By the time Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer’s Night Dream during the winter of 1595-96, Queen Elizabeth I was well past her childbearing years, past the age of sixty and had not chosen an heir. Given the previous several decades of English history, this made her subjects understandably apprehensive. The fact that she was a powerful ruler who had accomplished much and was relatively benign elicited admiration; however, the fact that she was an unmarried woman would have raised many questions in the minds of people living in and during what essentially was a patriarchal, male-dominated place and time.The initial performance of A Midsummer’s Night Dream may have been attended by Elizabeth. Were this the case and it was known that the Queen would attend, it would not have been unreasonable for Shakespeare to incorporate elements designed to flatter her. On the other hand, Shakespeare’s plays were written “for the masses” as well. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that some subtle form of political or social criticism might have found its way into the script.
In some ways, the structure of the play (one of the few that Shakespeare created from his own imagination without relying on a primary source) is metaphorical of the history of England during the turbulent years of the 16th century; the Duke of Theseus and Queen Hippolyta represent stability in what is essentially a chaotic plot, and this stability is present only at the beginning and the ending of the play.
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Likewise, the 16th century had opened with the reign of Henry VI, who had restored stability following the War of the Roses; when his son, Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church over the issue of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, he unintentionally lit a socio-political fire fanned by the winds of the Reformation, leading to societal upheavals over which he had little control.
Following the passing of Henry VIII, three more Tudor monarchs came and went in quick succession (Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey and Mary I), each one bringing a change of official religion; Elizabeth I restored stability to English society and began the process of turning the British Empire into a superpower. Elizabeth’s legitimacy was in question because of her Protestant faith, but she was very popular with her subjects. Nonetheless, the question of her marriage came up soon after her ascension to the throne.
Rumors at the time suggested that she was in love with the 1st Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, but since her council would not sanction marriage to a commoner, she decided not to marry at all. It is more likely that the decision was political, however. Had Elizabeth married, she would have sacrificed virtually all of her power and a sizable portion of her wealth. In the opening scene of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Hermia refuses the suitor her father Egeus has chosen for her. Theseus outlines her alternatives in no uncertain terms: “Either to die the death, or to abjure For ever the society of men.” (Act I, Scene 1, Lines 65-66).
Any male monarch (married or not) would have had to a mistress, and no questions would have been asked. The patriarchal double-standard would have made any tryst on Elizabeth’s part a political disaster, however. Furthermore, Renaissance conventions required that a wife be unquestioningly subject to her husband’s authority. Since this would have had significant political consequences, it was in Elizabeth’s best interests (as well as England’s) for her to remain a virgin.
On one hand, the play would seem to be critical of Elizabeth in her refusal to submit to male authority, and yet there is something admirable in Hermia’s defiance, willing to risk all for the one she loves. In the last scene of the 1999 film Elizabeth, the Queen declares that she is “married – to England. ” Whether it was personal ambition and desire for power, or a true love for and sense of duty toward the nation, the fact remains that had Elizabeth married, Britain would never have become an empire, and the world would be a much different place today.
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