How the first two scenes of Shakespeare's As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream foreshadow the major themes of both plays

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How the first two scenes of Shakespeare’s As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream foreshadow the major themes of both plays; specifically the political ones.

        It is important to enter the reading of any Shakespeare play with a little knowledge of the Divine Right of Kings. This belief was prevalent in Shakespeare’s day, and was one to which he was devoted. Put simply, it was the belief that church and state were united unequivocally, that the coronation was sacramental and as such the king was all-powerful, answering only to God. Of Shakespeare’s subscription to this belief, John Wain (1970) says,

No one has affirmed the doctrine in more vigorous terms than

Shakespeare. But equally, no one has scorched it with fiercer irony. (p. 27)

Indeed, Shakespeare thrived on political comment, criticism and satire. From the scrutiny of the pastoral form in As You Like It to the fronting of law, class and social convention in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There are, of course, certain surface parallels between the two comedies; both plays are about relationships. Such similarities are understandable since both plays are believed to have been written around the same time, somewhere in the 1590s. They each start in similar veins; both open with a spirited family quarrel which will have strong repercussions as the plays progresses. As You Like It is about relationships between men and women, appearances and reality (and unreality); A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about the relationships between those with power, and those without it. And it is to this latter play that we now turn.

Just from its title, one should anticipate something supernatural about A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is set around the summer solstice, a very short time of profound astronomical irregularity. And in the confines of the play we have histrionic love, magic potions and, of course, the magical woodland. The play opens with a discourse between the Duke of Athens and Hippolyta. That Theseus is marrying Hippolyta shows how this society can overpower even the most powerful women (in this case the queen of the Amazons, a nation of women warriors). This theme, of gender and power, is the leading issue in the play. Three more acts elapse before Hippolyta has anything more to say.

To you your father should be as a god; (I.1.42)

        This Theseus says to Hermia, explaining that he composed her, as one might carve a chess piece, and should be allowed to play this pawn at his discretion. Her love, Lysander, is an unworthy suitor. Theseus contends that “Demetrius is a worthy gentleman” (I.1.54), to which Hermia retorts, “So is Lysander” (I.1.55). We come to the real crux of the issue;


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                In himself he is.

                But in this kind… (I.1.56-7)

We learn that the two men are equals, except in the context of marriage. Lysander is a social inferior – but worse than that (or because of it) he has another flaw acting against him, he doesn’t have the approval of Hermia’s father, Egeus. The allusion of Egeus to a god foreshadows a discourse between Oberon and Titania later in the play. Oberon’s words are something of a reverberation;

                …am I not thy Lord? (II.1.66)

In a twisted way perhaps we can understand Egeus’s point of view; when ...

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