Helena (A Midsummer Night's Dream)
Washington Allston's 1818 painting Hermia and Helena.
|Play||A Midsummer Night's Dream|
She is the daughter of Nedar, a member of Theseus court and the Athenian aristocracy, and a childhood friend of Hermia, with whom she is often compared. Prior to the play's beginning, she is betrothed to the nobleman Demetrius but is jilted when his affections turn to Hermia instead. Despite this, Helena's abiding love for Demetrius remains consistent throughout the play. Hermia and her lover, Lysander, confide in Helena that they plan to elope. In the hopes that she will gain back some of his respect, Helena tells Demetrius of Hermia and Lysander's escape and, that night, the two follow the lovers into the forest.
Though Demetrius is deliberately cruel towards her, Helena remains honest in her devotion to him. Her behaviour catches the attention of Oberon, who commands that Puck enchant a sleeping Demetrius so that he will fall back in love with Helena. When Puck mistakenly enchants Lysander instead, both men become enamoured with her and desert Hermia in the woods. Confused by the sudden change in behaviour, Helena convinces herself that the three other lovers have banded together to ridicule her. Throughout her conquest for Demetrius' love, she becomes convinced the others are merely mocking her tried but true efforts for love. Helena is left confused and hurt by how ungentlemanly and unfriendly her closest comrades are. In the play's climax, she and Hermia nearly come to blows while the two men set out to kill one another for Helena's affections.
Separated by Oberon and Puck and with dawn approaching, the lovers each decide to sleep again. Oberon commands Puck to reverse the enchantment placed on Lysander, and when the lovers are discovered in the morning by Theseus, Duke of Athens, all is put to rights. Demetrius claims that a metaphorical 'sickness' made him love Hermia, but in health, his love has returned to Helena. The four lovers are married in a joint ceremony with Theseus and Hippolyta and together mock the show put on by the Mechanicals in the play's final act.
While not the protagonist of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Helena is one of its most talkative characters. Her dialogue provides key insight for the audience into humanist beliefs on the nature of love and the process of falling in love.
Helena is never criticised for her unrequited love for Demetrius; her constancy is seen by other characters as a great virtue, compared to his fickle nature. She also demonstrates great platonic love and sisterly devotion to Hermia. Within the cast of the lovers, her role is comparable to Lysander's. Both are more outwardly romantic and thoughtful than their partners, and both speak those lines most pertinent to the play's themes of romantic maturity and the source of lasting love. While Lysander says, 'the course of true love ne'er did run smooth', Helena's speech in Act I includes the well-known quote: "Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind."
- Shakespeare, William & Gill, Roma (ed.)1981, "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Oxford University Press, United Kingdom.
- Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night's Dream. "The Penguin Shakespeare." Penguin/Puffin Books, 1977.
- Jacobson, Karin. CliffsNotes on A Midsummer Night's Dream. 15 November 2010 <http://www.cliffsnotes.com/study_guide/literature/id-78.html>.
- Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night's Dream. Evans, Bertrand, ed.; Lynch, James J., ed. The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night's Dream. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963. 131-238.