Power relations in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘Antigone’

Foucault notes that power is ‘interwoven with all social relations,’[1] and such relations occur as a result of ‘divisions and inequalities.’[2] In both ‘Antigone and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ power relations are defined by the inequality that is influenced by gender. The control that Creon has over Antigone, as her King and uncle, and the control that Theseus has over Hippolyta, as her conqueror and superior support the claim that power relations are defined by gender, and the imbalance of power favours the male characters. Although it is the male characters that demonstrate the most power, alternative interpretations could imply that there is room for social mobility.

Creon supports this claim when condemning Antigone. He notes that he can never be ‘inferior to a woman’[3] implying that her defiance is emasculating to him. He rejects her wish to bury Polynices, declaring that she is a ‘traitor.’[4] He cannot agree with her as she is a woman, as this would weaken his power and authority. Although this implies his fear of her, it also emphasises her low status as a woman, as Creon cannot bare to be threatened by her. The imbalance of power within their relationship favours Creon as her uncle and head of state. He is able to hold his political position, and exert familial power over her, because he is male and therefore her superior. This supports the claim that power relations are defined by gender, as Creon exerts power over Antigone which is attributed to him due to his gender. Foley notes that Greek tragedy aimed to distort traditional ideas[5] and Antigone does so through her rebellious nature. A similar relationship can be seen in Shakespeare’s play, as Theseus has power over Hippolyta after defeating her with his ‘sword.’[6] Here, power is imbalanced, as Theseus has stolen Hippolyta’s power from her, by defeating her in battle and making her his queen.[7] Theseus claims to have won her ‘love,’[8] which could merely be forced consent,[9] considering that she has been imprisoned against her will. These relationships demonstrate an imbalance of power, one that favours male characters. This supports the claim that power relations are defined by gender, as male characters possess greater power than female characters.

The relationship of Theseus and Hermia is based on the familial aspect of power relations. Theseus chastises Hermia as she will not marry Demetrius, declaring that, as her father, he should be seen as ‘God’[10] by her. He draws power from his status in her family and the law stating that she could be executed for her refusal of Demetrius.[11] Power lies with Theseus, as Hermia’s male superior. This heavily supports the claim that power relations are influenced by gender, as Hermia is subject to the will of her male superior and is barred from acting independently. The relationship of Haemon and Creon too demonstrates this, as the latter declares that Haemon should be ‘subordinate’[12] to him. Both Theseus and Creon act as the highest form of authority over their children, as they are the dominant male figures in their lives. Although Haemon and Creon are both male, their relationship shows that power relations are affected by familial bonds and obligations, as Haemon is expected to forsake Antigone without delay. Creon’s expectations emphasise the imbalance of power within their relationship, which favours Creon due to his status in the kingdom and in the family. The relationship between Theseus and Hermia exemplifies this as well as the importance of gender when discussing power relations. It is clear that from examining these relationships It can be seen that power relations are affected by familial bonds and gender.

Although power is generally imbalanced throughout the plays, it could be argued that there is room for social mobility. Hermia’s marriage to Lysander demonstrates female power, as at the end of the play Theseus allows them to ‘eternally be knit.’[13] Hermia’s insistence to marry Lysander appears to be successful, perhaps showing hope for womankind, as Hermia defies the power of her father and takes it from him, as he gives into her wish to marry Lysander. Alternatively, the opposite could be argued, as it is Theseus who grants Hermia permission to marry Lysander, implying that he is still in control of her life and who she weds. This would support the claim that power relations are defined by gender, as Theseus ultimately has control over Hermia as her male superior. Hermia’s marriage to Lysander can be interpreted in both ways, much like Antigone’s death. Antigone is seen to draw power from the public, claiming that they would support her if they did not ‘fear’[14] Creon. Antigone draws power from the support that she believes she has and retains it. When Antigone takes her own life, she appears to be in control over it, deliberately taking power from Creon. Antigone refuses to die in the way Creon intended, instead strangling herself in her ‘veils.’[15] It could be argued that the power balance here shifts, as she ensures that she is able to die on her own terms, not Creon’s. This situation is similar to that of Hermia’s, as although Antigone does display some power here, she is also enhancing the power of Creon, who previously declared that her death is ‘all’[16] he craved. This shows that power relations can fluctuate, but it also strengthens the fact that power relations are defined by the inequalities driven by gender further, as although Hermia gets what she desires, she is only granted it by her male superior. Antigone’s death also satisfies the desires of Creon, strengthening his own power as he no longer has an adversary. Both scenarios strengthen the power of the dominant male figures in the play.

When analysing the character of Bottom, and his elevation to the lover of Titania,[17] it could be suggested that there is room for social mobility. When discussing the claim, that men hold the power in relationships, it is also interesting to note that men have power over other men. In this instance, Puck and Oberon appear to have power over Bottom, as they control his transformation[18] and indirectly, his rise. This relationship is unlike others in both plays, as in this relationship there is no significant female, and no familial obligation. Shakespeare may be implying that there is only room for social mobility when other dominant male figures, or even magic, are involved. Interestingly, Bottom does display some power at the end of the play, as he answers back to Theseus when he is watching the mechanicals.[19] This power may be retained from his previous elevation, aided by Oberon and Puck, perhaps displaying how power relations can fluctuate to an extent. Although this idea is plausible, it is still worth noting that the dominant male figures facilitated this change, implying that power still lies with them.

