A Midsummer Night's Dream

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Helena Character Analysis

She loves Demetrius, and at one time he returned her love. But before the play begins, he fell in love with Hermia and left Helena in despair. Because of Demetrius's abandonment of her, Helena lacks self-confidence and self-respect, going so far as to tell Demetrius that she'll love and follow him even if he treats her like his dog. She's also a bit conniving and desperate, willing to betray her friend Hermia's confidence in order to try to win back Demetrius's love. Physically, she's tall and blond.

Helena Quotes in A Midsummer Night's Dream

The A Midsummer Night's Dream quotes below are all either spoken by Helena or refer to Helena. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Love Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream published in 2004.
Act 1, scene 1 Quotes
She, sweet lady, dotes,
Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry,
Upon this spotted and inconstant man. (109)
Related Characters: Lysander (speaker), Helena
Page Number: 1.1.110-112
Explanation and Analysis:

Lysander speaks up and begins to defend his right to marry Hermia. He observes that Demetrius first won the favor Hermia’s friend Helena and is therefore a fickle lover.

To make his case, Lysander places Helena’s piousness in opposition with Demetrius’ capricious nature. In just two lines he says the word “dotes” three times to refer to Helena, each time with greater gusto. First, the verb is left unmodified; then he appends the adverb “devoutly” to underline the extent of Helena’s commitment; and finally he adds “in idolatry” to cast her behavior as entirely subservient. Demetrius, in contrast, is “spotted and inconstant” because he has deviated in his love. “Spotted” makes use of a physical image to show that the love is marred or impure, while “inconstant” more directly refers to mercurial behavior. That Lysander sees this behavior as justification for why Demetrius should not be with Hermia offers insight into the moral sensibilities of these characters. Although they may prize romantic love, greater value is seen in a consistent affection.

At the same time, however, Helena's affection as it is described here seems overly devout. The language used to describe her also offers a subtle allusion to earlier idea that Hermia may enter a nunnery rather than marry Demetrius. That Helena's love is presented in similarly religious terms shows how parallels exist in the types of devotion. Yet the one-sidedness of her “idolatry” calls into question its romantic efficacy. Thus while Lysander may charge Demetrius with overly fickle tendencies, he also subtly mocks Hermia for being too devoted. True romance, it seems, must exist between these two poles.


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Through Athens I am thought as fair as she.
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so.
He will not know what all but he do know.
And as he errs, doting on Hermia's eyes,
So I, admiring of his qualities.
Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind. (227)
Related Characters: Helena (speaker), Hermia, Demetrius
Page Number: 1.1.233-241
Explanation and Analysis:

After Hermia and Lysander leave to elope, Helena gives this moving soliloquy. She notes that love causes people to see incorrectly and act irrationally.

To make this point, Helena first compares two supposedly objective features: her beauty and Hermia’s. She reasons that if so many people “thought [her] as fair” as Hermia, then Demetrius’ perspective must be warped. He “errs” because he incorrectly favors Hermia though nothing about her would seem superior to Helena. Helena then applies the same type of criticism back on herself: Just as Demetrius’ assessment of Hermia’s physical beauty is marred by his love, so is Helena’s assessment of Demtrius’ character. What is “base and vile” becomes “form and dignity.” Intriguingly, in this speech Helena shows herself capable of recognizing her limitations. She observes how warped her perspective has become. Yet, even as she is aware how love has affected her, she is unable to escape its power and continues to see Demetrius as all "form and dignity."

Helena’s use of imagery pertaining to eyes here is worth noting. She references how Demetrius focuses on “Hermia’s eyes” as the basis for his love, yet observes that “Love looks not with the eyes”—for it does not correctly visually interpret the world. As a result, Cupid is “painted blind” because he represents a force that acts based on emotion rather than vision. Later in the play, however, the characters will fall in love when a potion is applied to their eyes—which will make them enamored with the first person they see. Helena’s claim that vision is unimportant is thus both accurate and ironic, for Shakespeare will make literal sight the basis for love’s metaphorical blindness.

Act 2, scene 1 Quotes
We cannot fight for love, as men may do;
We should be wooed and were not made to woo.
I'll follow thee and make a heaven of hell,
to die upon the hand I love so well. (226)
Related Characters: Helena (speaker), Demetrius
Page Number: 2.1.248-251
Explanation and Analysis:

Helena has followed Demetrius into the woods and continues to profess her affection. She reflects on how this behavior is not in line with traditional social norms, for such pursuits are normally the realm of men, not women.

