Friday, 6 January 2012

The Young Lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Title Page of The Quarto Version of
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Who are Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius? With affections swiftly changing, who loves whom and is it possible to keep track?

There are many lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it is the foursome of Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, who dominate the plot. So, what are their connections and what happens to them in the Athenian wood?

Unrequited Love

At the beginning of the play, the romantic connections between the four, young Athenians is fairly simple, although unhappy.

Hermia and Lysander are desperately in love and wish to marry. However, there’s a problem. Hermia’s dad wants her to marry Demetirus, and Demetirus is quite keen on the idea of wedding the beautiful young Hermia.
"Relent, sweet Hermia: and, Lysander, yield/Thy crazed title to my certain right."(I.i)

Helena meanwhile, who has been best friends with Hermia since childhood, is madly in love with Demetrius. However, this passion is not returned and, in fact, he behaves in a thoroughly ungentlemanly fashion.

"I'll run from thee and hide me in the brakes,/And leave thee to the mercy of wild beasts."(II.i)


Run Away With Me

Hermia and Helena (BFFs)
Painting by Washington Allston

If she disobeys her father and refuses to marry Demetrius, Hermia is told she can look forward to life in a nunnery or….well, no life at all. So, she and Lysander quickly plan to run from Athens and marry at his aunt’s house.

Having been BFF (I believe that’s what the kids are saying these days) with Helena since they were girls, Hermia sees no harm in telling her friend about the elopement. Unfortunately, misguided Helena, in a bid to win Demetrius’ affection, tells him all about the plan.

So, while Lysander and Hermia make their way to the woods, Demetrius follows them. And Helena follows him.

"You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant;/But yet you draw not iron, for my heart/Is true as steel."(II.i)

A Little Magical Intervention

Once they make it to the woods, Helena and Demtirus are spotted by Oberon, who decides that this pathetic Athenian girl could do with a little ‘love potion’ help in winning the man of her dreams. So, he tasks his right-hand fairy, Puck, with the job.

Puck and The Fairies From
“The Works of Shakspere,
with notes by Charles Knight” (1873)
Unfortunately, unaware of what Helena and Demetrius look like, Puck finds, instead, Hermia and Lysander, who have stopped to take a nap, and places the potion into Lysander’s eyes. When Lysander wakes, who should happen to cross his path? Helena. And he instantly falls in love with her.

"Transparent Helena! Nature shows art,/That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart."(II.ii)

Helena is, perhaps unsurprisingly, completely confused by Lysander’s sudden shift in affections and believes that he is teasing her. She’s not amused by his ‘joke’, though. And neither is Hermia, when she wakes to find her beloved chasing after her best friend.

A Quick Fix

Realising Puck’s mistake, Oberon orders him to rectify the matter. So, Puck sets about putting the love potion in the right eyes this time. And it works like a charm, Demetrius falls hopelessly in love with Helena. Unfortunately, Lysander is still besotted with her, too, and the pair begin to fight over her.

Hermia thinks that Helena has captivated the two men with her "tall" feminine wiles and Helena believes that all three of them are playing a cruel joke on her. A rather delicious and very funny argument between the two girls ensues.

Oberon sees and hears this exchange, chastises Puck for his negligence and demands he puts things right. Puck does indeed set things right, by making Lysander fall in love with Hermia again and leaving Demetrius infatuated with Helena.

The four, at last all happily in love, return to Athens and, with the help of Theseus, convince Hermia’s father to let her wed Lysander. And, for the most part, what happens in the Athenian wood, stays in the Athenian wood.

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