Patriarchy was an ongoing theme in both Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and can be most noticeable in the representation of the leaders in each play, Claudius and Theseus. They each stereotypically represent toxic masculinity and the negative effects of when a man is given, or in these cases, takes too much power. Both Theseus, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Claudius, from Hamlet, take something, whether it be a life, a wife, or a throne, to exert their power and show their superiority, which is an issue that we still see in men today.
The objectification of women was a big issue surrounding Claudius and is what made him an inadequate leader. He placed no value on their lives, and even at times put them in harms way, all so that he could maintain his power and control without a hitch. One instance in which this objectification is noticeable is when Claudius and Polonius devise a plan to have Ophelia spy on Hamlet. Their idea was to “closely for Hamlet hither, that he, as ‘twere by accident, may here affront Ophelia,” so that she could get Hamlet to react in order to prove his apparent “madness” (Shakespeare, pg. 125, lines 32-34). Claudius knew that Hamlet was not in his right mindset, and was therefore dangerous, yet didn’t think twice about leaving Ophelia alone with him. He clearly saw her as disposable and a means to justify an end, that end being the exile of Hamlet. Another time Claudius is seen objectifying a woman is when he is found praying by Hamlet and is speaking about Gertrude. He attempts to repent for the murder that he has committed, yet sees no use in it because he is not sorry for what he did. He refuses to apologize because “ still possessed of those effects for which did the murder: crown, own ambition, and queen” (Shakespeare, pg. 165, lines 57-59). He loves the life that he stole from his brother, and looks at his new wife as a prize for all the crimes he committed to make it to the top. He views her as a trophy that symbolizes his success and triumph, which is all he seems to truly care about.
Theseus is very similar to Claudius in regards to their treatment of women. Though he does act respectfully towards women, he does not respect them, their bodies, or the choices that they make in life. He is constantly trying to control personal aspects of their life and believe that the men have the final say in their fate. The first time this becomes apparent is on the first page of the play, when Theseus tells Hippolyta that “ wooed thee with sword and won thy love doing thee injuries” (Shakespeare, pg. 7, lines 17-18). He captured Hippolyta and is forcing her to be his wife, not even taking into account that she may not want to marry him. She is being taken advantage of, and nobody ever even took her feelings into account. One major fault of Theseus as a leader is that he sees men as superior to women. This is very apparent when Egeus asks him to force Hermia to marry Demetrius. He tells Hermia that “ father should be as a god” and that his word and opinion should be taken into account above all else, even if it contradicts her own thoughts and feelings (Shakespeare, pg. 9, line 48). He doesn’t let Hermia make her own decision regarding who she loves, and threatens that she will “endure the livery of a nun” if she refuses to listen to her father (Shakespeare, pg. 11, line 72).
The objectification and disrespect of women is not something exclusive to the time period in which Claudius and Theseus lived. This problem is still very much alive today, whether it be through arranged marriages in India or the Middle East, media outlets caring about a woman’s body over her intelligence or career, or even the blatant disrespect of women by our own president, and it being such a hot topic today proves that the world today is not much different than it was then.
There are a multitude of reasons why Claudius and Theseus are incompetent and inadequate leaders, however, it begs the question if there is anything favorable about either of them. You could say that Claudius made great decisions regarding how to deal with Norway and Fortinbras, and you can also applaud Theseus for allowing the four lovers to love who they want instead of being told who to love. Yet, the good does not outweigh the bad in this case. Being a leader isn’t just about making great strategic decisions here and there, it is about caring for those you rule over, no matter their gender. And, unfortunately, both Theseus and Claudius fail to look past their own prejudice and gave in to the patriarchy, making them both unsuccessful as leaders and dishonorable as men.
- Shakespeare, William, et al. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2016.
- Shakespeare, William, et al. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2012.