Exploring Homosocialization in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

 

The most interesting thing, in my opinion, about this play so far is the concept of homosexuality and homosocialization as expressed by Shakespeare. It makes the case for a seemingly alternate world, a world without patriarchy, where men are used for the sole purpose of procreation and are not meant to be the dominant part of the power structure in work, war, sex, or any aspect of life outside of procreation. 

What I really like about it is the character of Titania herself–she is the embodiment of the Amazons, the independent warrior women. She paints for us this picture of two women in an almost Sapphic relationship with one another, and Titania’s words and actions provide the readership and perhaps even the whole culture with a documented (though hypothetical) picture of the normalization of homosexuality and homosocialization. In Act 2.1, she says,

 

 

“His mother was a votress of my order, and in the spiced Indian air by night full often hath she gossiped by my side, and sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands…When we have laughed to see the sails conceive, And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind…Would imitate, and sail upon the land To fetch me trifles, and return again, as from a voyage, rich with merchandise. But she, being mortal, of that boy did die; And for her sake do I rear up her boy; And for her sake I will not part with him.” (2.1.124-136). 

 

In this vein, Shakespeare does something really phenomenal with this female relationship and the roles they play. He almost puts the votress on the same level as Odysseus, and we see her as the bread winner. But in the same breath, he grounds us in her humanity and her flaws by having her die in childbirth. This passage is both very normalizing of homosocial behavior (in the case of same-gender parenting, specifically) and also very Greek…it speaks to the history of the ancient Greeks in regard to this kind of behavior, as it was often commonplace. Specifically, authors and philosophers such as Sappho, a lesbian, and Plato, the famous philosopher and student of Socrates, write about the normalization of homogeneous gender relationships within their society. In Plato’s The Symposium, he writes of the relationships among men in a homosexual nature–it is historically known that also, Greek bathhouses were cultivating centers for homosexuality among men, and it was considered generally venerated by Greeks. 

Another relationship where this type of homosocialization is evident is in Act III, when Helena and Hermia’s platonic relationship falls apart. Helena makes a speech in 3.2 about how she has suffered “injury” by Hermia…but the real problem at hand is not that Hermia has wronged her, but that men have played a role outside that of the one in the matriarchal utopia shown to us by way of the Amazons–they have become a source of jealousy and a competition for love, in Helena’s mind–instead of serving the sole purpose of droning procreation. 

In an article by Hein van Dolen, an author in Ancient Warfare Magazine, he states a major claim that Shakespeare definitely capitalized on while writing these relationships into the play: 

Instead of a material/earthly parenthood (the procreation of children) he [Plato] prefers the spiritual type, which is the creation of virtue and knowledge. According to Socrates/Plato, the eromenos’ understanding grows and in the end, he will be able to see a beauty that is above all earthly standards, compared to which even the most beautiful boy is nothing. In other words, by spiritually loving a beautiful beloved, the lover reaches an understanding of absolute beauty. Philosophy is, therefore, an erotical enterprise. After all, homo-erotic love is related to education and gaining knowledge, and this makes it superior to other types of love. (“Greek homosexuality”). 

In the opinion of the Greeks, homosocialization and the practice of same-sex human sexuality and co-dependency was the ultimate source of knowledge and competence, the nirvana of socialization and understanding, if one will. Through Titania and the votress, and then through Helena and Hermia’s expression of friendship, Plato’s idea that homosexuality and homoeroticism is a spiritual experience and brings one to the fullest understanding of life is validated. Throughout time, these ideas are in fact actually expressed and almost exactly replicated by other writers (I’m thinking specifically of “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman, written nearly three hundred years later, where he celebrates his body and human sexuality and acknowledges his physical self as absolute and his sexuality and expression of human interconnectedness as fluid). 


 

 

  1. van Dolen, Hein. “Greek Homosexuality.” Livius. 5 September 2014. Web. http://www.livius.org/ho-hz/homosexuality/homosexuality.html
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One thought on “Exploring Homosocialization in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

  1. elisebrucche

    I love the idea of interpreting the votress’s behavior as masculine. In my own reading, I had sort of “cast” Titania in a more masculine light due to her higher status while leaving the votress as a more feminine figure due to her pregnancy. This decision suggests my own complicated thoughts of the class and gender dynamics within Titania and the votress’s relationship. However, you have quite correctly pointed out the fluidity that is possible in homosocial relationships. Removed from traditional class and gender conventions, homosocial relations reveal the basic parts of a genuine, or, at least, more empathetic human connection, namely a desire for mutual knowledge and understanding rather than gain and property. Yet, it is interesting to note the way “nature” seems ever ready to break up these sorts of relations with nitty, gritty details like procreation or survival. The fact that Shakespeare chooses to have the votress die in childbirth and for Hermia and Helena’s friendship to be broken by marriage (a symbol of future generation) reflects these “necessities” of life. Even Plato acknowledges the need for heterosexual pairing. However, the Amazon myth (and, to a much lesser extent, Plato) challenge whether marriage is in fact a natural necessity or just a social convention by offering alternative forms of relationships.

    Reply

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