As the play begins, themes of unrequited love and of children resisting their parents’ impositions are already at work, and before long it seems like everyone is pining for or chasing after the one who does not love them in return. Magical potions and spells further complicate these mixed-up affairs. Among the first confused pairs to be introduced are Hermia and Lysander, and Helena and Demetrius. Hermia wants to marry Lysander, but her father insists she marry Demetrius, so she and Lysander run away together. Helena is in love with Demetrius. There is an open question about whether he actually loves Hermia in return, or if he is marrying her out of duty, in that he had previously been interested in Helena.
In writing an analysis of Helena’s and Demetrius’s interactions in Act 2, keep in mind what the playwright had established it in Act 1. By the time they meet again in the forest, the audience is also aware of the jealous Oberon’s plot to anoint Titania with a magic flower to make her fall in love with whomever or whatever she sees when she wakes up. While Oberon waits for Puck to bring the flower, Helena and Demetrius enter and he overhears their argument, which leads him to decide to work the magic on Demetrius as well. Again, the audience will be aware that this will soon occur, so the couple’s dialogue will have meaning to the audience that it does not have to the characters themselves.
Helena is so far gone with love for Demetrius that she scarcely cares how he treats her. However, she completely blames him because he did pursue her before he fell for Hermia. She holds him responsible: it is he who is attracting or “drawing” her, and she has no power to resist but must follow.
You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant;
But yet you draw not iron, for my heart
Is true as steel: leave you your power to draw,
And I shall have no power to follow you.
The excesses of her lovesick condition emerge most clearly in the very difficult lines about being his dog, where she encourages him to mistreat her. At the same time, through this exaggeration, she reminds him how badly he is already treating her, worse than he would treat his dog:
What worser place can I beg in your love,--
And yet a place of high respect with me,--
Than to be used as you use your dog?
Much of their dialogue includes word play so, although the message is serious, the tone is humorous. In reading the play, keep in mind that they will be acting out the scene as well, probably chasing each other around the stage as if they were in a forest clearing. Thinking about the words as prompts to action will help the relationship come alive.
Demetrius speaks harshly, saying he will let the “wild beasts” get her, or that he will “strike” her, so it possible but not likely that he might do her physical harm. The threats seem intended to get rid of her so he can go looking for Hermia. He says she is taking a big risk to be alone with him in the woods, but she is confident that he will behave properly: “Your virtue is my privilege….”
As a contrast to the passive tone in the “dog” speech, Hermia ends the scene by once again blaming Demetrius, and by extension all men, for their bad actions and reminding him of the double standard, as society frowns on women behaving as men do. Women are supposed to be passive, as if made of “wood” rather than pursue, or “woo” a man.
Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex:
We cannot fight for love, as men may do;
We should be wood and were not made to woo.