Why is Egeus Angry With His Daughter?

Question: Why is Egeus angry with his daughter Hermia?

A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens with Theseus, Duke of Athens, planning his wedding to Hippolyta. Shakespeare actually lifted this part of the story straight out of Greek mythology, if you’re interested. But that doesn’t answer the question.

Enter Egeus, and he does not look happy. I’ve seen productions where he marches Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia and Helena in at the point of his shotgun. And he says…

Full of vexation come I, with complaint
Against my child, my daughter Hermia.
Stand forth, Demetrius. My noble lord,
This man hath my consent to marry her.
Stand forth, Lysander: and my gracious duke,
This man hath bewitch’d the bosom of my child;
Thou, thou, Lysander, thou hast given her rhymes,
And interchanged love-tokens with my child:
Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung,
With feigning voice verses of feigning love,
And stolen the impression of her fantasy
With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gawds, conceits,
Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats, messengers
Of strong prevailment in unharden’d youth:
With cunning hast thou filch’d my daughter’s heart,
Turn’d her obedience, which is due to me,
To stubborn harshness: and, my gracious duke,
Be it so she; will not here before your grace
Consent to marry with Demetrius,
I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,
As she is mine, I may dispose of her:
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.

What’s it all mean?  If you want the short answer, he’s saying, “I want my daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius, and if she won’t, then I want her executed.”

Yes, this comedy opens up with a father threatening to kill his daughter.

The longer version goes a little something like this (but ends the same way):  Lysander is the boy that Hermia actually wants to marry, but Egeus doesn’t blame her, he blames Lysander.  Lysander has “bewitched” his child by showering her with gifts, singing love songs at her window, that sort of thing. Otherwise she would know better than to disobey the will of her father.

Egeus isn’t the kind of father who is going to negotiate with his child. In the old days if you were a teenage boy acting up, your parents my threaten to enlist you in the army.  I only had a brother so I’m not sure what parents threatened teenage girls with, putting them in a nunnery?  Egeus knows the law, however, and goes straight to “dispose of her” if she doesn’t do what he wants.

I beg the ancient privilege of AthensThe good news is that Theseus has a calmer head on his shoulders, and after listening to Hermia’s side of the story offers her another alternative — a nunnery.  But luckily this is a comedy and everything works out in the end, everybody marries the right person, nobody ends up dead or locked away.

An interesting question to consider is whether Egeus actually meant to go through with his threat.  Plenty of old school parents drove their kids to the recruitment center and then turned around to come home. What would he have done if Theseus said, “Absolutely! Get the axe, we’ll have her head right now.” If you prefer your comedies without such a dark edge, you can imagine Hermia’s home life with a father that threatens her with the ancient privilege of Athens at the slightest infraction.  “Hermia, is dinner ready yet? I swear, I’ll dispose of you!  I mean it this time!”

 

Having been around for a dozen years at this point, the site attracts a good deal of traffic on the subject of Shakespeare. Much of it comes in the form of questions about the plays. Is this students looking for answers to their homework? Probably. But if they’re going to get the answers anyway I’d rather have them get the answer here, along with an explanation, in the hopes that we can make them interested in the topic.

 

5 thoughts on “Why is Egeus Angry With His Daughter?

  1. It’s also fun to then ask my students why Theseus takes Egeus and Demetrius off to confer with him, deliberately leaving Lysander & Hermia alone together. Whose side is he on…?

  2. Great point, Kris. I hadn’t thought about it! He says he’s got some “private schooling” for them which in this context I could see as that “Can I see you outside for a minute?” thing that your boss might do if he wants to yell at you but doesn’t want to do it in front of the client.

  3. As I stare at the scene I imagine a 4th wall interpretation where Egeus pulls out a chalkboard and diagrams it out like a football coach. “This is my daughter Hermia. This is Demetrius. I want her with him. But this guy over here, this Lysander, he’s blocking, see? He’s trying to get to Hermia, and he’s boxing out Demetrius. Meanwhile there’s this Helena, right? We haven’t met her yet (we haven’t had the chance), but she’s all over the place trying to pin down Demetrius too.” And then at one point turns to the audience and says, “Everybody got that? Good.”

  4. One way to approach it is to consider Egeus as a character trope, specifically a senex iratus (grumpy father trying to control his daughter’s love life). This figure appears in a number of the plays in such different forms as King Lear, Lord Capulet, Shylock, Prospero, and even Portia’s dead father in MoV.

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