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In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Helena is desperately in love with Demetrius to the point that, as Lysander points out to Egeus, Hermia's father, he "won her soul" (I.i.108). Egeus is adamant that Hermia must marry Demetrius as he is "worthier" (55) than Lysander who Hermia loves. Helena is, therefore, desperate to learn Hermia's secret as she has both Lysander and Demetrius vying for her love. Helena wishes to learn how to "sway the motion of Demetrius' heart" (193) so that he will love her instead. Hermia tells Helena that she does not welcome Demetrius's attention and that Helena can have Demetrius to herself as she and Lysander intend to run away.
Shakespeare then ensures that the audience senses Helena's sincere love but her selfish and spiteful nature as she intends to use this information, told to her in confidence by her friend, in spite. She is jealous of Hermia and the hold that she seems to have over Demetrius, more inclined to blame Hermia for it than Demetrius. Helena believes that telling Demetrius will make him realize that he should stop chasing Hermia.
However, he does not give up his quest to win over Hermia, and Helena, following him into the woods, allows him to insult her. The audience can see Helena's desperation as she begs Demetrius to allow her to follow him, even thou she she is "unworthy" (II.i.207). Even when Demetrius threatens to leave her to the mercy of "wild beasts" (228), she sees this as more of a challenge and is prepared to die for her love. This reinforces the hold men have over women and their dominance. It also reveals her loyalty to him and it is apparent that she has taken quite a chance and even been courageous in her pursuit as women would normally be expected to "be wooed, and were not made to woo" (242). She is even prepared to face a "scandal" (240). Shakespeare's word use in this scene does highlight the gender differences and, later, makes what Helena perceives as Hermia's betrayal even more poignant.
Helena, thinking that Lysander, on waking from Puck's love potion, is mocking her when he declares his love makes Helena a pitiful character. When Demetrius does the same, she is heartbroken at what she thinks is a trick to use her for sport and "to conjure tears in a poor maid's eyes" (III.ii.157). When Hermia apparently extends this cruel trick, Helena reminds her of their childhood bond. The audience is reminded that Helena felt no such loyalty to Hermia when she decided to tell Demetrius and yet she is hurt at what she thinks is Hermia's betrayal. Helena is a conflicted character but one who will be rewarded for stepping out of her comfort zone in pursuing Demetrius when, ultimately, she will be rewarded with his love.
Shakespeare has cleverly used Helena to display the plight of women as they must remain passive and, without insulting his male audience, he has revealed how this otherwise pathetic character stands up for women's rights.
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