When I argued for Hippolyta as the character who “spoke” to me, I selected Helena and Puck as my second and third choices. I’m not sure that any of us have quite addressed Ernst’s original idea of personally connecting with A Midsummer Night’s Dream characters, but I focused on Hippolyta as the most haunting, a nearly silent commentator on attitudes and action. Meanwhile, I cited Puck because I, Gilbert Powell Findlay, once won the part through open audition in competition with Richard (“Thornbirds”) Chamberlain (I didn’t mention that the director was so discouraged by this that she cancelled the production and substituted a Noel Coward play), and I cited Helena because I remember a wonderful B. Iden Payne production at Ashland in which the tall, blond Helena lisped. Well, I admit that is pretty glib.
However, I would still make cases for Helena and Puck. Writing in Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster divides characters into flat and round. Flat characters are called “humorous” in the 17th century, and Ben Jonson’s plays are categorized as Comedy of Humours. In their purest form, flat characters are constructed around a single idea or quality. Really flat character can be expressed in one sentence; they say or do their characteristic thing each time they appear. Comedy is susceptible to “flat” characters, whose characteristic illustrates some folly, foible or self-deception, easily recognized by the audience’s emotional eye. (Forster, Aspects 67-8) though Shakespeare was probably incapable of writing such a limited character. Well, Dogberry, Holofernes, Leontes or maybe Paroles. In Midsummer Night's Dream, maybe Demetrius and Bottom, despite Bottom’s bottomless dream appear, do their predictable turn, and exit unchanged, as one expects of flat characters.
Helena certainly enters as a stock character: a maiden obsessively in love with a young man who scorns her. She “dotes, devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry,” the heartsick cast-off mistress of Demetrius, “this spotted and inconstant man.” There is testimony that she has more than a schoolgirl crush: “Demetrius, I’ll avouch it to his head,/ Made love to Nedar’s daughter, Helena,/ And won her soul;” (I.i,106-110), though “made love” is certainly less carnal than our current usage. Thus, she is set up to be “flat,” the fourth factor in the Hermia/ Lysander/ Demetrius triangle, a object of pity or derision. It is rather sad that Shakespeare’s culture and ours are tempted to find such a vulnerable young woman, emotionally obsessed, yet unrequited, an easy target for comic derision—there but for the grace of God…?
Her school friend, the bold and rebellious Hermia, confides in her about plans to elope with Lysander in order to escape Athens’s draconian law of death or cloistered imprisonment if she rejects her father’s demand that she marry Demetrius, and predictably, though imprudently, the emotionally addled Helena tries to sow chaos by ratting to Demetrius, so that he might know of Hermia’s “betrayal” and return to the lovelorn Helena. This doesn’t work, of course, as Demetrius pursues the lovers into the wood, followed by the now-distraught Helena, upon whom Demetrius heaps abuse: “I love thee not; therefore pursue me not…. Hence get thee gone, and follow me no more.” Helena is true to her obsession: “You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant,/ But yet you draw not iron, for my heart/ Is true as steel.” (II.i.188, 194, 195-97) But this devotion goes beyond the silly weakness of a self-pitying young woman:
“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.
What worser place can I beg in your love
(And yet a place of high respect with me)
Than to be used as you use your dog?” (II.i.203-210)
Helena proposes, notes Hugh Richmond, an Ovidian transformation, equating a pathological state of mind with subhuman forms of existence (not unlike Bottom transformed into an ass). Helena so accepts her “flat’ characteristics, this extension is intolerable, absolutely perverse in her impulse to debase herself. Helena is beyond smitten; she proposes sadomasochism. Demetrius answers in kind (or “unkind”)”:
“For I am sick when I do look on you…
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….
If you follow me, do not believe
But I shall do thee mischief in the wood.”
Shakespeare again extends comedy to an edge fraught with danger. The potential “reward” for Helena’s emotional folly is rape. What fools these mortals be, indeed. And that seems farther than a comic flat character can be allowed to go.
But all four lovers have penetrated into the green wood, into Nature, into the fairy world, and all are soon caught up in Oberon and Puck’s love-in-idleness magic potion as they sleep [a little voice in me wants to offer an aside that this is less magic and more adolescent shallowness of affection, but I’ll get on with what I’m doing, for now.] On waking, first Lysander, then Demetrius finds his passion turned toward Helena, and they make extravagant love to her: “O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!/ To what, my love, shall I compare thine eyne?” [oh, for a rhyme!] or “Helena…whom I do love, and will do till my death.”
But here is the moment I find Helena transcends “flat” comic business. Despite suddenly having the two most eligible bachelors in hot pursuit, her common sense tells her that this can’t be sincere, and thus it must be a conspiracy to mock her own vulnerability to love [do you remember a despicable Neil La Bute film, In the Company of Men, in which two businessmen, in misogynistic vengeance, decide to seduce and destroy a lonely deaf secretary?]. Reasonably, she blames Hermia for conspiring in this plot, and she makes a touching appeal in the name of friendship and even female solidarity—“sisters’ vows.” This confrontation devolves into a delicious cat fight—“though she be but little, she is fierce,” yet Helena is much more rational, more deeply feeling, than one might expect of an unrequited lovesick maiden. Thus, after undergoing this painful recognition of herself disconnected from the “passions” expressed by the interchangeable Athenian young men, she achieves self-awareness at last.
At the “nuptial hour,” she is rewarded with Demetrius after all (though I believe she deserves better), and it is interesting that Demetrius is the only Athenian who is left “juiced” by Puck’s potion (I am indebted to my ex-student Karley Stoltz for this verb). My take on that is Demetrius is too self-centered to know his own heart, and so nature conspires to let him do the right thing. Thus, Helena grows, asserts, and acquiesces to assure a harmonious world. Helena, in growing from love-sick folly, through reasoned clear-sightedness, has transcended her definition of love itself:
“Love can transpose to form and dignity,
Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind;
And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind,
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgment taste." (I.i.233-236)
And so, soon, to Puck.
A Bully Pulpit for Shakespeare
9 hours ago