Characters in the plays of William Shakespeare are often portrayed with a set of stereotypical personal traits such as those given to a noble king or a devious and conniving villain. Some characters reveal attributes that allow the audience to understand the character in more depth, such as the psychological struggle of revenge depicted by Othello in Othello, the Moor of Venice, and the reason behind the shrewish behaviour of Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew. One character that stands out through Shakespeare's development of her identity is Helena from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Helena's intense love for a man who does not love her, an unhealthy self-denigrating and self-loathing disposition, as well as a belief in lost unity and sisterhood with her friend Hermia creates an intimate portrayal of a woman who differs from many of Shakespeare's other characters. The role of Helena provides a tension and anxiety between the four human lovers while providing a portrayal of a female who must unconventionally woo the object of her affection as well as deal with feelings of betrayal caused by love as well as friendship.
The sisterhood between Hermia and Helena is one that has developed since early school days, providing the two women with a common bond of unity. Helena speaks of this shared childhood and innocence that cannot be disrupted while she accuses Hermia of conspiring with Lysander and Demetrius in mocking her through false affirmations of the men's love for her:
Have you conspired, have you with these contrived
To bait me with this foul derision?
[. . .] oh, is all forgot?
All schooldays' friendship, childhood innocence?
We, Hermia, like two artificial gods
Have with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key,
As if our hands, our sides, voices, and minds
Had been incorporate. So we grew together,
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,
But yet an union in partition,
Two lovely berries molded on one stem;
So, with two seeming bodies but one heart,
Two of the first, like coats in heraldry,
Due but to one and crowned with one crest.
And will you rend our ancient love asunder,
To join with men in scorning your poor friend?
It is not friendly, `tis not maidenly. (3.2.196-217)
Helena's words claim that her and Hermia used to be one despite being or seeming to be two, and it is this unity that she wishes for while being mocked. Helena chooses to speak of her and Hermia's childhood because it is a nostalgia of friendship that the men do not share with each other and as a result, Helena's pleas to her friend would not be understood if she were to speak to the men about their unity. Helena chooses to focus her speech on Hermia as she realizes that the loyalty and solidarity of their childhood has been lost for reasons that, as far as Helena in concerned, are unknown. Aggravating Helena further is the fact that both Demetrius and Lysander have declared their love for Hermia earlier in the play as well as Demetrius's declaration of his dislike towards Helena.
In the first act of the play, Hermia denies her responsibility for Demetrius's affection, saying “I frown upon him, yet he loves me still [. . . .] I give him curses, yet he gives me love” (1.1.194-196). Helena, on the other hand, tries hard to win the affection of Demetrius but recognizes his immutable distaste for her no matter how hard she tries to gain his admiration. Helena goes on to blame Hermia for being too beautiful and, though she does not say it outright, blames Demetrius's animosity toward her on what she sees as a lack of beauty, unable to compare with the fair and elegant Hermia (1.1.201). Jan H. Blits writes in the book, The Soul of Athens, that Helena believes that Hermia's fault is her beauty and thinks that “fault has nothing to do with intention. Hermia's beauty is her “fault”, regardless of her wish or intention” (38). Out of this passage, Shakespeare has created a character that is unsure of and has little confidence in her self. The audience begins to see Helena as a character with a poor personal image, which is further exposed in the portrayal of Helena's love for Demetrius.
Since Hermia's relationship with Lysander takes her away from Helena, the two lovers decide to inform Helena of their plan to elope as a means of comforting her. Helena decides to take this information and inform Demetrius, who is in love with Hermia, because Helena's love for him is so considerable that she says any thanks from Demetrius would be cherished:
I will go tell him of fair Hermia's flight.
Then to the wood will he tomorrow night
Pursue her; and for this intelligence
If I have thanks, it is a dear expense.
But herein mean I to enrich my pain,
To have his sight thither and back again. (1.1.246-51)
Helena divulges the news of Lysander and Hermia's flight in an attempt to win Demetrius's favour. The release of this information is an act of hopeful praise rather than an act of treachery on Helena's behalf. In John Weiss's book, Wit, Humor, and Shakespeare, Weiss writes that if Helena supposed “that Demetrius could prevent the flight or prevail over Hermia's repugnance, she would never have given the information to him. Her motive is entirely distinct from treachery, and is rooted in a truly feminine hope of disgusting Demetrius by showing the woman he loves running away with another man” (219). Helena's motive is to have Demetrius's despair deepened and then have him back again. Her love for Demetrius is so deep that she allows herself to frustratingly follow the man she loves even as he swears by his disfavour of her.
When Demetrius enters the forest to search for Hermia, Helena follows him and continues to do so after Demetrius declares “I love thee not; therefore pursue me not” (2.1.188). Frustrated with the perseverance of Helena, Demetrius further explains that he does nothing to encourage Helena to be attracted to him, to which Helena claims is one of the reasons that she loves him:
Do I entice you? Do I speak you fair?
Or rather do I not in plainest truth
Tell you I do not nor I cannot love you?
And even for that do I love you the more. (2.1.199-202)
The character of Helena allows herself to be treated with little respect, reflecting on the lack of respect she gives herself. She allows herself to be despised by Demetrius while sinking to a level of complete inferiority in her attempt to acquire his love. Few self-respecting women would allow, let alone encourage, a man to treat her like a dog as Helena incites Demetrius to do:
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. (2.1.203-207)
By this time it would appear as though Helena has had the fairy love juice dropped in her eyes, for she is willing to do whatever it takes, including degrading herself, to win the love of Demetrius. According to Blits, Helena is “concerned not with knowledge, but with love, not with truth, but with desire” (40), and for this reason will continue to pursue Demetrius, even up to the point, such as this, when her adoration and devotion to him lose their comedic effect and become rather disturbing for the audience. Even Demetrius's threats to Helena's virginity do not bother her, as they allow her to assert her confidence in his character, saying that she is lucky he is such a virtuous man and would not perform such a heinous deed as rape (2.1.214-220). By the end of the play it is the love juice, not Helena's perseverance, that allows Demetrius to fall in love with her. The ending of the play is bothersome to many who feel that Demetrius does not love Helena by his own free will since he is never given an antidote to release him from the spell of the love juice.
