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Be careful of what you wish for, especially if the desire is for the ever-so-delicate and sensitive matter of love. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare is a comedy about abundant love, where certain people love other certain people. The play also involves the all-too-common phenomena of unrequited love: people who are loved but do not love their lover in return. Ultimately, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, love is passed around to different individuals, in different ways, and the love fluctuates capriciously between several individuals as it shifts. As to be expected in any love story, and as introduced at the beginning of the play, there are unloved individuals among four of the main characters (Demetrius, Lysander, Helena, and Hermia). For example, towards the end of Act 1, Scene 1, Helena recites an entire soliloquy about dwelling on and grieving over the fact that the one whom she loves, Demetrius, does not love her back and instead loves Hermia. Even though Helena is as pretty as Hermia, and Demetrius once pledged his love to Helena, Demetrius no longer acknowledges her and only has eyes for Hermia (who, in turn, loves Lysander). Helena portrays how unloved and lovesick she is through her soliloquy. Later in the play, Oberon, a fairy king, further complicates matters for Helena, after getting into a dispute with Titania, his queen. Oberon wants this Indian prince, whom Titania brought back after blessing Theseus’s and Hippolyta’s marriage, to be knighted, but Titania rejects his proposal. Oberon, angry and determined to get his way, attempts to do so by sending Puck, his servant, to trick Titania into falling in love with Bottom, a man with the head of an ass, with his goal of making fun of Titania so that she will be forced to relent. In sum, a catastrophe ensues, as there is a major shift of love between Hermia, Demetrius, Lysander, and Helena. In the end, the point is proved: love cannot be forced without consequences, no matter how much one desires to be loved.
The play commences with a “love square.” This “love square” consists of Hermia, Demetrius, Lysander, and Helena. Hermia and Lysander love each other, and Demetrius loves Hermia. However, Hermia does not love Demetrius, who she was meant to marry through the desire of her father, Egeus. Then, as explained, there is Helena, who loves Demetrius, but Demetrius already loves Hermia. Therefore, Helena is left unloved and lovesick, and her feelings are powerfully elicited through her soliloquy occurring at the conclusion of Act 1, Scene 1, as demonstrated in such quotes: “How happy some o’er other some can be!/ Through Athens I am thought as fair as she./ But what of that?/ Demetrius thinks not so”. In addition to being lovesick, Helena is also very jealous of Hermia. She is envious of the fact that Demetrius is loving someone who she suggests is as just as “fair” as she. Additionally, Helena wants Demetrius’s love so badly that she even plots to expose her friend Hermia’s plans to win over Demetrius, as explained: “I will go tell him of fair Hermia’s flight/ Then to the wood will he tomorrow night/ Pursue her; and for this intelligence”. Overall, Helena is desperate for Demetrius’s love, as her thoughts cannot stop lingering over the man.
Obviously, this desire for love is causing Helena immense pain; she is emotionally distraught over the fact that the one whom she loves does not love her back. One would assume that in order for Helena’s pain to come to a halt, she would have to have her desire fulfilled, that she would need to have Demetrius love her. Although this would be preferable to Helena, to have her desires fulfilled instantly ultimately would be a mistake, as later in the play, several consequences occur due to the fact that the desires of Helena are fulfilled.
At the beginning of Act 2, Scene 2, the tables have been turned, and it seems that it is to Helena’s benefit. As explained before, Oberon, angry at his queen Titania for rejecting his request to knight the Indian boy, sends his servant, Puck, to spread juice on her eyelids while she sleeps; after witnessing Helena’s unrequited love, Oberon also instructs Puck to spread the juice on the eyelids of “a disdainful youth”, whom Oberon intends to be Demetrius. However, Oberon never specifies whom Puck should spread the juice on, and so Puck assumes that the disdainful youth is Lysander, not Demetrius, and he spreads the juice on
Lysander’s eyelids. Lysander awakens, only to start immediately declaring his love not for Hermia, but for Helena, exclaiming, “And run through fire I will for thy sweet sake./. Transparent Helena! Nature shows art,/ That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart./ Where is Demetrius? O, how fit a word/ Is that vile name to perish on my sword!”. Puck realizes he made a mistake, as both Demetrius and Lysander are now in love with Helena. And so, the tables have turned: at first, Helena starts out as unloved, but by this point in the play she is loved not only by Lysander but also by Demetrius, whom she had wanted to love her throughout the entire play. Helena seems to have her issue resolved; Demetrius finally loves her. However, inversely, matters worsen. Since now Lysander and Demetrius both love Helena, they naturally compete over her. In fact, Lysander and Demetrius plan a duel, only to be stopped and confused by Puck himself as they each get lost in the forest. Not only that, but as they each start “wooing” Helena (as they are now in love with her), instead of accepting their love, Helena feels offended, thinking that they are both mocking her. One would expect Helena to embrace this change of heart, since Demetrius, whom she loves, especially loves her, and his love was what was thought to be the cure to her pain, to her lovesickness. Conversely, this change of heart unexpectedly gives her more pain instead of healing, as Helena feels far more embarrassment than she does love. She knows the love she is receiving is not true.
Even with her desire to be loved seemingly fulfilled, Helena is truly only given more pain. She begins the play as unloved, then somehow reaches a point where she becomes “overloved,” as one may describe the new situation. It would seem irrational that Helena would get what she wanted yet still have even more problems than with what she began. The reason behind what appears to be this irrationality is that all of the love Helena receives from Lysander and Demetrious is artificial. None of her lovers voluntarily love her, they are both forced to love her through the magic of juice from a flower. She desires for Demetrius’s love, and instead of his true, voluntary love, she receives his forced, fake love; instead of this love healing her pain of being unloved, this love only worsens the pain, it rubs salt in Helena’s open wound as she feels the men are mocking her.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream starts with a quad of lovers, where some are loved, some are unloved. Among these four is an individual with a simple desire: to be loved by one man. However, as Helena learns, love itself is not simple. Love, in the sense of an emotional connection and sexual relationship between two individuals, can be a very complex and very fragile matter that needs to be built on trust and must be authentic. One cannot merely desire and receive love too easily. Through magic, the one whom Helena loves, Demetrius, is forced into infatuation with her. At this point, one would suppose that Helena would be better off now that Demetrius finally loves her back, but instead, several consequences – including misunderstandings, lost friendships, and a potential duel – ensue because the love is not real. A Midsummer Night’s Dream not only tells a story, but also reinforces simple lessons regarding this most delicate topic of love, the most important of which is that love indeed cannot be forced without severe consequences, and added that a natural, voluntary love is more fruitful than an artificial, involuntary love. Even though Helena seems to get what she desires, even though one would surmise that she would receive this love joyfully, in reality, although she does in fact receive Demetrius’s love, it is not the love she needs, it is a love that does more malice than benefit. What Helena needs is true, genuine love born of real feelings instead of forced love. Since she receives the forced, inauthentic love, she faces the consequences that come with forced love. In short, her soliloquy does not accurately reflect what she needs. In the end, forced love brings about more negative consequences than positive, and it is only true love that satisfies the heart, the mind, and the soul.
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