This passage shows how Helena is entrapped by traditional gender roles even as she tries to reject them. She describes, poignantly, how her active pursuit of Demetrius is something only “men may do.” And the term “fight” casts the pursuit of love in military terms, reiterating how it is a traditionally masculine enterprise. Shes describes the roles as being strictly divided between “should be wooed” and “made to woo”—pursuer and pursued—showing that Helena has internalized the traditional divisions.

Yet her response is, rather remarkably, defiance rather than defeat. She affirms first her own action “I’ll follow thee” and then more radically “make a heaven of hell”: This expression refers most simply to how she wants to improve her current horrific state of affairs. But more radically it implies that she hopes to invert the world order in which she cannot be the wooer. Indeed, her use of the violent reference to death places her in the traditional masculine role. Shakespeare thus presents Helena as a character who staunchly rejects the passive feminine role to which she has been assigned.

Act 3, scene 2 Quotes
Lord, what fools these mortals be! (117)
Related Characters: Robin Goodfellow (Puck) (speaker), Hermia, Helena, Lysander, Demetrius
Page Number: 3.2.117
Explanation and Analysis:

Puck has just seen Helena being pursued by Lysander—and both are about to enter the stage with Demetrius. He correctly expects that the two will compete for her love and looks forward to the show.

This line corroborates the way Puck sees himself as a theater director for the events that transpire—as opposed to a character directly involved in the narrative. Describing the other characters as “mortals” sets up a clear divide between the supernatural forest creatures and the normal humans. And considering them to be “fools” places them in a position of subservience: They are following the pre-designed games of Oberon and Puck rather than acting of their own independent accord. As a result, Puck is able to look on the behavior of Helena and her two new lover’s with pure whimsy, for their issues exist in a distanced and, for him, meaningless realm. Shakespeare thus shows that adopting a removed perspective allows one to aestheticize and find humorous what might otherwise be a dramatic or painful series of events. And, of course, the audience of the play gets an extra thrill of delight as they – the ultimate viewers with a removed perspective – watch Puck watching the "mortals."

O spite! O hell! I see you all are bent
To set against me for your merriment:
If you we re civil and knew courtesy,
You would not do me thus much injury.
Can you not hate me, as I know you do,
But you must join in souls to mock me too?
If you were men, as men you are in show,
You would not use a gentle lady so;
To vow, and swear, and superpraise my parts,
When I am sure you hate me with your hearts.
You both are rivals, and love Hermia;
And now both rivals, to mock Helena:
A trim exploit, a manly enterprise,
To conjure tears up in a poor maid's eyes
With your derision! none of noble sort
Would so offend a virgin, and extort
A poor soul's patience, all to make you sport. (147)
Related Characters: Helena (speaker), Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius
Page Number: 3.2.148-164
Explanation and Analysis:

Helena is now being pursued by Lysander and Demetrius after they have both been bewitched by the love potion. Believing that they are making fun of her, Helena spurns their advances and scolds them for this behavior.

This soliloquy makes a sharp distinction between courteous and uncourteous forms of behavior. Helena considers Lysander and Demetrius’ actions to do her “injury” and “mock” her because, she believes, their behaviors do not accurately represent how they feel. To support this point, Shakespeare uses the language of performance and play: The men act from “merriment,” they act “in show,” and it is all done “to make you sport.” These descriptions corroborate the way Puck and Oberon have staged their own sport of romance in the play. Helena is correctly able to recognize the falsehood in the mens’ behaviors, but she cannot recognize that they are merely characters acting out their parts. And, meanwhile, the men have become so overwhelmed by their "parts" because of the love potion, that they don't even know that they are in fact playing parts.

Helena's speech also confirms the way she is ever-aware of gender role complexity. She implicitly denies Lysander and Demetrius's manhood by saying they are men “in show” rather than in actuality (which also would have been funny in Shakespeare's time, when women weren't allowed to be actors and so the actor playing Helena would, in fact, have been a man). And calling their behavior “A trim exploit, a manly enterprise” is a sarcastic way of saying that she finds their behavior manipulative and thus un-masculine. Similarly, she takes on the traditional role of “gentle lady” and “poor maid”—surprising considering that Helena had previously bucked gender roles by desiring to be the pursuer or wooer. Her new adherence to a division between manly and unmanly behaviors thus shows how rapidly the supernatural forest environment can shift the characters’ identities. Just as Demetrius and Lysander have been bewitched into love and into the roles of pursuers, Helena has been metaphorically enchanted in this new, more passive position.

Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
May all to Athens back again repair
And think no more of this night's accidents
But as the fierce vexation of a dream. (50)
Related Characters: Oberon (speaker), Hermia, Helena, Lysander, Demetrius
Page Number: 4.1.68-70
Explanation and Analysis:

Oberon at last feels pity for the way he has treated Titania and the other characters. He informs Puck to finish undoing his mischief and to allow the characters to depart the forest.

These lines verify the sharp division between the play’s urban and forest settings. Whereas the forest is seen as the place of fantasy and magic, the city promises a return to normalcy. Oberon’s use of the word “repair” stresses how the character's return to Athens will restore order to the broken relations and return to normal any behaviors made strange by the forest. His strict delineation between the two spaces casts the events that have transpired in the forest as whimsical and temporary—and to have little relevance to the rest of the characters’ lives.

Oberon also addresses the importance of dreams in this play. Hoping the other characters will think of the events in the forest as only “the fierce vexation of a dream” means that they will consider them to have been a psychologically real experience but one that has no pragmatic effect on their lives. He thus aligns the forest environment with nighttime and dreams, whereas Athens is associated with daytime and “reality.” These associations further emphasize that the romantic complications that have taken place in the forest are to be taken as illusory, for they should be seen as temporary and unreal.

And yet, as becomes clear just a few lines later, the wild, magical, "unreal" events of the forest have actually untangled the romantic mess of the four lovers in a way that the law of Theseus and Athens never could. 

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Helena Character Timeline in A Midsummer Night's Dream

The timeline below shows where the character Helena appears in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1, scene 1
Love Theme Icon
...lover: before he met Hermia, Demetrius wooed and won the heart of a woman named Helena. (full context)
Love Theme Icon
Just then, Hermia's childhood friend and Demetrius's former love, Helena, enters. She wishes she had Hermia's beauty so that Demetrius would love her. To make... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
Left alone on the stage, Helena gives a speech about the tricks love can play on one's eyes, transforming even "things... (full context)
Act 2, scene 1
Love Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
The Supernatural Theme Icon
Just then, Oberon hears voices. Since he's invisible, he decides to spy. Demetrius and Helena enter, walking through the woods. Demetrius tells Helena to stop following him since he does... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
Plays Within Plays Theme Icon
Dreams Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
The Supernatural Theme Icon
After they exit, Oberon promises that soon Demetrius will seek Helena's love. Once Puck returns with the love-in-idleness flower, Oberon tells him that "A sweet Athenian... (full context)
Act 2, scene 2
Love Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
Demetrius runs into the glade, pursued by Helena. He demands she cease following. She begs him to stay. But he runs on, and... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
Helena wakes Lysander, who immediately professes his love for her. He curses Demetrius for mistreating her,... (full context)
Act 3, scene 2
Love Theme Icon
Plays Within Plays Theme Icon
Dreams Theme Icon
The Supernatural Theme Icon
...love juice on some true-love's sight" (3.2.91). He orders Puck to search the forest for Helena, and use some illusion to bring her to Oberon, who will make Demetrius fall in... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
Plays Within Plays Theme Icon
Dreams Theme Icon
The Supernatural Theme Icon
Oberon puts the love ointment on Demetrius' eyes as Puck returns with the warning that Helena is on her way and trailed by the lovelorn Lysander. Puck is excited to watch... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
Helena enters with Lysander following and begging her to see that his vows of love are... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
The two men now begin to fight and argue over Helena, and each tries to get the other to settle for Hermia. (full context)
Love Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
...abandoned her. Lysander tells her it was love that made him leave; his love for Helena. Hermia can't believe what Lysander is telling her. Meanwhile, Helena now thinks that Hermia has... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
Hermia can't understand why Helena would accuse her of such a thing. She demands Lysander tell her what's going on.... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
Helena asks Lysander and Demetrius to protect her, which they gladly do, though she never ceases... (full context)
Act 4, scene 1
Love Theme Icon
Plays Within Plays Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
The Supernatural Theme Icon
...honor of Duke Theseus's wedding and the weddings of Lysander and Hermia and Demetrius and Helena. (full context)
Love Theme Icon
Dreams Theme Icon
The Supernatural Theme Icon
...followed Hermia into the woods because he loved her, he now, "by some power," loves Helena (4.1.161). Theseus overrules Egeus, decides that the four lovers will marry at his wedding, and... (full context)