Although Demetrius is never released from the spell of the love juice, he declares that Helena and the love he has for her is his “natural taste” (4.1.173), a statement that may reflect on the fact that he was betrothed to Helena before he saw Hermia. Peter Holland, editor of The Oxford Shakespeare, notes that as a result of his engagement to Helena, he “was therefore, in English law, unable to marry Hermia in any case” (68). Once Helena has successfully received the love of Demetrius, she speaks of him as “…like a jewel / Mine own, and not mine own” (4.1.190-1). This line undeniably refers to the fact that Helena is so surprised to have Demetrius's love after all her previously failed efforts that she can hardly believe it while at the same time it may provide a hint that Helena is unsure of why he now loves her after much disapproval and is a pinch hesitant to fully procure his love. It is unlikely that Helena would suspect something as far-fetched as love juice being the cause of her newfound joy, yet it would not be surprising if she was, indeed, somewhat hesitant to receive his love with the same affection and open arms as he now receives her. In this way, the audience may see Helena as someone who has difficulty in accepting Demetrius's sincerity, especially when he is under the full power of the love juice for the first time and she chides him for mocking her. Helena is unable to accept the idea that Demetrius may truly love her because she lacks significant self-esteem and has already shaped a negative self-image.
Helena's negative self-image may be a result of comparing herself to Hermia's beauty. She is not the object of Lysander and Demetrius's affection for much of the play and speaks of how Hermia's beauty is a fault she wishes she could bear. Although it is never pointed out that Helena is unattractive, her tall and lanky build that Hermia describes as a “painted maypole” (3.2.296) is obviously not comparable to Hermia's fair and attractive features. In one soliloquy, Helena talks about her attractiveness and believes that she is like a monster in the eyes of men and envies Hermia's beauty:
Happy is Hermia, wheresoe'er she lies,
For she hath blessed and attractive eyes.
How came her eyes so bright? Not with salt tears;
If so, my eyes are oft'ner washed than hers.
No, no, I am as ugly as a bear,
For beasts that meet me run away for fear.
Therefore no marvel though Demetrius
Do, as a monster, fly my presence thus.
What wicked and dissembling glass of mine
Made me compare with Hermia's sphery eyne? (2.2.96-105)
Disliking what she sees, Helena questions her own worth and becomes even more self-doubting in her ability to attract men. In Women's Worlds in Shakespeare's Plays, Irene G. Dash writes that Helena's words and actions are “self-hatred and self-rejection, a contempt both for herself and for her fellows - the result of that continual, however subtle, reiteration of her inferiority which she eventually accepts as a fact” (83). Disbelief, anger and hurt mark her words, creating an environment ripe for self-loathing. A Midsummer Night's Dream, although a comedy, can be viewed as Helena's search for her identity and place within an atmosphere surrounded by love and could further be seen as slightly tragic until the end when she ultimately gains the love of Demetrius. Shakespeare's creation of Helena is quite different from other women because she does not follow the conventional methods of finding love and does not appreciate her personal qualities, as they are overshadowed by her lack of male companionship.
Helena's character is useful to create tension and anxiety within the play while providing an attitude toward her self-image that is not only unhealthy, but also uncommon in many of Shakespeare's plays. Helena provides the audience with a disbelief in the idea of a healthy woman being so self-deprecating even though she is kind, friendly and beautiful, albeit unlike the blessed and attractive Hermia. Furthermore, Helena deals with feelings of being betrayed by both love and friendship, although her friendship with Hermia is hindered because of her own pessimism and defeatist attitude. Throughout the play, the audience learns more about the emotions and attitudes of Helena than any other main character, allowing for an exhaustive view into Helena's mindset that unfolds throughout the play. What is more unusual about Helena is her perseverance towards wooing Demetrius. She is forced to invert the conventional scenario of men chasing women in order to obtain Demetrius's love. Jan H. Blits comments that “Demetrius forces Helena to act in a way that is scandalous for a woman, by forcing her to act like a man” (72). Audiences are able to like Helena because she is a caring and loving woman while either choosing to dislike or enjoy her nonconformist attitude towards loving the man she chooses. This play, in Shakespeare's time, could have been a stepping-stone for providing women with an example that proved that they might choose their lovers as well as act more aggressively towards their romantic goals.
A Midsummer Night's Dream affords the portrayal of Helena more completely and abundantly than many other women in William Shakespeare's plays. While providing both comic relief as well as tension and anxiety, the character of Helena is often received as problematic because of her intense self-doubting and self-denigrating behaviour. As she deals with feelings of betrayal from friendship as well as love, Helena provides a personification of one who is angry, hurt and filled with disbelief as she loses her childhood unity with Hermia and deals with animosity towards her physical features. Additionally, Helena's character has low self-esteem and little self-respect as she subjects herself to the continual hostility shown by Demetrius while allowing herself to be treated with little respect and compassion. Helena is one of Shakespeare's most fully drawn female characters whom the audience learns most about throughout the play, undoubtedly making Helena a challenging and exciting character to both perform as well as watch on stage.