I am of a small subset of Shakespeare fans who, even with all other obstacles out of the way, know that we will never be able to play our favorite characters in the flesh, mainly because of the context of these characters. Let me explain: With Midsummer Night’s Dream, I will never be Helena because I am short.
There is literally a line describing Hermia where she is called a “little acorn,” because she’s meant to be short, while Helena is a “maypole” because she’s tall and thin. So, alas, I will never be Helena, but that doesn’t mean my love for her has to stop because I cannot play her in a production. All that being said, there is a beauty to Helena that I think is often passed over in order to make her a more comedic character.
In the span of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Helena and Hermia are women who are in love with their respective men. Hermia is in love with Lysander, but Demetrius, who Helena is in love with, is also in love with Hermia. Everyone just really wants to fall in love with the tiny girl (When can I actually be Hermia, though?), but for Helena, it’s painful to watch. She’s constantly dragged along by Demetrius, and he uses her emotions to his own advantage.
Sure, they end up together in the end, but the reason I love Helena is that, in the midst of this “light-hearted” play, she’s a tragic character who just wants to be taken seriously in her love and has to have some magic trick happen to her for any of that to even begin to be her life.
I think part of why I love Helena so much is that I remember one of my college professors describing her as a “dopey” character. Why? Because she had a crush on a man. And he’s not the only one with that opinion! Frequently, she’s a character who is often diminished because of her feelings for Demetrius, and I honestly hate that interpretation.
So often, we praise men for doing things for the woman they love, but when Helena, who is a strong character who happens to have feelings for someone, tries her best to get Demetrius to love her in return, she’s suddenly seen as sad and pathetic. Think about the number of romantic comedies we all love to watch and how, when a man pines for a woman, he’s held up as this great romantic at heart.
Now, apply that same philosophy to Helena. She’s just a woman in love, and I love her and her ability to hold herself up, stand up for herself, and refuse to be tormented by Demetrius, even if it takes magic for her to finally speak her mind against how he treats her.
Helena might be a character that many brush off, but to me, she’s one of the best characters in Shakespeare’s canon, and I love her.
(image: 20th Century Fox)
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