Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Helena's Lament


       A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Act One, sc. 1, lines 232-251

How happy some o'er other some can be!
Through Athens I am thought as fair as she.
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so;
He will not know what all but he do know:
And as he errs, doting on Hermia's eyes,                                             [230]
So I, admiring of his qualities:
Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity:
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind:                                     [235]
Nor hath Love's mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste:
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.
As waggish boys in game themselves forswear,                                 [240]
So the boy Love is perjured every where:
For ere Demetrius look'd on Hermia¹s eyne,
He hail'd down oaths that he was only mine;
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.    

Helena's Lament: Close analysis

Love is a common theme seen in many plays and A Midsummer Night’s

Dream is no exception. William Shakespeare uses it as one of the central themes to the

plot alongside seeing and blindness, deception and trickery. In the passage chosen, the

effects and repercussions of some of these themes will be discussed, in relation to the

rest of the play. Shakespeare also uses literary tools to create a certain poetic flow to his

writing, and these too will be divulged.

In Helena’s mournful and self-pitying lament, there are ten rhyming pairs of verse in

iambic pentameter(1). These couplets add to the dramatic effect by presenting a constant

sound and rhythm which is synonymous to Helena’s relentless devotion to Demetrius.

These couplets help to portray that effect. The use of reversed syntax should be also

noted, as it emphasizes certain words and gives Helena’s speech a distinctive sound (2).

An example of this can be seen when Shakespeare puts the object before the subject

and verb, “Things base and vile, holding no quantity, / Love can transpose to form

and dignity” (ll. 238-9). This not only enables the iambic pentameter and the rhyme

to continue, but puts emphasis on the words ‘quantity’ and ‘dignity’. These words are

important because they refer to Helena’s love for Demetrius as being out of proportion

to his faults and containing no self-respect for herself.

There are many themes presented in the play, and one of the most glaring is ‘seeing

and blindness’ which is mentioned five times through this particular passage. The

first and second is where Demetrius is “doting on Hermia’s eyes” (l. 236), and where

he “looked on Hermia’s eyne” (l. 248). This is worth noting because it is Demetrius’s

eyes that are blurred by Oberon’s nectar, yet it is twice mentioned that Hermia’s

eyes are enchanting enough to sway Demetrius’s heart. The third reference talks of

how “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind” (l. 240), which is ironic because

that is explicitly where Oberon tells Puck to place the nectar; so that the Athenian will

love the first thing they see. Hence, in this instance, love does see with the eyes. The

fourth reference, in the same couplet, states that “winged cupid [is] painted blind” (l.

241) which infers that love is blind to everything. This is seen in multiple pairings

throughout the text, as with Titania and Bottom (3), Helena and Demetrius, Demetrius

and Hermia. The fifth and last reference to seeing and blindness is perhaps the most

important. It declares that love has “Wings, and no eyes, figure unheedy haste” (l. 243).

The insinuation here is that loving someone without truly seeing them is as pointless

and dangerous as flying without the ability to see. ‘Unheedy’ and ‘haste’ are two words

that strongly negate each other, yet when put in this context they are used to illustrate

this impossible situation.

There are some interesting examples of imagery and vocabulary scattered throughout

the passage, all with distinctive connotations and inferences. One of the key ones is the

image of Cupid, the personification of love itself. He is depicted as a blind young boy

with wings, toting a quiver of love-inducing arrows. The significance of this is to show

that love is as folly-some, easily swayed and inconstant as a child. "So the boy love

is perjured everywhere" (l. 247) simply means that he is falsely depicted as a bringer

of love, but she is implying that his presence is more deceptive and not so joyous.

Trickery and deception is a recurrent theme in A Midsummer Night's Dream; the play is

full of characters that seem to be one thing and yet are another. A few examples of this

can be seen in the Meta-theatricality of the plays within the play, and also with Bottom

appearing as a donkey to Titania.

An interesting use of vocabulary is when Helena likens Demetrius’s display of love

for her, to hail. Hail is cold and harsh and not usually associated with romantic love,

as is the sun for instance. Nevertheless, Helena uses this particular word which could

be a hint that his love is not true. In addition, his "showers of oaths did melt" (l. 251)

when "some heat from Hermia's [he] felt" (l. 250) which proposes that Demetrius's love

for Hermia is more concrete.

The passage also illustrates aspects of Helena's character that need to be presented in

order to enhance the understanding of the rest of the play. At the start of the passage

she cries “How happy some o'er other some can be” (l. 232), which can only be

translated as a bout of whining self-pity. The next line is equally indulgent, showing

her jealous nature with a hint of pride “Through Athens I am thought as fair as she. /

But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so” (ll. 233-4). This would be a harsh judgement

of her character from a mere two lines, but she continues to talk and act this way

throughout the rest of Act 1 and into Act 2 (4). Therefore, the passage reveals Helena's

role in the play as the neglected pursuer who eventually gets her desires (through no

credit to her). It also engages the audience to decide whether they either feel pity or

contempt for Helena as the beaten, yet still fawning spaniel (Act 2, sc.1, l. 211).

Helena's colourful lament, though it may deviate from the point at times, has a clear

underlying message: Love is unjust, dangerous, inconstant, and folly some. This then poses

the question; if all love is futile, what of her 'love' for Demetrius? If that is her interpretation

of how love can be, then how is her love any more legitimate than his? If his inconstancy

towards her is purely because all love is inconstant, then he cannot be blamed for it.

Despite these conundrums, her monologue advances the plot by addressing the larger themes

that repeatedly appear later in the play. The themes of love, sight and deception are scattered

throughout the play, and are given an adequate introduction in this passage of Helena’s


1. These are known as ‘heroic couplets’.

2. Here Shakespeare uses his trademark of changing the conventional order of the subjects, objects
and verbs in a sentence. Despite making the meaning of the sentence less clear, this method creates a
poetic effect.

3. This pairing is a product of magic, whereas the other two are natural.

4. After Act 2, magic intervenes and she is pursued by both Lysander and Demetrius. Thus her self pity
turns into low self-esteem and she accuses their love for mockery.

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