The goddess at the crossroads: Hecate and the forces of evil in Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by Jeremy R. Strong

            I propose to compare the destructive elements held in check in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to similar elements that are indeed released in Macbeth. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the threat of violence follows most of the mortal characters from the first scene to the last. Also, scenes involving all of the characters, even the fairies, contain hints of physical, sexual or male domination. There is also the presence of the exact same evil, the goddess Hecate, in both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and in Macbeth, though this evil is held in check in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while in Macbeth, it is released with bloody results. Both plays also contain elements of Greek Mythology that are relevant to the destructive forces in the play; specifically, both plays reference legendary monsters. The Medusa is present in Macbethand the violent threat it represents is made a reality, while in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Minotaur is represented but the threat of violence that it represents is held in check.

In order to compare the two plays, I will examine articles on the nature of the heavy violence present in Macbeth and articles on the threat of violence hidden within A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as discuss the sexualized violence in both plays. I will also closely examine and discuss lines relating to Hecate and the significance of their presence in the two plays. I will then juxtapose the presence of the two mythological monsters and explain why their presence is so important to understanding the two plays in terms of destructive elements being withheld or released. 

The Sex and Violence

Destructive is one of the first words to come to mind when thinking of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Macbeth murders his king, his friend, a former friend’s family and others. Lady Macbeth is driven mad and commits suicide, and finally Macbeth himself is slain. The play is filled with blood, severed heads, darkened thoughts and the characters actions are influenced by evil witches. In contrast, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, all of the characters that are introduced in Act one, are still breathing in Act five. Even so, I contend that the play contains just as much destructive potential as Macbethand will now compare the sexual and violent elements of each.

 Macbeth is filled with sexual undertones and double meanings mostly associating the sexual act with violence and the act of murder. Lady Macbeth is constantly challenging her husbands’ masculinity; and after all it is only after his first murder that he begins to act like a man and Lady Macbeth begins to act like a woman. In his article “Macbeth: Masculinity as Murder” James J. Greene discusses this subject matter in detail, pointing out that in the play the “obsessive concern with defining, testing and re-testing masculinity in terms of aggressive behaviour has obviously clear and powerful sexual implications” (156). These acts of violence perpetrated in the play are so numerous that they actually take the place of the sexual acts that are implied. Therefore, even though it seems that sexual energy is withheld in the play, because it is expressed in another way, through violence, it is not really withheld.

Greene has identified several aspects about Macbeth that support a highly sexualized reading of the play, asserting that “the witches’ gender ambiguity and the heavy concerns over progeny” (Ibid) are only some of the highly sexualized aspects of the play and I would agree. He further discusses the explicitly sexual connotations of the murder of King Duncan and how it generally seems overlooked that there is a heavy sexual element to the murder. Greene writes that “Macbeth’s slaying of the sleeping king is a surrogate act of copulation, a murderous and twisted displacement of sexual energy for both husband and wife, an attempt to achieve virility for Macbeth” (Ibid). This insight (which is also supported by other scholars) that Macbeth’s murdering of Duncan is a form of losing his virginity sets the two plays apart, with Macbeth as a play in which violent and sexual intentions are realized and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as one in which they are held at bay. A good example would be to compare Greene’s theory to Mordecai Marcus’ idea in his article “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The Dialectic of Eros Thanatos”, in which he links violence and eroticism and describes how the play “variously illustrates the love-and-death tension in imbalance and in pursuit of balance” (269).  He further contends that the Hippolyta-Theseus plot “provides a framework for the play and for the love and death theme” (Ibid). The lovers have “converted aggression into sexual love” (Ibid). This is interestingly the exact reverse of the way things work in Macbeth. Even so, the violence threatened in A Midsummer Night’s Dream being restrained is wholly dependent on the success of the fairies to properly right the confused lovers in the woods. 

