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A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare
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Compare and contrast the characters of Demetrius and Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

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At first glance, Lysander and Demetrius appear to be fairly interchangeable characters in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

They both fall in love with the wrong woman. Lysander falls in love with Hermia, whose father, Egeus, refuses to let him marry her. Demetrius also falls in love with Hermia...

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At first glance, Lysander and Demetrius appear to be fairly interchangeable characters in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

They both fall in love with the wrong woman. Lysander falls in love with Hermia, whose father, Egeus, refuses to let him marry her. Demetrius also falls in love with Hermia (or says he does), but Hermia doesn't want to marry him, even though her father prefers him to Lysander.

Change their names around, and it wouldn't really make much difference to the play, at least as far as this basic plot line is concerned.

The differences between Lysander and Demetrius become clearer, however, and the characters become much more distinguishable, as the plot develops.

The most notable difference between the two young men is that Lysander is honorable, but Demetrius is not.

Before the play begins, Demetrius pursued Helena but abandoned her and turned his attentions to Hermia. Then Demetrius insisted that Hermia marry him.

Lysander never wavers in his love for Hermia—except for the business about Puck's merry mix-up with Oberon's love potion, which causes Lysander to fall madly in love with Helena. Lysander devises a way to be with Hermia by running away with her to his aunt's house, which is outside her father's influence and beyond the jurisdiction of Athenian law. He'll do whatever it takes for them to be together.

Demetrius, meanwhile, threatens to kill Lysander so that he can marry Hermia himself. Lysander doesn't threaten to kill anybody—except when he's under the influence of Oberon's love potion and wants to fight a duel with Demetrius over Helena.

Once the pairs of lovers are lost in the woods outside Athens, Demetrius cruelly, even violently rejects Helena's advances toward him. He threatens to hide in the woods if she won't leave him alone, leaving Helena "to the mercy of wild beasts" (2.1.232).

Demetrius also threatens Helena physically.

DEMETRIUS: I will not stay thy questions; let me go;
Or, if thou follow me, do not believe
But I shall do thee mischief in the wood. (2.1.239–241)

Ultimately, Demetrius says to Theseus, Duke of Athens, that he had loved only Helena all along.

DEMETRIUS: The object and the pleasure of mine eye,
Is only Helena. To her, my lord,
Was I betroth'd ere I saw Hermia. (4.1.171–173)

It's important to note that Demetrius is the only one of the four young lovers who is still under the influence of the love potion at the end of the play, so his change of character for the better is not of his own doing. It's the love potion talking.

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Often called the poet of double vision, Shakespeare, the father of twins himself, wrote several plays involving mistaken identities and the ensuing confusion. The plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream also touches on the fact that sometimes different characters are not so different, after all, and are doubles of each other in some ways.

While the obvious similarity between Demetrius and Lysander is that they have both fought over the same women--Hermia in the beginning and Helena later in the comedy--they are also alike in their romantic pursuits in the forest after Puck drops the love potion on them. Their behavior in the forest points again to Helena's observation of the first act: 

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind. (1.1.234)

While Lysander's mind is romantic, much like that of Romeo as he is willing to risk his life in running away with Hermia, Demetrius's is much more calculating. He argues that Hermia should be his because he has made a contract with Egeus, her father. Also, that Demetrius's interest in Hermia is less than romantic is evinced by his rejection of Helena for his arrangement with the Athenian nobleman Egeus. And it is only in his greed that Demetrius pursues Hermia when he learns that she has run away with Lysander. As they talk in Act I, Lysander's comment to Demetrius points to the fact that Demetrius has made a contract with Egeus that has less to do with love than with position:

You have her father's love, Demetrius:
Let me have Hermia's. Do you marry him. (1.1. 94-95)

Indeed, the main difference between Demetrius and Lysander is in their natures. Demetrius's love is cruel, while Lysander is, like Romeo, a true lover, willing to risk his life for his love. His love is romantic.

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The most obvious similarity between the two in A Midsummer's Night Dream is that they are both fighting for the love of Hermia.

They are both also citizens of Athens who have some degree of wealth and travel in or near royal circles. (We know this partially because Shakespeare has them speak in Iambic Pentameter, versus the prose in which the laborers speak. Also, they have access to the Duke both in the beginning when Hermia's father is pleading for him to intervene in Hermia's love life, and at the end when they join the Duke at the wedding feast.)

They are different, in that Lysander seems to be after Hermia for true love, whereas Demetrius wants her for power and status. Lysander risks hatred from the father and reproach from the Duke to love Hermia. He also faces danger and ridicule for disobeying the Duke's orders and running away with Hermia into the woods.

Demetrius, however, wooed Hermia with gifts while she was involved with Lysander, and he cozied up to Egeus so he would have an ally on the inside. Also, when Demetrius finds out that Hermia and Lysander have fled, he takes after them rather than letting her go be with the one she loves (which denotes a selfish rather than a selfless affection.)

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