What point might Shakespeare have been trying to make through Helena's character in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

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tinicraw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Helena is a girl smitten by love for a man who has rejected her. Helena is the vehicle through which all of the feminine feelings of rejection move. She epitomizes many different levels of one who is naïve to the games of love, and then suffers the consequences of being rejected. She becomes confused, and rather than let Demetrius go, she decides to continue to chase after him. Lysander even witnesses to Theseus how much Helena loves Demetrius after he showed loving affection and encouraged her:

"Demetrius, I'll avouch it to his head,

Made love to Nedar's daughter, Helena,

And won her soul; and she, sweet lady, dotes,

Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry,

Upon this spotted and inconstant man" (I.i.108-112).

The repetition of the word "dotes" drives home the intensity of Helena's love for Demetrius. Thus, Helena embarrassingly tries many tactics to get Demetrius to come back to her. She follows him even when he explicitly tells her that he's not interested or in love with her anymore. Helena's response is as follows:

"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" (II.i.207-211).

Helena characterizes so much of a woman's destroyed heart. Her self-esteem wanes so much that she only sees her self-worth equal to a dog's. She deserves better, but she can't see that because she interprets the pain of rejection as her unworthiness to be treated well. This represents so much of what women go through when rejected, and Shakespeare must have known that; however, he does exaggerate the situation for comedy's sake, too. Just when Helena gets used to being treated horribly, the tables are turned and both Lysander and Demetrius suddenly love her. As a result, Helena logically does not believe their declarations of love and says the following:

"Can you not hate me, as I know you do,

But you must join in souls to mock me too?" (III.ii.149-150).

Shakespeare must use Helena as a way to mock women's frail hearts in love, but also to show them that they do not need to travel so low, either. By laughing at Helena's weaknesses, women can also identify within themselves if they ever start to act like her. Then they can quickly realize their weakness and become stronger.

 

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A Midsummer Night's Dream

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