Before we explore the character of Helena, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, let us just remind you how you can explore a Shakespearean character in any of our published plays.
If you haven’t tried out our techniques of using ‘Parts and Cues’ and ‘Highlit Text’ to explore a Shakespeare character, then you’ll find it helpful to read the detailed explanation we give for the character Hamlet (click on Let’s Explore Hamlet).
However there’s a word of warning. Character portrayal in Shakespeare’s plays varies considerably over time. In the early plays (and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a good example), the plays make use of stock characters. Stock characters had been a part of theatre since Ancient Greek times (see Stock characters in Wikipeidia); in Roman times, Plautus (known to have influenced Shakespeare e.g. The Comedy of Errors) had his own set of stock characters; and much closer to Shakespeare, commedia dell’Arte has a set of stock characters grouped into: the vecchi (the upper-class, or masters); the zanni (the working-class, often comics); the innamorati (the young lovers). A Midsummer Night’s Dream uses many of these stock characters. Without trying to allocate each every character, it’s clear that there are vecchi (Theseus, Hippolyta, Egeus, Titania, Oberon, etc); zanni (the mechanicals & Puck, etc) and innamorati (Hermia, Helena, Lysander, Demetrius).
In these plays, the drama comes, not so much from development of character, but from the conflicts that arise, and are resolved, between stock characters.
In Shakespeare’s later plays, the drama often comes from how characters develop during the play: Othello changes as Iago manipulates him; King Lear changes character and learns, as his situation changes from powerful king disposing of his power to mad man lost in a storm; in The Tempest one could make a case for saying the drama is primarily about Prospero’s struggle to find the best down-sitting for his daughter; forgive his enemies; and prepare for death.
Whatever character a player is portraying, the challenge is usually to make the character (stock or developing) appear to be a ‘real person’.
With that in mind, let’s have a look at the character of Helena.
Helena – the rejected lover
You can explore any Shakespearean character in a play published by Players-Shakespeare.com in a similar way. Here we help you explore Helena the lover who has been rejected by Demetrius in favour of Hermia.
Helena is the largest part in the play – by a smidgen, also known as a couple of lines. but the largest part nevertheless. This is worth exploring a bit further. There are only three parts with more than 200 lines: Helena (223 lines); Oberon (222); and Theseus (216). The other three lovers have considerably less: Lysander (169); Hermia (161); and Demetrius (124). Titania, which feels a much bigger part, has only 139 lines.
We assume that there is a rough correlation between the number of lines a character has, and the importance of the role in the play – a playwright is unlikely to write a lot of lines for an unimportant character. So why does Helena have so many lines? We think the answer lies in the title we’ve given this post: Helena – the rejected lover. Helena spends a lot more time in the play, being rejected by her one-time lover, Demetrius. There is a fairly long moment in A3S2 when Hermia is rejected, but for most of the play, she basks in the love of Lysander, and Demetrius.
So Helena is the rejected lover, and this is a more interesting type than ‘the lover’. But this also highlights something else about the writing of the play – the characters are stock characters. Much of the comedy, of course, comes from how the stock characters inter-act, but it still creates a problem for each player – how to make their part come alive as a character. Let’s see what we can do with Helena.
- We first meet her in A1s1, after Hermia has been told by Theseus that she, Hermia, must marry Demetrius or face the consequences. She and Lysander decide to run away. Helena enters towards the end of the scene, and has two main speeches: the first in which she bemoans that Hermia is so more attractive to Demetrius than she is; and in the second, she plans to tell Demtrius that Lysander and Hermia plan to run away, in the hopes that she can spend time with Demtrius trying to find the other two in the forest. Read those two speeches in Parts and Cues format.
- The first speech (starting ‘Call you me fair?’) is the rejected lover’s complaint that Dembetrius no longer loves her, but loves Hermia. But it’s worth noting some things about the complaint: it’s good-natured – there’s no “You bitch – why have you stolen my man!”. Instead she compliments Hermia , and seeks to emulate her to win Demetrius back.
- In the same scene, alone after Hermia and Lysander have exited, she has a longer speech (starting, “How happy some o’er other some can be!”) in which she starts with the same complaint “I’m as fair as Hermia, but Demetrius doesn’t think so”). Then follow some comments on Love (it’s blind; it’s hasty; it’s often beguiled) before Helena let’s the cat out of the bag – she’s going to tell Demetrius that Hermia and Lysander plan to run away to the forest. While this is handy for the plot, it also shows that Helena is content to betray a confidence with Hermia in the hopes of winning more time with Demetrius.
- The next time we see Helena is in A2S1, and she is with the man she loves, Demetrius. It’s not a pretty sight. Read Helena’s speeches in Parts and Cues format. Demetrius does not treat Helena well, but she responds spaniel-like. As she says herself, “The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.” She’s not going to win Demetrius like this. Sure enough, Demetrius becomes harsher and harsher, and eventually leaves, with Helena following on behind.
- In the next scene, Helena is still chaisng Demetrius. He leaves her and she has a speech where she again compares herself unfavourably with Hermia. Read her lines in Parts and Cues. She then wakes Lysander and, due to Oberon’s flower juice, thinks he is in love with Helena. She thinks that Lysander is mocking her.
- A3S2 is the biggest scene for the four lovers in the play. Helena has well over 100 lines. Both men are now ‘in love’ with her, and Hermia becomes more than a little upset. Helena continues to think they’re all making fun of her. Read the scene in Highlight text format for the fun of this scene.
- Helena has two more lines in A4S1 when she finds she has recovered Demtrius’ love, and that’s it. Nothing more to say in A4S2 or A5. Nor does Hermia. And Lysander and Demetrius only have 24 lines between them in these scenes. Curious.
The scenes above should help you to come to a view about Helena’s character, which may well be different to mine. We hope that this exploration will help you to create a convincing character for Helena.
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