Another scholar arguing the potential for violence, sexual or otherwise in A Midsummer night’s Dream is David Bevington in his article “‘But we are spirits of another sort’: The Dark Side of Love and Magic in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bevington writes that the debate in the play between Puck and Oberon “reflects a fundamental tension in the play between comic reassurance and the suggestion of something dark and threatening” (25). He also writes that “The forest itself is potentially a place of violent death and rape” (Ibid). Earlier I contended that the threat of violence hangs over the characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the entirety of the play. Early in the first scene, Egeus enters the court of Theseus, the Duke of Athens and proclaims “full of vexation come I, with complaint/against my child, my daughter Hermia” (1.1.23-24). He then pleads for Theseus to enforce “the ancient privilege of Athens” (1.1.42) and have Hermia executed if she refuses to marry Demetrius. In this way we are introduced to the situation of the four lovers and the coming marital celebration of the Duke and his bride to be. But more importantly, right from the first scene, this threat of violence is established and is maintained throughout the play until the ending. Nor is this the first and only incidence of destruction that is threatened in the play. When Helena follows Demetrius into the woods in Act 2, he makes direct threats on her life and her virginity, arguing that she trusts him, a man that doesn’t love her, too much and also trusts “the opportunity of night/and the ill counsel of a desert place/with the rich worth of your virginity” (2.1.222-224). No less threatening is Theseus reminder to Hippolyta that he “wo’oed thee with my sword,/and won thy love doing thee injuries” (1.1.17-18); or the players assertion in scene two that should the roar of the lion frighten the ladies, “That would hang us, every mother’s son” (1.2.67). In the chapter “Popular Festivals and Court Celebrations” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Texts and Contexts, Gail Paster and Skiles Howard make it very clear that mayday celebrations in England were associated with public executions and unrivalled sexual liberty and violence (91-110). But upon finishing the play, we as readers are struck with amazement; that none of these things happen. Nobody is raped in the woods (though some scholars such as Kott argue some ambiguity there), there is no execution for disobeying Egeus or Theseus and the silly clownish players are not hanged for their hilarious and short production.

When comparing A Midsummer Night’s Dream to almost any other play, one would be struck with the difference in violence. Certainly Romeo and Juliet, any of the histories or tragedies contain elements of violence; from murder to suicide, warfare and rape. But Macbeth certainly makes for the best example, being a play of unrestrained violence. No sooner is an act contemplated it seems, than it is then committed. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth discuss the murder of King Duncan; Macbeth wavers only slightly and is quickly convinced by his wife, stating “I am settled, and bend up/each corporeal agent to this terrible feat” (1.7.90-91). The second Act then begins immediately with Duncan being murdered between scenes 1 and 2. When comparing this to the death discussed in the first act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one is struck by the fact that this first threatened act of execution looms over the whole play, only to dissolve in relief for the audience while in Macbeth the first threatened act of violence is immediately carried out, only to be followed by more and more killing, as though a floodgate had been opened and the waters were Scottish blood.

A very important distinction is to be made between perpetrated and realized violence but at the same time, if some of the violence perpetrated in Macbeth can be read as James J. Greene believes it can as “misplaced sexual aggression” then some of the sexual aggression displayed by characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream could consequently and counter argumentatively be seen as displaced violence. For example Demetrius threatening Helena with rape ( or Lysander trying to convince Hermia to bed with him (2.2.40-68) or Titania’s mention of enforced chastity which could be a hidden reference to the limitless pleasure her and bottom will enjoy (3.1.187). Greene further argues that alcohol in Macbeth is one of the devices that link murder with sex (164).  He also makes a strong case for a gender reversed oedipal conflict within Lady Macbeth that could be a reason she is attracted to the thought of murdering Duncan, a father figure (166). He then asserts that after the murder may be the first time in the play that Lady Macbeth grants her husband sexual status, as he has only just proven his virility by murdering a man that resembles her own father (Ibid).

Greene then associates the scenes in which Macbeth convinces two men to commit the murder of Banquo with sexuality and virility when he points out that Macbeth links the word “perform” with the act of murder and that the two men are asked if they are men, associating murder with manliness (174).

Greene is not the only scholar to make the connection between sex and violence in Macbeth; Carol Strongin Tufts discusses in her article “Shakespeare’s conception of moral order in Macbeth” the idea that the “murder of Duncan becomes the climax of the love-making of Lady Macbeth and her husband” (350) and that what “they, in fact, give birth to, is not “the ornament of life” after which they have lusted, but a world of death” (351). If violence and sex can be outlets one for the other, than another relevant article “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘Jack shall have Jill;/Nought shall go Ill’” by Shirley Nelson Garner discusses the relationships between men and women in A Midsummer Night’s Dreamand how in order for harmony to exist, male authority must be asserted and maintained and that the threats of violence in the play are mostly centred around relationships that are threatening to the men, such as Hermia and Helena’s friendship (58). If one examines the play from this perspective, then even innocent seeming love advances by Lysander can be seen as potentially violent, as they serve to destroy the friendship between Hermia and Helena. But aside from comparing the two plays in terms of potential vs. realized violence, I have also found what I believe to be a very relevant symbolic presence in both; a presence that I believe convincingly solidifies the potential violence as withheld by certain forces.


The most telling and potent symbolic similarity between the two plays, is one which I believe to be most significant to the topic at hand. This particular point of discussion is the appearance in both plays of the evil goddess Hecate[1]. Though the origins of Hecate’s nature as a goddess are a matter of fierce scholarly debate, during Shakespeare’s lifetime and the writing of both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth, she would have been directly linked to evil, witchcraft and the underworld[2]. In Macbeth, Hecate is directly involved in the events that take place, orchestrating the outcome of Macbeth’s fate from slightly behind the scenes and appearing directly in the play to influence the final outcome of events (3.5.1-38). Therefore, she is in a sense directly responsible for the violence that occurs in the play. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hecate is mentioned by Puck as the force of darkness driving the fairies: “And we fairies, that do run/By the triple Hecate’s team,/From the presence of the sun,” (5.1.373-375). This quote implies the fairies run from the sun and are of darkness. It also implies one of the established images of Hecate as a three headed goddess, the heads of which are represented as that of a dog, Snake and Lion; sometimes, a horse head is interposed for one of the others. This would surely have been known to Shakespeare and brings forth the interesting consideration that both a lion and a horse head (ass head) appear in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Puck also takes the form of a Horse and a Hound to chase the players through the woods (2.2. 95-100) and these are both forms Hecate is believed to take. Much of the potential evil is due to Puck’s mischief and Puck identifies himself as an agent of Hecate both by mentioning her and her form and by using some of the same words Hecate uses in Macbeth. An example of this; in the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck says “give me your hand, if we be friends/and Robin shall restore amends (5.1.428-429 emphasis my own)”, while in Macbeth Hecate says “But make amends now (3.4.14 emphasis my own).” Not only do they use the same language, but I believe Hecate may also refer to Puck in Macbeth when she says “Hark! I am called; my little spirit, see,/Sits in a foggy cloud and stays for me (3.5.36-37).” I might even suggest that things go well in A Midsummer Night’s Dream only because Hecate is busy with other affairs and has no time to unleash her full evil on the lovers in the woods.

 It is also curious that the Medusa mentioned in Macbeth would have a head filled with snakes as Hecate sometimes appears with the head of a snake. Hecate appears physically in the play with the realized violence, while in the play with the threatened violence, she is only given mention as a force at play. The dark acts that almost happen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; such as the rape and or murder of Helena by Demetrius; the execution of Hermia; and the bestial interlude between Bottom and Titania – are things that would indeed have happened had Hecate made herself fully present, for as we read the play we realize that these bad things are only narrowly averted.

Greene makes note of Hecate and her appearance in Macbeth, writing that Macbeth “Evokes the vision of those creatures associated with destructive sexuality, sleeplessness and death—the witches and their goddess Hecate” (162). I assert that Hecate is a definite link between the realized destructive forces in Macbeth and those same potential forces that lurk just outside the boundaries of the conscious mind in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From my own reading, I also propose the following: the first is that in Hermia’s dream there is evidence of Hecate’s presence. Norman H. Holland in his article “Hermia’s Dream” discusses the themes of fidelity and possession and how a careful examination of the dream will yield these and other ideas present in the play. I do not disagree but rather add to these ideas my own, which is that Hermia dreaming of a snake eating her heart is also a veiled reference to the Goddess Hecate, who visits her in her dreams. For what are dreams but an extension of possible realities? Hecate is also known as the goddess of crossroads, which could be interpreted as choices. The choice made by Macbeth leads him down the path of evil, while in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the characters are given similar choices and instead make the right ones; Hermia and Lysander to sleep separately and Demetrius not to rape and or murder Hermia. If these links are valid then Hecate is a force at work in both plays, in the case of Macbeth unleashing evil and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream holding it back.

Greek Mythological Monsters

The goddess is not the only important symbolic presence in the two plays. In another interesting parallel between Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, two separate ancient Greek myths are represented, both with direct implications to the argument involving destructive elements. The first is the presence of the Medusa in Macbeth. In his article “Under the Eye of Gorgo: Apotropaic Acts in Macbeth and King Lear” François-Xavier Gleyzon discusses the mention of the Medusa myth in the play and the several important allusions to it throughout, explaining that Macbeth’s vision during his visit to the witches, in which he sees a gorgon-like reflection of his own future, is the setting in motion of a gorgon-esque nebula-like future of repetition (30). Similarly, in the article “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The Monster in the Labyrinth”  David Ormerod insists that viewing the play in relation to the myth of Theseus, the Minotaur and the Labyrinth is key to a “more acute focus” (31) and to interpreting “a metamorphosed minotaur in the half-beast, half-human figure of the transformed bottom” (Ibid). Ormerod further discusses many of the violent sexual elements at play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from bestiality to rape, how these acts are implied rather than realized and how the negative connotations are bestowed upon the woman and the positive upon the beast (42).

What I find most relevant is the way in which the myth used in Macbeth is directly correlated with realized violence, while the Minotaur myth in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is used to imply the threat of violence that is fortunately for the characters, averted. Gleyzon explains how intricately tied to the violence the image of the head is when he writes “the image of this head is, without any doubt, the proleptic and apotropaic foreshadowing of Macbeth’s own decapitation at the end of the tragedy, it is also the symbol of his tragic destiny” (29). So if the reader directly relates the mythological symbolism to violence, while in A Midsummer Night’s Dream understands the same mythological comparison as the threat of violence – that of innocents lost in a maze with a beast, then the reader will use the same device (mythological comparison) to interpret the two plays.

Based on the presented evidence, I contend that the plays A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth, although seeming very different upon first glance (one being a comedy in which nobody is killed and the other a tragedy is which virtually everybody is), actually contain more similarities than one might expect. With respect to destructive elements, those unleashed in Macbeth bear remarkable similarity to those held in check in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as those elements all centre around violence and sexuality, the goddess Hecate and symbols of ancient Greek monsters. I have shown how interconnected and representative the violence and sex in the two plays can be and have made a strong argument not only for Hecate’s presence and influence in both but also for a possible connection between the two plays involving the goddess and Puck. 

Works Cited and Consulted

Bevington, David. ‘But We Are Spirits of Another Sort’: The Dark Side of Love and Magic in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  From New Casebooks: Midsummer Night’s Dream. St. Martin’s Press. New York. 1996. Ed. Richard Dutton.

 Berg, William. Hecate: Greek or “Anatolian”?  Numen, Vol. 21, Fasc. 2 (Aug. 1974), pp. 128-140. Brill Publishing. 

Boedeker, Deborah. A Transfunctional Goddess in the Theogony?  Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol. 113 (1983), pp. 79- 93. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Braunmuller, A.R. Ed. Macbeth. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, UK. 1997.

Byles, Joan M., Macbeth: Imagery of Destruction. American Imago, 39:2 (1982:Summer) p.149-164.

Carroll, William C. Ed. Macbeth: Texts and Contexts. Bedford/St. Martin’s. New York. 1999.

Furness, Horace Howard Ed. A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: 

Midsummer night’s Dream. Philadelphia. 1895.

Garner, Shirley Nelson. A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘Jack shall have Jill;/Nought shall go ill’. From New Casebooks: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. St. Martin’s Press. New York. 1996. Ed. Richard Dutton.

Gleyzon, François-Xavier. Under the Eye of Gorgo: Apotropaic Acts in Macbeth and King Lear. Journal of the Wooden O Symposium, (7), 22-41. 2007.

Greene, James J., Macbeth: Masculinity as Murder. American Imago, 41:2 (1984:Summer) p.155-180.

Marcus, Mordecai. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: The Dialectic of Eros-

Thanatos , American Imago, 38:3 (1981:Fall) p.269-278.

Mebane, John S. Structure, Source, and Meaning in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.  Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 24:3 (1982:Fall) p.255-270.

Moffat, Laurel. The Woods as Heterotopia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Studia Neophilologica 76: 182-187, 2004.

Ormerod, David, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: The Monster in the Labyrinth Shakespeare Studies, 11 (1978) p.39-52.

Paster, Gail Kern and Howard, Skiles Eds. A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Texts and Contexts. Bedford/St. Martin’s. New York.1999.

Shakespeare, William. The Yale Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Barnes and Noble. New York. 1993. Eds. Cross, Wilbur L. And Brooke, Tucker.

Strongin Tufts, Carol. Shakespeare’s Conception of Moral Order in “Macbeth”. Renascence, 39:2 (1987:Winter). p.340-353.

[1] William Berg argues in his article Hecate: Greek Or “Anatolian” that the goddess Hecate is of Greek origin and also that she is properly identified as the goddess of crossroads among other things.

[2] In her article Hecate: A Transfunctional Goddess in the Theogony? Deborah Boedeker discusses the multitude of different interpretations of Hecate’s function as a goddess, including the likely incorrect modern (post ancient Greece) interpretation of Hecate as an evil goddess.

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