / What worser place can I beg in your love, / And yet a place of high respect with me, / Than to be used as you use your dog?" (2.1. 203-210) As a desperate and final resort, Helena implores Demetrius to treat her as "his spaniel" and his servant, because Demetrius has not shown her respect as a human being. Helena dehumanizes herself to the status of an animal, and weakly shows Demetrius her desperation for his love. By exhorting Demetrius to treat her as a dog, Helena dehumanizes herself, and women as a gender. It is degrading that Helena is willing to assume any role to capture Demetrius' attention, even that of an insubordinate animal, and even if it means losing her humanity in the process. Additionally, by entreating Demetrius to treat her as a dog, Helena encourages Demetrius to view himself as dominant and superior to her. This behavior has the consequence of supporting a patronizing, male-dominated society. Helena says that if Demetrius "beat[s]", "spurn[s]", "strike[s]", and "neglect[s]" her, she will not only still love him, but her love for him will be even more passionate. Helena's dehumanization is particularly disturbing because Helena declares to Demetrius that she will feel "high[ly] respect[ed]" and even honored to be seen as a dog in his eyes, even if that respect comes at the consequence of being treated as a "spaniel". Shakespeare uses Helena to make a poignant case for male dominance by showing that Helena will happily accept mistreatment and neglect if it means being the recipient of Demetrius' attention, good or bad. By dehumanizing herself, Helena succumbs to the male-centric society where men are revered, and women are subordinated.
Shakespeare's dehumanization of Hermia by Egeus, Titania by Oberon, and Helena by herself, encourages and reinforces the prominent theme of a male-dominated society. Each of these three women submit to, and accept, male dominance as the norm in their society. They allow themselves to be treated as animals and objects, owned by men, who assert control over them. While Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream hundreds of years ago, the central issue of male dominance is still a preeminent issue plaguing society today. Patriarchy not only exists, but presides, in many parts of the world, and women are widely regarded as inferior to men. Admittedly, some progress has been made. However, the goal of true equality between men and women, and women no longer being viewed as objects to be owned by men, still looms in the distance.