Character Analysis of Helena and Demetrius

Understanding Shakespeare's Couple in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

Helena and Demetrius entangled with Hermia and Lysander

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William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" tells of four young Athenian lovers—Helena, Demetrius, Hermia, and Lysander—and their mixed-up love affairs, aided and complicated by the actions of fairies.

Helena

When Helena is first introduced, she demonstrates her insecurities about her looks and her jealousy toward her friend Hermia, who has unwittingly stolen the affections of Demetrius from her.

Helena wants to be more like Hermia to win back Demetrius’ heart. Hers is the harder love story to swallow, as Demetrius is in effect drugged by the fairies to be in love with her, but she accepts it all the same. Her insecurity leads her to accuse Hermia of mocking her when both Demetrius and Lysander are in love with Hermia:

"Lo, she is one of this confederacy. / Now I perceive they have conjoined all three / To fashion this false sport in spite of me. / Injurious Hermia, most ungrateful maid, / Have you conspired, have you with these contrived / To bait me with foul derision."

Helena demeans herself in chasing after Demetrius even when he scorns her, but this demonstrates her constant love for him. It also allows the audience to accept the idea that Demetrius was drugged to be in love with her. We are more amenable to the idea that she would be happy just to have the chance to be together with him, whatever the circumstances.

However, when Demetrius says he loves her, she understandably thinks he is mocking her; he has fallen out of love with her once before, so there was a risk this could happen again. But the story ends happily with Demetrius and Helena in love, and the audience is asked to be happy with that.

We are urged by the fairy Puck to consider the play as a dream, and in a dream, we don’t consider the whys and wherefores of what happens. Similarly, the audience can accept that all the characters are happy by the end of the story.

Demetrius

Demetrius is Egeus’ chosen suitor for his daughter Hermia. Demetrius loves Hermia, but Hermia is not interested in him. He once was betrothed to Hermia’s best friend, Helena, who still loves him. When Helena tells Demetrius that Hermia has eloped with Lysander, he decides to follow Hermia into the forest. He intends to kill Lysander, but how this will encourage Hermia to love him is unclear: “Where is Lysander, and fair Hermia? The one I’ll slay, the other slayeth me.”

Demetrius’ treatment of Helena is harsh; he is rude to her and leaves her in no doubt that he is no longer interested in her: “For I am sick when I do look on thee,” he says.

However, he poses a thinly veiled threat that he might take advantage of her while she is alone with him in the forest, and he urges her to have more self-respect:

"You do impeach your modesty too much / To leave the city and commit yourself / Into the hands of one that loves you not, / To trust the opportunity of night / And the ill counsel of a desert place / With the rich worth of your virginity."

Helena says that she trusts him and knows that he is virtuous and he would not take advantage. Unfortunately, Demetrius is willing to leave Helena to the “wild beasts” rather than protect her to achieve his own ends. This doesn't demonstrate his best qualities, and, as a result, his fate is more palatable to the audience as he succumbs to the influence of magic and is made to love someone he's not interested in.

Under the influence of Puck’s magic, Demetrius pursues Helena, saying:

"Lysander, keep thy Hermia. I will none. / If e’er I loved her, all that love is gone. / My heart to her but as guest-wise sojourned / And now to Helena is it home returned, / There to remain."

As the audience, we have to hope that these words are genuine and we can revel in the couple’s happiness forever after.