Let’s analyze Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. The play focuses on four central characters, Helena, Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius, some of whom have conflicting love interests. Many of the characters’ portrayal of “love” and affection is different from that of the other. This contrast between different definitions of love makes for a play that’s comedic at first sight but becomes sadder and a true portrayal of our world after some thought. By analyzing the character of Hermia, I hope to bring out the contrast in her definition of love and love in the conventional sense.
In the play, Shakespeare does not make use of exposition and thus the reader is left to understand and analyze each character through their dialogue. Helena is a tall and fair woman who was once with a young man named Demetrius. Demetrius once used to share Helena’s romantic feelings but after seeing Hermia, his feelings for Helena vanished. He found himself madly in love with Hermia. Though Hermia was shorter and had a darker skin tone than Helena, Helena thought that she must be more beautiful because Demetrius chose Hermia for her. This trait shows that Helena was easily influenced and cared heavily about what Demetrius thinks of her. This trait becomes only more pronounced as the play progresses.
Hermia and Helena were childhood friends and thus it was natural that when Hermia decided to elope with Lysander, she confided her plans of doing so with Helena. But instead of helping her close friend and ensuring she would live a happy and safe life with her love, Helena told Demetrius of Hermia and Lysander’s plans to run into the forest and then go to Lysander’s aunt’s house where they would get married. Helena hoped that this would help Demetrius realize that Hermia is no longer his and she’s out of his reach now. This passage shows how Helena was ready to betray her childhood friend, despite knowing that Hermia was in danger and would be sentenced to death in four days if she didn’t make a decision and choose a husband. Despite knowing that she would risk Hermia and possibly Lysander’s life by telling Demetrius of her plans – Helena did it. She did it for the minute possibility that Demetrius would finally give up Hermia. She hoped that Demetrius would have no choice but to stay and live with her. But the opposite happened.
A furious Demetrius cursed at Helena for not leaving him alone and told her that he would physically hurt her if she didn’t leave him alone. Demetrius then says that “I’ll run from three and hide me in the brakes, And leave thee to the mercy of wild beasts” (Act II, Scene 1, Line 602). Despite this humiliation and threats of violence, Helena begged Demetrius of his love and told him that she would be his spaniel and he could “strike” her and use her as his pet and she still wouldn’t leave him (Act II, Scene 1, Line 577). This passage reveals quite a lot about Helena’s personality.
One needs to understand that Demetrius was once in a relationship with Helena and Helena must’ve trusted and loved Demetrius but there’s a line at which love becomes an obsession. When one’s lover is ready to hit them for wanting to be with them, it’s no longer love. If anything it’s a one-sided obsession. Which is exactly what Helena had for Demetrius. We also know that Helena has very low self-confidence and loathes her appearance even though she is taller and fairer than Hermia. Helena says “For she hath blessed and attractive eyes. How came her eyes so bright? Not with salt tears: If so, my eyes are oftener wash’d than hers. No, no, I am as ugly as a bear” (Act II, Scene 2, Line 747). This passage reveals that Hermia was the reason behind Helena’s dislike for her appearance stems from jealousy. She feels she must be less than Hermia because Demetrius chose Hermia over her.
Helena also makes it very clear that she had chosen her love over her friend, over various occasions. First when she betrays Hermia and tells Demetrius of her plans to elope with Lysander. Second, when she accuses of Hermia was scheming with Demetrius and Lysander when both of them fall in love with Helena because of the love potion. She says “Lo, she is one of this confederacy! Now I perceive they have conjoin’d all three. To fashion this false sport, in spite of me. Injurious Hermia! most ungrateful maid! Have you conspired, have you with these contrived. To bait me with this foul derision?” (Act III, Scene II, Line 1232). This encounter hints toward Helena’s mentality of blaming Hermia for her troubles, even though it wasn’t Hermia’s fault that Demetrius fell in love with her.
For most people love is selfless and in the conventional sense, you don’t think about yourself – just the other person. But the problem in Helena’s case is that her love is one-way. It has to be selfless for both people. However, in Helena’s relationship, if we can call it that, she was the only one invested in it. Perhaps, too invested. Throughout the play, Demetrius doesn’t show a sliver of those feelings towards Helena. In fact, it was quite opposite. Demetrius’ behavior was rude, curt, and humiliating but Helena couldn’t see any of that. In her mind, Demetrius and she were meant to be together and she was just waiting for Demetrius to get over Hermia and realize that he loved Helena and Helena alone. Though it didn’t happen, the readers know better about what really happened.
I think labeling Helena’s feelings for Demetrius as love is wrong and obsession is a more apt description of her feelings. It can be argued that love too, can be obsessive but only when the obsession is mutual and Demetrius wasn’t fond of Helena in the slightest. Though it’s a comedic play, Midsummer Night’s Dream does a good job of portraying the different forms of love and what it is like when it’s in excess. It shows what happens when love becomes an obsession and how it hurts everyone involved. Helena reminds the reader that “love” can make someone blind and incapable of seeing the other person’s faults and flaws, no matter how grave. This sort of love makes one insecure about their appearance and disregard their own health. It’s not selfless, but manic.
While Shakespeare did touch upon the implications of such a “love”, he didn’t go into it fully as it’s a comedic play. In the play, Helena’s obsession leads to putting Hermia and Lysander’s lives in danger as well as subjecting herself to unnecessary embarrassment and again, danger.