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An Introduction to Hippolyta
Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, is a character in the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare draws inspiration from Plutarch’s “Life of Theseus,” where he describes the mythical battle between Theseus and the Amazons, to shape Hippolyta’s character. The Amazons, a legendary group of warrior women, serve as the basis for her portrayal.
Hippolyta’s Role in the Play
Although one might expect Hippolyta to be a strong and formidable female character, she turns out to be somewhat lackluster in this play. When the events of A Midsummer Night’s Dream unfold, Hippolyta is no longer the warrior she once was, having already been conquered by Theseus. Theseus fondly reminds her of their union, saying, “I wooed thee with my sword / And won thy love doing thee injuries” (1.1.17-18). Strangely, Hippolyta appears content with her role as a figurative trophy wife, eagerly anticipating her wedding night when they will celebrate under the watchful gaze of the moon (1.1.10-11).
This portrayal of Hippolyta has significant implications for feminist scholars. Symbolically, she represents the suppression of female power under male authority, a theme recurring throughout the play. While Hippolyta’s defeat occurs off-stage, we can observe a similar power struggle between Oberon and Titania, resulting in Titania’s humiliation and submission to Oberon.
Hippolyta as an Allusion
Literary critics interpret Hippolyta as an allusion to Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare’s contemporary ruler. In various works of literature and art, Queen Elizabeth was often depicted as an Amazon warrior. Notorious for refusing to marry and relinquish her power as England’s first female monarch, Elizabeth’s refusal to submit to male authority mirrors Hippolyta’s acceptance of Theseus’ dominance. Hippolyta’s choice to submit enacts a common Elizabethan fantasy of a powerful female ruler submitting to male rule, a fantasy that Queen Elizabeth herself refused to fulfill by remaining unmarried.
Beyond her symbolic role, Hippolyta’s presence in the play does not significantly impact the plot. Like Theseus, she disappears after Act 1, Scene 1, only to reappear on her wedding day in Act 4, Scene 1. Her reappearance seems to serve primarily as an opportunity for Shakespeare to make allusions to classical mythology. For instance, while out hunting with the wedding party, Hippolyta reminisces about her hunting expedition with “Hercules and Cadmus” in Crete (4.1.116).
Hippolyta’s Romantic Side
Hippolyta also displays a romantic disposition. Titania even accuses Oberon of engaging in a passionate affair with “the bouncing Amazon” (2.1.72), referencing one of Hippolyta’s past lovers. Additionally, Hippolyta is one of the few characters who believes the account of the young lovers’ chaotic night in the woods. While she sympathizes with the noble young lovers, Hippolyta reveals a snobbish nature, openly criticizing the Mechanicals’ clumsy and amateurish performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. She expresses her disdain, saying, “I love not to see wretchedness o’er charged / And duty in his service perishing” (5.1.91-92). In simple terms, Hippolyta dislikes witnessing poor performances, particularly when they involve such inept actors.
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