The character of Helena has always been my favorite in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She is the emotionally burdened, love scorned Athenian woman whom most can relate. I view her with great sympathy rather than annoyance, even though her words and actions could be seen as pathetic to some readers. Shakespeare represents unrequited love perfectly in this comedy of confusion found in relationships. We have all known a “Helena” in our own lives or perhaps have been in her place. Shakespeare’s tortured character fascinates me as she expresses questions and feelings most have felt in eloquent and unique ways. For instance, self-doubt presents itself when one is not fortunate in love. “What is wrong with me?” is a question that goes through the mind when someone does not prefer us romantically. Helena places herself in an analogy to beasts and the animal world, representing her fierce emotions and the negative way she feels about herself: “No, no; I am as ugly as a bear,/ For beasts that meet me run away for fear./ Therefore no marvel though Demetrius/ Do, as a monster, fly my presence thus” (2.2.110-13). Helena reveals that a beast more fearsome than a bear would run from her tormented self. Her comparison to Demetrius acting as a monster flying from her may represent an underlying and unrecognized disdain felt for him not loving her in return. These are majorly complex emotions running through my favorite afflicted female in A Midsummer. Helena’s comparison to Hermia is particularly relevant. Humans have a tendency of comparing and questioning why they should bother to contend with someone. Helena complains of a “wicked and dissembling glass” which made her compete with Hermia’s beauty (2.2.104-5).
In an alarming but poignant section of Act 2, the audience is made aware of the level of Helena’s devotion to Demetrius. Helena chases her love and pleads: “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…” (2.1.203-6). This impassioned language is definitely disturbing, but frankly makes me want to console Helena. Desiring this abuse from Demetrius is her last resource in attempting to convince him to love her. This part is quite twisted but not unfamiliar to the audience, as many of us have witnessed our own peers carrying out intense actions and speech to get love. Obviously this section is quite dramatic which lends itself entirely to the theatre. Audiences enjoy observing the plights of passionate characters. With that said, in the real world this speech would be significantly more troubling. It is effective because of the relatability factor of Helena’s situation and by it being a performance and not based on fact. Interesting to note, animal imagery is made use of again by Shakespeare in this speech by the talk of “spaniels.” This repetition of a theme supplements the heightened level of Helena’s untamed emotions, so animalistic and primal in their ferocity.
As a spectator of this complicated love game, we notice that Helena is blinded. It is not at all dissimilar to witnessing a friend in an unhealthy relationship and seeing them not realize its horrible nature and effects. I believe Helena, if placed outside the situation, would notice her desperation and unhealthy obsession. Fascinatingly, she mentions how all is made clear when she is with Demetrius, even though the audience understands that she is truly blinded by her affection. “It is not night when I do see your face;/ Therefore I think I am not in the night,/ Nor doth this wood lack worlds of company;/ For you in my respect are all the world” (2.1.221-4). Demetrius is the sun to Helena’s universe. She mistakenly believes she is safe and “not in the night,” when in fact her love has unsighted her. Shakespeare provides a great use of opposites by making Helena believe to be in the right when she is not in a healthy frame of mind. Love blinding humans and making one say fanatical things is not lost on Shakespeare’s audience. Even though I am amazed at the level of Helena’s desperation, her unrequited love is relatable and my compassion for her never waivers. Shakespeare created an interestingly, pertinent situation perfect for the theatrical world then and now.