Egeus & Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

The relationship between Egeus and Hermia is probably the most disturbing one in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' We'll look at their character traits and analyze their conflict in the play.

The Basic Conflict Between Egeus and Hermia

Early in Act 1, Egeus heatedly complains to Theseus, the Duke of Athens, that he's unhappy with Hermia because she refuses to marry Demetrius, the man he's chosen for her. Really, he's angry because Hermia's previous 'obedience' has been turned ''(t)o stubborn harshness.'' Egeus says that because her obedience is legally ''due to (him),'' he wants to prosecute her to the fullest extent of the law. Hermia asks her father to consider her point of view. When this fails, she asks Theseus what the worst-case legal scenario is for her so she can make an informed decision. Theseus explains that if she won't marry Demetrius, her options are to be executed by court order or become a nun. The two men give Hermia until the next morning to choose her fate.

Egeus bringing Hermia before Theseus in court
Egeus bringing Hermia before Theseus in court

As if this weren't bad enough, Egeus treats Hermia like a helpless doll with no critical or independent thinking skills. He claims that Lysander ''bewitch'd her and 'filch'd (stole) her heart'', as if she's unable to form an opinion of him for herself.

Gender Roles in the Elizabethan Era

The nature of this conflict is certainly outrageous by today's standards. To understand it, we'll need to look at gender roles in the Elizabethan era, when Shakespeare was writing. During this time, women were universally considered inferior to men and were expected to be subservient to them. Women couldn't be educated, enter politics, hold any important offices, or inherit property. Instead, they were property. Even Queen Elizabeth herself would have been expected to obey her husband if she'd married, which is doubtless a major reason that she didn't.

An Elizabethan woman submissively asking what her husband wishes
An Elizabethan woman submissively asking what her husband wishes

Men who were heads of households, like Egeus, were expected to make decisions for female family members. That's why Egeus chooses a husband for Hermia, and why he fully expects her to follow orders. It's also why Theseus tells Hermia: ''To you your father should be as a god' and 'your eyes with his judgement must look.'' As far as society is concerned, Hermia's disobedience is the outrageous behavior, not Egeus' control over her.

Egeus: A Senselessly Rigid and Unreasonable Character

However, even for Elizabethan times, Egeus is an especially rigid and aggressively misogynist character. (A misogynist is anyone who believes women are inferior to men). We know this for at least three reasons.

First, even as a father who wants his daughter to obey him, it's not necessary for him to seek the most dire punishment legally available. Even as her 'superior' and 'owner,' a reasonable and loving father would be free to choose other solutions less harmful to his daughter (such as not executing her). However, Egeus clearly doesn't care about Hermia's well-being: he only cares about getting his way and using his clout as a male and acquaintance of the duke.

Second, although we don't expect him to listen to Hermia, we find that he won't listen to reason from a man, either. Lysander explains that, socially and financially, he's every bit as qualified to marry her as Demetrius: ''I am, my lord, as well deriv'd as he, As well possess'd; my love is more than his; My fortunes every way as fairly rank'd (If not with vantage) as Demetrius'.'' What kind of father wouldn't want his daughter to marry a respectable, well-off man who genuinely loves her?

Third, Lysander points out that Demetrius has already behaved less than honorably toward Helena, implying that he may be unfaithful to Hermia as well. Still, Egeus won't listen.

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