Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream: Description & Character Analysis

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  • 0:04 Helena Overview
  • 0:27 Helena's Role in the Play
  • 1:49 Helena Character Analysis
  • 2:56 Themes: Women & Love
  • 4:25 Helena vs Helen of Troy
  • 5:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Karen Wolak

Karen has taught 4-8th grade English/Language Arts and has worked closely with adult learners for several years. M.Ed. in Adult Education.

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.

Helena Overview

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 fiancé 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)

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