As the duke of Athens, Theseus is the play’s central patriarchal figure. The audience gets a glimpse of Theseus’s patriarchal nature in the very first lines of the play, where he compares his forthcoming marriage to Hippolyta to a long-awaited inheritance. The comparison Theseus makes between marriage and wealth reveals his ideas about the value and meaning of love. Hippolyta is an Amazonian queen whom Theseus abducted during a battle and brought back to Athens like a trophy. Theseus’s patriarchal attitude is also partly responsible for setting the events of the play in motion. In the opening act of the play he presides over the dispute between Egeus and Hermia, and his overbearing attempt to get Hermia to obey her father’s command causes Hermia to flee Athens altogether. Theseus doesn’t change much over the course of the play. When Hippolyta points out that the lovers have told a consistent (if strange) story about their night in the forest, Theseus adamantly refuses to believe the lovers. By play’s end Theseus’ patriarchal attitude seems less problematic. After all, the quarrel between the lovers has worked itself out—though no thanks to him.
In addition to his role in Midsummer, Theseus is also an important figure in Greek myth, as educated members of Shakespeare’s audience would likely have known. One of the most notable themes that follows Theseus throughout Greek mythology is his relationships with women. In addition to stealing away with Hippolyta, he also abducted Helen and attempted to abduct the goddess Persephone. However, Theseus primarily gained fame as the heroic founder and defender of Athens. Perhaps the most famous myth involving Theseus is the story in which he kills the Minotaur, a legendary hybrid creature with the torso of a man and the head of a bull. The story of Theseus and the Minotaur also involves a relationship with a woman. In order to kill the Minotaur, Theseus has to find his way to the center of a labyrinth and back out again. He accomplishes this with the help of Ariadne, who gives him a ball of thread to mark his path in and out of the labyrinth. After escaping the labyrinth Theseus promises to marry Ariadne, but ends up abandoning her.