Discuss the "grand quarrel scene" between Hermia and Helena in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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One of the funniest scenes in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream occurs between Hermia and Helena.

In the beginning, they are best friends. Hermia tells Helena that she and Lysander plan to run away. Helena, who has recently been spurned by Demetrius, has watched while he now pursues Hermia who wants nothing to do with him. To win favor with Demetrius, Helena tells him of the lovers' plans to elope.

By the time the two women have their quarrel, several things have changed. First, Oberon, the king of the fairy realm, has asked Puck (his henchman) to place a love spell on the young Athenian to make him fall in love with the woman he scorns—who is supposed to be the first woman he sees. Oberon means Demetrius, but Puck, who has not seen the man, finds Lysander instead. So Lysander awakes and sees Helena—and falls deeply in love. Helena thinks that Lysander is simply making fun of her! When Oberon realizes the mistake, he tells Puck to fix it. This time Puck gets it right, and Demetrius magically falls in love with Helena. However, Helena is angry—where no one had loved her, now two fight over. She is sure they are working together to have a joke at her expense.


O spite! O hell! I see you all are bent

To set against me for your merriment.

If you were civil and knew courtesy,

You would not do me thus much injury. (III.ii.147-150)

The spell is so great that even if Helena would strike the men, they would love her all the more.

Enter Hermia who came to the wood with her love, Lysander. All of a sudden, not only is the determined Demetrius ardently pursuing Helena, but so is Lysander! Hermia is confused. She tries to understand why Lysander left her side while she slept on the ground. He said it is because he hates her and loves Helena:


Lysander's love, that would not let him bide,

Fair Helena, who more engilds the night 

Than all yon fiery oes and eyes of light.

Why seek'st thou me? Could not this make thee know,

The hate I bare thee made me leave thee so? (189-193)

The more Hermia entreats Lysander, the more verbally abusive he becomes. Helena, on the other hand, does not believe Hermia, but thinks that she is part of the game to harm Helena. Lysander dismisses Hermia again:


…'tis no jest

That I do hate thee and love Helena. (289-290)

Hermia explodes. Instead of blaming the men, Hermia believes that Helena has wooed them away. Understanding these details, the audience is now prepared to sit back and thoroughly enjoy the "cat fight" that occurs on the stage. 

Hermia insults Helena and accuses her of deceit:


O me! you juggler! you canker blossom!

You thief of love! What! Have you come by night,

And stolen my love's heart from him? (291-293)

Helena then accuses Hermia of also being false, and chides her for her "unmaidenly” behavior.


Have you no modesty, no maiden shame, 

No touch of bashfulness? What! Will you tear

Impatient answers from my gentle tongue?

Fie, fie! you counterfeit, you puppet you! (295-298)

One can imagine the insults flying back and forth, but there is also physical comedy used as they attack one another.

Physical comedy, also known as slapstick, is a comedic performance relying mostly on the use of the body to convey humour.

Throughout the scene, the women fight—the men physically hold them both back, but verbally support Helena. The insults fly: they are very funny. Finally, Oberon tells Puck to remove the love spell as needed.



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