This lesson reviews the role of Helena in William Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ We will consider her role in the plot of the story and analyze how her characterization contributes to the themes of the play.
William Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is a comedic tale that follows the love quartet between Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena. Shakespeare places a special emphasis on the character of Helena, granting her substantially more lines than the other three. Shakespeare is clearly calling our attention to her. Let’s explore the reason why.
Helena’s Role in the Play
At the beginning of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Helena has some serious relationship problems. She was formerly engaged to Demetrius. However, Demetrius has fallen in love with Helena’s lifelong friend, Hermia. Hermia is not interested in Demetrius and has a love interest of her own: Lysander. But both Hermia’s father and the local ruler, Theseus, favor Demetrius, and Hermia is ordered to marry him.
Hermia and Lysander form a plan to run away together, and they confide this plan to Helena. Helena tells Demetrius of their plans, thinking it would win her favor with him.As Demetrius follows them into the woods on the night of the escape, Helena follows behind, continuously trying to win him back. This catches the interest of Oberon, king of the fairies, who decides to use magic to help Demetrius fall in love with Helena. However, the magic is accidentally placed on both Lysander and Demetrius, both of whom fall madly in love with Helena. Hermia, who is naturally upset by Lysander’s change of heart, lashes out at Helena. Their argument nearly ends in a fist fight.
However, King Oberon is able to correct the situation when the four of them sleep. He reverses the love spell on Lysander, leaving Helena and Demetrius in love, and Lysander back in love with Hermia.
Helena Character Analysis
On the surface, Helena doesn’t fit well into today’s ideals of a strong, independent woman. When her fianc; dumps her for her best friend, she doesn’t get angry or plot revenge. She also doesn’t move on and try to meet someone else.
Instead, she spends a lot of the play desperately chasing after him. Demetrius is absolutely clear that he does not want anything to do with her. He insults her and even threatens physical violence against her if she doesn’t leave him alone! But Helena persists, comparing herself to a dog who loves its master:”And even for that do I love you the more.
I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,The more you beat me, I will fawn on you:Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,Unworthy as I am, to follow you.What worser place can I beg in your love,–And yet a place of high respect with me,–Than to be used as you use your dog?” (2.1.202-210)However, there is more to this than Helena acting like a lovesick puppy.
Theme: Women and Love
Throughout this play, as well as many of his others, Shakespeare shows women very much at the mercy of men. For example, Hermia’s character is being forced into a marriage she doesn’t want, not just by her father, but by Demetrius and Theseus as well. Helena is simply cast aside by Demetrius, even though they were engaged and thought to be in a physical relationship. The setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is clearly a man’s world, one where Demetrius’s fickle attention span seems to be well known by all, and accepted as normal male behavior. It’s seen as normal for men to chase after women.Therefore, Helena’s avid pursuit of Demetrius is counter-cultural not just to the setting of the play, but to the audiences of Shakespeare’s time (his time being 16th-century England).
Helena even admits this in her argument with Demetrius:”Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex:We cannot fight for love, as men may do;We should be wood and were not made to woo.” (2.1.240-242)Helena breaks the rules of what women are supposed to do in love.
She fights for the man she loves, even betraying her lifelong friend to do so. If Shakespeare believed that it was a woman’s place to simply be passive and accommodating to the affections of men, Helena and Hermia would not be the victors in love that they turn out to be in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare sets up a story where women are ultimately rewarded for their pursuits of men, rather than scandalized.
Helena vs. Helen of Troy
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set in ancient Athens and makes reference to Greek mythology throughout the play.
For example, Theseus was the King of Athens in Greek mythology, while Hippolyta was an Amazonian queen. Greek mythology was well known by the people of Shakespeare’s day, and they would have understood the connection between the play’s characters and the myth.There is some suggestion that Helena’s character is reminiscent of Helen of Troy, the extremely beautiful woman whose jealous suitors spawned the Trojan War. This comparison should be made loosely, and for some comedic effect. In some ways, Helena is comically unlike Helen of Troy because she has so much difficulty attracting the man she loves, despite her beauty.
On the other hand, Helena’s problem of having both Demetrius and Lysander magically in love with her at the same time parodies Helen of Troy’s difficulty with her own love triangle with Menelaus, King of Sparta, and Paris, Prince of Troy.It’s interesting to note that Helen of Troy isn’t usually depicted as having a voice in her tale. The Trojan War was attributed more to the actions of men and the gods.
Helena, however, while also influenced by men and ‘the gods’ (i.e., fairies), actively pushes back and voices her opinion throughout the play.
Let’s take a few moments to review what we’ve learned about the Shakespearean character Helena. Helena is a major character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is a comedic tale that follows the love quartet between Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena. After a magical spell threatens the friendship between Helena and Hermia, as well as the love they feel for the respective men (Helena for Demetrius and Hermia for Lysander), themes of love and femininity are thrown into the air for us to examine. Through her character, Shakespeare illustrates the ideal of steadfast love and gives a female voice to the role of women in relationships, since women weren’t typically seen as being bold in their pursuit of love for a man, especially during Shakespeare’s day (16th-century England). Humor is added to Helena’s relationship problems by loosely comparing her to Helen of Troy, the mythological Greek beauty.