Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream: Character Traits & Analysis

Instructor: Arielle Windham

Arielle has worked worked with elementary, middle, and secondary students in American and Japan. She has a bachelor's degree in English and a master's in Education.

While he may not be one of the stars of Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', Theseus, the Duke of Athens, still plays an important part in the romantic comedy. This lesson will take a closer look at how he fits into the bigger picture of the play.

The Man, the Myth, and the Legend

You can't really call A Midsummer Night's Dream historical, but Shakespeare did draw a lot from mythology and folklore to create some of the play's characters. The Fairy King Oberon is drawn from Medieval French literature. Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, is based on an ancient English sprite with mischievous tendencies. And then, of course, we have the legendary Theseus pulled straight from Greek mythology.

Because he uses the character traits established by their myths for these characters, we can assume that Shakespeare's audience would already know a bit about these historic people. However, modern audiences might need a refresher before we can really understand how Shakespeare used them to create deeper meaning in his play. As you can see from the title of this lesson, we will be looking at the character of Theseus, but before we jump into his role in A Midsummer Night's Dream, let's take a look at his myths.

The Mythological King of Athens

Not everyone agrees on every detail about Theseus's life, but many myths and books remember him as Athens' greatest king and a heroic fighter.

He is best known for defeating the Minotaur, but in his youth he killed many bandits, murderers, and beasts that plagued Athens. As king, the stories agree that he ruled long and wisely, bringing the people of Athens together to create a strong city-state. This wise, honorable ruler seems to be the one after which Shakespeare chose to model his Theseus.

Theseus and the Minotaur

However, the Greek stories also agree that he was pretty bad when it came to love. He abducted and abandoned several women, including the famous Helen (who would later be known as Helen of Troy). He even tried to abduct Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, with his friend Peirithous. His Amazon Queen (Shakespeare calls her Hippolyta, but in most myths she is Antiope) did love him in the myths, enough to fight beside him and die when her own people attacked. She bore him a son, Hippolytus. Later, Theseus has Poseidon kill his son when his second wife, madly in love with the boy, kills herself and leaves a note blaming the boy.

Theseus chasing Helen

Clearly, Shakespeare cherry picked the better parts of Theseus's character to use in A Midsummer Night's Dream. We find Theseus in all his regal glory as he takes the stage in Act 1 with his true love Hippolyta.

The Shakespearian Duke of Athens

Theseus seems to have gotten a demotion when Shakespeare cast him in A Midsummer Night's Dream. He's no longer a king, only the Duke of Athens in the play. However, he still has the respect and responsibility of a king.

Theseus, Hippolyta, and Attendants

Theseus takes the stage in Act 1, Scene 1 with his fiancée Hippolyta. In the opening, Theseus admits that he kind of kidnapped Hippolyta, but insists that he loves her. Their marriage is going to be totally different than their courtship, he promises.

They are disturbed by Egeus, Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius. This is where we really learn what incarnation of Theseus Shakespeare is using. Egeus has come for justice. He wants Hermia, his daughter, to obey him and marry Demetrius. If she won't, he wants lawful permission to kill her.

Theseus, the wise ruler, gives Hermia a third option. She can become a nun. He doesn't suggest it, but it is preferable to death. By upholding the law, Theseus furthers the main conflict of the play since his decision leads the young lovers to the woods.

Through his exchanges in Act 1, and when he reappears later in the play, Shakespeare sets Theseus up as a symbol of justice, mercy, and unwavering order. He and Hippolyta also seem to be the only lovers without any baggage in the play, making them the only conflict-free couple. Both of these things are important because they both reflect some of the play's major themes.

Theme of Order vs. Disorder

One of the themes that Theseus helps explore is the relationship between order and disorder. As a representative of Athenian law and order, he stands in contrast to the fairies who thrive in disorder.

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