The interactions of the lovers support the claim that power relations are defined by gender in favour of male characters. This can be seen through the characters of Helena and Hermia, who at some point in the play are at the mercy of their male counterparts due to various inequalities. Hermia chases after Lysander following his rejection from her,[20] as Helena does Demetrius.[21] Lysander’s sexual advances toward Hermia too support this idea, as he demonstrates his sexual power over her. Although this may not be specifically to do with gender, it is clear that he holds sexual power over her that scares her, as communicated by her ensuing nightmare, leading her to ask Lysander to ‘pluck this crawling serpent from my breast.’[22] Lysander here shows that he has the ability to frighten Hermia through his sexual advances towards her, displaying a relationship of power that is based on inequality, as Foucault argues.[23] Both women, at different points in the play are berated by their male counterparts, and whether this inequality is due to unequal love or unequal sexual prowess, it supports the claim that power relations are defined by gender, as both women are chastised by their male opposites throughout the play.

It is only through the intervention of Puck that this is altered, and Helena finds herself in a position of power, as both Demetrius and Lysander vie for her hand.[24] She was only granted this power by Puck, demonstrating that power is concentrated in the hands of the male characters, as Oberon and Puck are both able to manipulate all other characters in the play. This further supports the claim that power relations are defined by the inequalities caused by gender divisions, as exemplified by Oberon’s control over Titania. Initially, she has power over Oberon as she refuses to give up the ‘changeling boy’[25] to him. His desperation to acquire the child to be his ‘henchman’[26] pushes him to make a mockery of Titania and take her power of reason from her, causing her to fall for Bottom.[27] Oberon forcefully extorts the ‘boy’[28] from her, displaying the imbalance of power, and vitriol, within their relationship. This supports the claim that power relations are based on the inequalities derived from gender, as Oberon and Puck are able to exert, and take, power from others.

Power relations are seen to affect all people within both plays. Creon loses all of those who are dear to him at the end of ‘Antigone,’ stating that he has been killed ‘again and again.’[29] This is the fallout of the imbalance of power caused by the gender divide. Relationships dominated by power affect all involved in the play, in a macrocosm and microcosm setting. The death of Antigone, at Creon’s order,[30] ironically leads to the destruction of his entire family, which will affect Athens as it marks the death of several members of the royal family. The play affects the immediate characters, as well as their surrounding world. This is more clearly expressed in Titania’s speech, in which she states that her and Oberon are the ‘parents’[31] of the discourse occurring within the magical and natural world. The power struggle between the fairy king and queen disrupts both worlds in the play, emphasising the dramatic effects and consequences of relationships, that display an imbalance of power, in both plays discussed.

Relationships are heavily influenced by the inequality that comes with gender, implying that power relations are defined by gender. Such relations are affected by familial obligations and sexual prowess which lead to an imbalance of power in the favour of the male characters. This imbalance is seen to affect the immediate characters in the play as well as their surroundings, causing chaos for all those involved.

Thanks for reading!


[1] R Deacon, ‘Strategies of Governance Michel Foucault on Power’, Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, No. 52 (1998), 113-148, 114.

[2] Ibid, 114

[3] Sophocles, Antigone. Translated by Robert Fagles, notes by Bernard Knox (London: Penguin, 2000) 761.

[4] Ibid, 553

[5] Helen P. Foley, Female Acts in Greek Tragedy, New Ed (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[6] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. by Peter Holland (London: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008), 1.1:16

[7] Ibid, 1.1:18

[8] Ibid, 1.1:17

[9] Ibid, p. 51

[10] Ibid, 1.1:47

[11] Ibid, 1.1:42-45

[12] Sophocles, Antigone. Translated by Robert Fagles, notes by Bernard Knox (London: Penguin, 2000) 714.

[13] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. by Peter Holland (London: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008), 4.1:180

[14] Sophocles, Antigone. Translated by Robert Fagles, notes by Bernard Knox (London: Penguin, 2000) 565.

[15] Ibid, 1348

[16] Ibid, 566

[17] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. by Peter Holland (London: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008), 3.1:136

[18] Ibid, 3.2:17

[19] Ibid, 5.1:182

[20] Ibid, 3.2:261

[21] Ibid, 2.1:202

[22] Ibid, 3.1:152

[23] R Deacon, ‘Strategies of Governance Michel Foucault on Power’, Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, No. 52 (1998), 113-148, 114.

[24] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. by Peter Holland (London: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008), 2.2:120

[25] Ibid, 2.1:120

[26] Ibid, 2.1:121

[27] Ibid, 3.1:134

[28] Ibid, 4.1:61

[29] Sophocles, Antigone. Translated by Robert Fagles, notes by Bernard Knox (London: Penguin, 2000) 1416.

[30] Ibid, 921

[31] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. by Peter Holland (London: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008), 2.1:117

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a second year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

%d bloggers like this: