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The Independence of Helena's Character

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In William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermia seems to be the strong woman, while Helena is seen as weak and easily dominated. In Gohlke’s article, for example, she describes the “exaggerated submission of Helena to Demetrius” (151), thereby voicing an opinion that is common throughout literary criticism. My concern, however, is with the opposite side of the coin; Helena is actually a far stronger woman than she seems upon initial observation.

Our first introduction to Helena, the pale, tall, and slender maiden, is quite in keeping with “the traditional emblem of forlorn maiden love” (Charlton 115) as she laments over Demetrius, her lost love. We quickly discover that Demetrius has begun to fancy himself in love with Hermia, Helena’s best friend, a situation which brings much woe unto Helena’s heart, as is evident when she begs of Hermia, “O, teach me how you look; and with what art/ You sway the motion of Demetrius’ heart” (155, Act I, Scene I). The extremely desperate lover is played very convincingly here, but Helena’s character comes into question before the scene is over. As Loeff puts it, “she [Helena] does show some measure of initiative when she betrays her best friend so that she can gain her own ends” (72). In her marvelous and character-revealing monologue at the conclusion of Scene I, Helena resolves that

I will go tell him of fair Hermia’s flight;

Then to the wood will he to-morrow 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 (155, Act I, Scene I).

In these lines, we clearly see that Helena is quite capable of being her own woman, making her own decisions, and taking control of her own life. Although these actions are taken for the sake of romantic happiness, they are not at all in keeping with the pitiful little love-forsaken women whom we might have previously imagined Helena to be. This is a very bold action for the woman who was just previously whining in concern to “[h]ow happy some o’er other some can be!” (155, Act I, Scene I). In risking any future trusting relationship with the woman into whose confidence she has been taken, Helena shows that she is willing to take the chance of living in a state of complete and utter friendlessness for the chance at recovering her “true love.”

A much later example of this same boldness comes in her confrontation with Hermia while the four lovers are wandering through the woods, while, “with both men claiming to love her she [Helena] becomes suspicious and suspects that they have contrived a joke at her expense” (Quennell 121). Although she fails to comprehend any of the mysterious causes for these sudden infatuations, Helena does take another huge step in becoming her own, independent person when she essentially defies all three of her companions (Hermia, Demetrius, and Lysander) and runs off on her own, uttering this final curse to Hermia:

I will not trust you, I;

Nor longer stay in your curst company.

Your hands than mine are quicker for a fray;

My legs are longer, though, to run away (165, Act III, Scene II).

As she literally runs away from her friends and into the unknown by herself, she figuratively makes her departure from the dependent life that she has been leading under the shelter of her friends and enters the world of independent life. Leoff sums up this scene quite nicely when she states that “[t]his abandonment of her initial role is a step forward toward an individual personality” (72).

A final example of Helena’s independent nature is imbedded in the wariness with which she finally accepts the love of Demetrius. As is traditional of Shakespeare’s comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream concludes with a myriad of happy marriages, but it take Helena some time to believe that Demetrius’s love for her is true. As he and Lysander fight for her favor, she insists upon believing that each are joking with her and that neither one means what he says. Before she departs, she exclaims, “To Athens will I bear my folly back,/And follow you no farther” (165, Act III, Scene II). Her experience with love has at least taught her that she must be more careful before setting her affections on any one thing or person. So, although by Act IV, Scene I, she is willing to accept the love that Demetrius offers her, she is now experienced enough “to demand effective guarantees before accepting it” (Charlton 116), finally describing their relationship by stating that she has “found Demetrius like a jewel” (168, Act IV, Scene I).

It is very simple to understand Helena as a weak and dependent character who sits around waiting for her beloved to love her back, but it is clear, upon an analytical reading of the play, that she is, in fact, the stronger woman of the two main characters.

Works Cited

Charlton, H. B. Shakespearean Comedy. London: Methuen, 1961.

Gohlke, Madelon. “‘I wooed thee with my sword’: Shakespeare’s Tragic Paradigms.” Eds. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1980. 150-70.

Leoff, Eve. William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964.

Quennell, Peter and Hamish Johnson. Who’s Who in Shakespeare. New York: William Morrow, 1973.

Shakespeare, William. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: Random House, 1975.


Charlton, H. B. Shakespearean Comedy. London: Methuen, 1961.

Godfrey, Howard. “Some puns on musical terms in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.'” Notes and Queries 40.2 (1993): 179-80.

Gohlke, Madelon. “‘I wooed thee with my sword’: Shakespeare’s Tragic Paradigms.” Eds. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1980. 150-70.

Leoff, Eve. William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964.

Quennell, Peter and Hamish Johnson. Who’s Who in Shakespeare. New York: William Morrow, 1973.

Watkins, Ronald and Jeremy Lemmon. In Shakespeare’s Playhouse: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1974.

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