Character Analysis Theseus


Like Oberon, Theseus is a contradictory character. On the one hand, he is the ruler of Athens and represents the voice of law and authority in the mortal realm, paralleling Oberon's similar position in the fairy world. His duty as dispenser of justice is seen early in the play through his interaction with Hermia and Egeus. Although Theseus is more understanding of Hermia's situation than her father, he still vows to sentence her to death if she won't accept one of his two alternatives: marrying Demetrius or entering a convent. Even when Hippolyta is noticeably upset with his verdict, Theseus insists that a daughter's first goal must be to obey her father. As upholder of authority in Athens, Theseus' first duty is to support the city's laws, even when they appear unfair.

Based on this example, Theseus' view of love would seem to fit within the boundaries of law and reason. This notion is supported by his speech at the beginning of Act V, in which he famously announces that the imaginations of poets, madmen, and lovers are all the same: All are prone to excesses beyond the realm of reason. But isn't Theseus also a lover? His statement seems to discount his own position as lover of Hippolyta; as a reasonable man, does he qualify as a lover? Yet even the rational Theseus claims time moves too slowly as he anticipates his wedding day, showing his unreasonable longing. But his love for Hippolyta is not the pure, fresh, freely chosen affection of Hermia and Lysander. As Theseus reminds his bride, he won her by doing her harm: She was part of the spoils of war. In their quarrel, Oberon and Titania tell us this is not the first relationship for either Hippolyta or Theseus. Not only has Theseus' name been linked with Titania's, but he has supposedly ravished and deserted Perigouna, Ariadne, and Antiope, among others. Similarly, Hippolyta has been the "buskin'd mistress" of Oberon and has spent time with Hercules and Cadmus. Not lovers in their first bloom, Theseus and Hippolyta offer a picture of more mature love.

Theseus' famous speech from Act V also appears to denigrate the poet's imaginative faculty by aligning him with lovers and madmen. He argues that the poet "gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name," a trick performed by strong imaginations. His theory denies the importance of craft and discipline in the creation of art, casting artistic talent as little more than airy fantasy. In choosing a play for the wedding festivities, he does not select the most skillful performers, but those who present their art with simplicity, duty, and modesty. While Hippolyta dislikes the silly performance of the players, Theseus argues that both good and bad actors create but "shadows," and the audience must flesh out the performances through their own imaginations. Overall, Theseus' view of imagination minimizes the work of the artist, placing more responsibility on the audience.