Shakespeare's comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream is a playful, humorous tale of misplaced love, fairies, and adventure. One would think with such a description that the play would be innocent and lighthearted; unfortunately, A Midsummer Night's Dream is filled with dark events that are only made worse once audience members take a closer look. One such event is that of the Fairy King, Oberon, drugging his queen, Titania, into falling in love with a man transformed into a donkey (A Midsummer Night's Dream 2.1.176-182). In National Theater Live's production of this play, director Nicholas Hytner reversed the roles of Titania and Oberon on the grounds that, in the words of Director Hytner, "It's more funny that way," (Hytner). If, however, one examines only a small portion of fundamental feminist writings, one can easily conclude that a mere gender-swap is not enough to hide the fact that a character was horribly violated by their spouse.
There is a fault in the logic when one assumes that, because there has been a switch in the character roles within the play, the sexual violation that occurs is now perfectly acceptable. Esteemed feminist theorists Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott both wrote papers that outline and illustrate the concept that there are no grounds for differentiating between two groups of people based on their reproductive systems. Therefore, we must take a close examination of what such divisions mean in the context of this play. In regards to the difference between sex and gender, we must use the word "sex" to refer to the biological division of the male and female reproductive systems, and "gender" to the self-identification and roles that an individual has created for themselves based on their experiences in society. Drawing from the evidence presented in the papers of Scott and Butler, we as an audience must acknowledge that the issues of gender, sex, and rape encountered in the original play are not remedied by changing the genders being performed on stage.
In her writing "Gender Study: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," American historian Joan W. Scott explains her thoughts and ideas concerning the subject of gender on a societal scale. Scott speaks on the notion of Pierre Bourdieu's theory of the di-vision du monde, or divided world (Scott 18). The divided world is a concept that encompasses a separation of power within societies and cultures, taking it a step further by claiming that such a division leads to a fractionating of society as a result of the power gap widening. Scott's point revolves around the concept that the division of society is applicable to the concepts surrounding gender and the power dynamics that arise from gender roles (Soctt 19-20). Society is split evenly in its numbers, but unevenly in its power structure, all thanks to the differences contrived between two reproductive systems.
The power dynamics that are shown in A Midsummer Night's Dream revolve mostly around that of the two monarchies present in the story (the King and Queen of the fairies and the Duke of Athens and his bride), monarchies that are divided and heavily influenced by gender. This division of power exists because of concepts that are rooted in the differences between the two sexes; in Shakespeare's time (and in modern times, based on some cultural conventions), the woman was the weaker sex. Hytner's choice of switching the roles of Oberon and Titania automatically switches these contrived power dynamics. The image of a man rather than a woman being victimized gains more comedic traction because it falls less in line with traditional ideas surrounding power and gender. If, however, one removes the concept that men and women are inherently different, then the power dynamics surrounding gender and the reasoning behind them crumble. One therefore must look beyond gender to find the messages in A Midsummer Night's Dream that are not dependant on the constantly changing ideas of power and gender divisions.
We are able to remove this concept of men and women being inherently different thanks to the writings of Judith Butler's Gender Trouble. According to Butler, gender and the divisions that gender creates only exists because of the reinforcement of what she calls "gender performance" (Butler 112). Gender performance is based on the concept that gender expression and biological sex are two completely separate things that have no bearing on one another except what society forces onto them . This performance is merely the repetition of patterns in the way that people behave, and the links between that behavior and gender (Butler 124). Butler uses the example of drag races and drag queens to explain that though drag queens are typically men, they perform the aspects, appearance, and behaviors that are typically assigned to women; they are performing gender, thus proving that gender roles are not set in stone and not directly attached to biological differences (Butler 137-138).
Gender performance is especially prevalent in A Midsummer Night's Dream through the perceived power structures that are created with the depiction of the monarchies. Theseus has won Hippolyta in battle, stating that "I wooed thee with my sword/ and won thy love doing thee injuries," (1.1.16-17). Clearly, Theseus holds the power in this couple, a stance that is even further emphasized by Hytner's decision to have Hippolyta trapped in a cage during this scene in his play (Hytner). Oberon refers to himself as "...thy lord," (2.1.63), suggesting a level of authority and mastery over Titania, while Titania only says that she "must be thy lady," (2.1.64), a phrase that connotes much less power over Oberon than what Oberon has over her. They are performing their expected gender roles in the original play. Because in Hytner's adaptation Oberon is now taking on the role of Titania, he is now performing what those in Shakespeare's time would have viewed as traits fit for a woman. He is performing gender. We therefore witness in this adaptation a perfect example of how gender is truly only a performance. Because we can now see that the differences between gender are only what we perform, and are not actually concrete, logic follows that we ask why changing genders in A Midsummer Night's Dream makes any difference in how the audience receives the assault. Why does one perceive the alternative of a woman assaulting a man to be better than a situation in which a man assaults a woman?
From these theories of feminism, we as an audience can conclude that women and men are not so different at all. Rather, we are only as different as we believe ourselves to be based on artificial societal constructs. Thus, we must then question why it seemed more amusing to the director for Oberon to be drugged into falling in love with a donkey, rather than if the victim were to remain Titania. Just as with the concept of gender, there is no actual difference between the two situations other than what we as a society believe there to be. We live in a time and environment where people are more aware than ever of the violations and accostments that have been wrought against women for millenia. Therefore, a director of any adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream may be understandably uncomfortable at the idea of drugging a woman, having her engage in intercourse with a donkey, and then laughing at the entire situation.One may view the switching of genders in Director Nicholas Hytner's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream to be a very feminist and socially aware decision. One only has to look at some of the earliest and most basic feminist writings, however, to see how faulty this assumption is. The differences between men and women are not solid, unmoving concepts, but rather fluid and based only in perception. Traditional gender roles demand that we treat men and women differently, yet fundamental theories regarding what gender actually means and how gender exists within society tells us that there are no objective differences between men and women. Therefore, we cannot allow ourselves to be fooled into believing that switching the gender of the victim in A Midsummer Night's Dream solves the issues of gender and rape that exist within the play. Oberon was violated by his spouse, his trust and their union betrayed and taken advantage of. Changing the victim's gender, a concept that is so malleable and so clearly subject to interpretation, does not change what happens in the play. A person was still raped. We cannot allow ourselves to be fooled into ever believing that is acceptable.