Helena (A Midsummer Night's Dream)
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|A Midsummer Night's Dream character|
Washington Allston's 1818 painting Hermia and Helena.
|Created by||William Shakespeare|
She is the daughter of Nedar, and a friend of Hermia (with whom she often compares herself). Prior to the play's beginning, she is betrothed to the nobleman Demetrius but is jilted when his affections turn to Hermia. Despite this, Helena's abiding love for Demetrius remains consistent throughout the play. Hermia and her suitor, 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 plans and, the next night, they follow the escaping lovers into the forest.
Though Demetrius is deliberately cruel towards her, Helena remains intent in her devotion. Her ardor catches the attention of Oberon, who commands that Puck enchant Demetrius so that he will fall back in love with Helena. When Puck mistakenly enchants a sleeping Lysander instead, Lysander wakes and falls instantly in love with Helena. He pursues a shocked and hurt Helena, deserting a sleeping Hermia. Oberon, trying to correct Puck's error, then puts the potion on Demetrius. Confused by the two men's change in behaviour, Helena concludes that the other three lovers have banded together to ridicule her. Helena is left confused and hurt by how cruel and unkind her closest friend and her two suitors have become. In the scene's climax, she and Hermia nearly come to blows while the two men set out to kill one another to prove who is more worthy of Helena's affections.
Oberon commands Puck to correct the enchantment placed on Lysander. Separated by Oberon's command and Puck's magic, and with dawn approaching, the lovers each go sleep again. Puck crushes another herb into Lysander's eyes, negating the effect of the first one. When the lovers are discovered in the morning by a hunting Theseus, Hippolyta, and Egeus, 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 lovers are married in a joint ceremony with Theseus and Hippolyta (offstage) and together watch the play put on by the Mechanicals in honor of the marriages.
While not the only 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. It is her honest, unrequited love that convinces Oberon to meddle with the lovers, and her pain in being "tricked" by her friends (she thinks) that convinces Oberon to restore everyone.
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."
Helena's character was portrayed in movies by famous actresses like Jean Muir in Max Reinhardt's and William Dieterle's 1935 version, by Vanessa Redgrave in Peter Hall's 1959 TV movie, by Diana Rigg in Hall's second adaptation in 1968, by Claude Jade in Jean-Christophe Averty's famous 1969 French adaptation and by Calista Flockhart in the 1999 film directed by Michael Hoffman. 
- 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.