Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace. Four happy days bring in
Another moon. But, oh, methinks how slow
This old moon wanes. She lingers my desires,
Like to a stepdame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man’s revenue. (I.i.)
These are the first lines of the play, and in them Theseus expresses impatience for the night of his wedding with Hippolyta. The metaphor Theseus uses here is a bit strange, since he compares his situation to an impatient son waiting for his inheritance. In this situation, the slowly waning moon is like an old widow who holds on to her husband’s possessions, thereby spurning her son. By comparing love to wealth, Theseus signals from the beginning that he does not possess an ideal understanding of love.
Be advised, fair maid:
To you your father should be as a god,
One that composed your beauties, yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax,
By him imprinted and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it. (I.i.)
Theseus warns Hermia in Act I that she must obey the wishes of her father, Egeus. Theseus suggests that Hermia regard her father “as a god,” indicating that Athens is a patriarchal society. Just as wax submits to the forms “imprinted” on it, women are expected to submit to men’s wishes. Theseus also suggests that men can be kind or cruel; either way, women must subordinate themselves. Hermia’s strong, negative reaction to this oppressive view leads her to run away.
More strange than true. I never may believe
These antique fables nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact. (V.i.)
In Act V, after the quartet of lovers have returned to Athens and relayed the story of their night in the forest, Theseus tells Hippolyta that he doesn’t believe their story. Instead, he sees the lovers’ tale as the product of a confused and deluded imagination, not unlike the imagination of “the lunatic” and “the poet.” Theseus’ refusal to believe the lovers once again signals his narrow-minded attitudes about love.
The kinder we, to give them thanks for nothing.
Our sport shall be to take what they mistake,
And what poor duty cannot do, noble respect
Takes it in might, not merit. (V.i.)
Theseus announces his intention in Act V to watch the craftsmen’s performance with suspended judgment and a generosity of spirit. He suspects that the performance will not be stellar, but as he explains to Hippolyta, his noble status means he must employ a generous judgment that places more value on effort than achievement (i.e., “in might, not merit”). Theseus’s attitude here couldn’t be more different from the harsh, patriarchal attitude he espoused at the beginning of the play, which may indicate a softening now that all previous tensions have settled.