bestiality

"Although no one
has paid much
sustained attention
to the fact,
A Midsummer
Night's Dream
is patently about
bestiality."

(Boehrer 1994: 123)

A Midsummer Night's Dream is about bestiality, argues Bruce Thomas Boehrer. The most obvious case is Titania's falling in love with a creature who is half man, half donkey, and this has been discussed by other critics. Boehrer wishes to extend the discussion of bestiality to the entire structure of the play.

Boehrer starts his scrutiny of bestiality with the demonstrating how Oberon takes pleasure both in punishing his disobedient wife and in the form of her punishment.

Oberon's plot to drug his wife with an aphrodisiac and thereby reassert his own domestic sovereignty - what Paul Olson has called "an orderly subordination of the female . . . to the more reasonable male." Apparently, that is, one enforces traditional marital order and decency by indulging certain kinds of indecency, both within the moral economy of Shakespeare's play and within the political economy of Oberon's marriage. This contradiction reappears elsewhere in the play as a symbolic coupling of human erotic desire to animal objects. (Boehrer 1994: 124)

Boehrer gives several examples of this, and concludes that:

In the most obvious sense, such rhetoric legitimates fantasies of male authority: Titania is reduced to her husband's power, exposed to an audience, and placed in sexual bondage to a donkey, and all these events are represented as the inevitable consequence of her own misconduct. (Boehrer 1994: 125)

Boehrer musters a lot of evidence to support his argument, both textual and contextual. Take these lines from the play for instance, where Oberon ridicules his queen: (something's missing here -- what did I mean to write?)

The country proverb known,
That every man should take his own,
In your waking shall be shown.
Jack shall have Jill;
Nought shall go ill:
The man shall have his mare again,
and all shall be well. (III ii 458-63)

[Link to essay called "Jack shall have Jill"] The husband shall have his wife as he has his horse. These lines are commonly read as stressing the proprietary nature of the man's relationship to his wife, which is as owner to owned, man to horse. Setting the world straight means reasserting male dominance in marriage. However, Boehrer argues that the lines can be read in other ways as well. To "have" a woman, or a mare, may mean something more than, or different to ownership:
"A Midsummer
Night's Dream

is a bit like a
Protestant
marriage-manual
constructed out of
animal pornography."

(Boehrer 1994: 132)

For if woman qualifies as man's fit sexual companion by assuming the status of commodity (i.e. by being like a mare), then a mare, too, may be a man's fit mate; the text's parallellisms acknowledge no qualitative difference whatsoever between a man's relationship with his woman and that same man's relationship with his horse. In fact, quite the contrary: Puck's language plays off a long-standing emblematic identification of sexually active women with mares. (Boehrer 1994: 127)

Mares are according to Boehrer often likened to lustful, unfaithful women - and vice versa. And in addition, Boehrer cites statistics of Renaissance court records that show that the mare was the most frequently offended animal in the few cases of bestial buggery that came to trial.

So in the lines above, women ("Jill") are likened to animals. Bottom, a man, is turned into an animal. There are other examples in the text where animal metaphors are used about humans: Helena calls herself Demetrius' spaniel (II i 203-10) Hermia refers to her unwanted lover Demetrius as a Serpent (III ii 73) and Hippolyta and Theseus talk suggestingly about hounds (IV i 112-126).

Related comments:

Textual examples: