We’ll talk about the context of the quote in Shakespeare’s play but first as is tradition we’ll give the full quote and then talk about who said it and when.
She was a vixen when she went to school,
And though she be but little, she is fierce.A Mid Summer Nights dream by the character Helena, by William Shakespeare, Act 3, Scene 2
When was A Mid-Summer Nights Dream published?
Technically A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play that wasn’t published but performed. It’s first rendition came on new year’s day, 1605. The play takes place in Athens, Greece and involves both a discussion between four Athenian lovers and, another subplot, involving a group of performers who rehearse a play for which they are going to perform.
Who is Helena Talking About?
Though Helena is perhaps the more interesting character in the novel, Helena is talking about her friend Hermia. Hermia is the daughter of one of a man named Egeus, and is in love throughout the play with a man named Lysander. Helena, meanwhile, is in love with a man named Demetrius. It’s all very complicated but Demetrius is infatuated with her. You see how this could get dicey.
However, what’s sweet about the quote is that despite their differences Helena and Hermia’s tiny stature, Helena wants protection from Hermia. The latter, Hermia, simply wants to physically fight Helena whom she believes both men love more than her.
Having known each other since their youth, Helena refuses. Saying of Hermia “And though she is but little, she is fierce.”
The Legal Status of Women in 1600s England
A thoughtful user pointed out to us that she was inspired by the quote in regard to its historical reality. Though the story takes place in ancient Athens, the play was written by Shakespeare in 1600s England.
The status of women’s rights in England in 1600 was generally low, as women were considered to be inferior to men and had few legal rights. During this time, English law was based on the concept of coverture, which meant that a married woman’s legal identity was subsumed by her husband. This meant that a married woman had no legal standing and could not own property, enter into contracts, sue, or be sued in court.
Single women had somewhat more freedom and legal rights than married women, but they were still subject to the authority of their fathers or male guardians. They had limited opportunities for education and employment.
Women were also excluded from political and public life and had no right to vote or hold public office. In general, women were expected to be submissive to their fathers, husbands, and other male authorities and to focus on domestic and reproductive roles.
However, there were some exceptions to these general patterns. Some women could gain education and pursue careers, and a few notable women achieved recognition and success in fields such as literature and the arts. Additionally, the seventeenth century saw the beginnings of a movement for women’s rights, with some writers and activists advocating for greater equality and opportunities for women.