In Act II, scene ii of A Midsummer Night's Dream, does Helena believe Lysander's gestures of love, and what does she really think is going on?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Halena explains her reaction to Lysander's behavior in her speech in Act II, scene ii. The background is that Halena has just chased Demetrius back into that part of the woods, saying "O, I am out of breath in this fond chase!" [fond: cherished but unlikely to be realized]. Incidentally, this line provides a lively play on words as Helena's two meanings combine. The first meaning is that Halena is fond of (affectionate toward) Demetrius and thus is chasing him. The second is that she holds the cherished idea, which is not not likely to be fulfilled, of restoring a love with Demetrius.

Puck has mistakenly poured the flower nectar in the wrong man's eyes thus anointing the vision of Lysander, not Demetrius, so when Halena awakens him, he pours out expressions of admiration that surprise and wound Halena. As she says herself, she thinks he is mocking her, or treating her with ridicule and contempt. For Halena, this is a double wound. Not only is she rejected by (and run away from) the man she truly loves, Demetrius, the other man insults and derides her. She feels scorned for her "insufficiency," as she describes her inferior beauty and inability to win Demetrius's love.

In summary, Halena does not believe Lysander when he makes verbal gestures of love and admiration toward her such as,

Not Hermia but Halena I love
[...]
Reason becomes the marshal to my will
And leads me to your eyes, where I o'erlook
Love's stories written in love's richest book.

Halena, feeling wounded and humiliated, thinks that Lysander is really being cruel and mocking due to some inexplicable, sudden spite and malice toward her. She exits after saying, "you do me wrong, good sooth, you do," and chastising him for his "disdainful manner":

I thought you lord of more true gentleness.
O, that a lady, of one man refused,
Should of another therefore be abused!

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