I’ll say it, and I don’t give a hoot who hears me: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the most delightful Shakespeare play. There it is. You heard it here first, from an eighteen-year old who, before this year, had only read Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar for school.
I can respect the language in any Shakespeare play. The man was a marvelous connoisseur of the English language. However, I’ve never been so immersed in one of his works before. This play threw me onto a rollercoaster ride. I knew I loved this play when I was in public, having my dinner and studying, and I came across the argument catastrophe in the forest between the four lovers.
“Get you gone, you dwarf!” says Lysander, and I gasp out loud and look around at all the other people enjoying their sushi, wondering if anyone understands just how infuriating this young man is. No one understood my horror. But I finally understood the power of William Shakespeare. I was transported to the audience of the 16th century, gasping and laughing and crying with and for these characters. The man was a genius! And this certain play is just. Hilarious. Where else can you find an elegant, beautiful fairy queen admit to her king, “Methought I was enamored of an ass” (4.1.76)? Where else can you fall in love with a delightfully imbecilic overachiever who wants so desperately to be a lion (and every other part in the play) that he cries, “I will aggravate my voice so that I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove” (1.2.74-75)? I’ll wait.
But there was one problem in this delightful little comedy. One little bruise on this peach that left a sad taste in my mouth. Her name was Helena.
Shakespeare threw a curve ball into his comedy. Bottom the Weaver was a character with a similar purpose to Helena—he was a relatable goofball. The audience could laugh at Bottom and themselves simultaneously, and leave the theater more humble than they came.
However, it’s difficult to laugh at Helena. She alone is the character to inspire tears in the audience during this masterpiece. The young lady is strong and beautiful. Her love for Demetrius is entirely unspoiled throughout the whole of the play.
“It is not night when I do see your face,
Therefore I think I am not in the night;
Nor doth this wood lack worlds of company,
For you, in my respect, are all the world.
Then how can it be said I am alone
When all the world is here to look on me?” (2.1.220-226)
Isn’t it beautiful? The girl is smitten and true to the sentiment, to her love, during five acts of turbulence.
But Helena’s hope is quickly draining as the plot furthers, because this unfailing love of hers is also unrequited. Demetrius is a cruel young man focused on a woman that does not care for him. To Helena he is heartless.
“Do I entice you? Do I speak you fair?
Or rather do I not in plainest truth
Tell you I do not nor I cannot love you?” (2.1.199-201)
Perhaps the unrequited love from your youth wasn’t quite as wounding, but we can all recognize and sympathize with the fall of Helena’s heart here. She’s an incredibly relatable character, but she’s a rather tragic character to relate to. We begin to believe ourselves just as “ugly as a bear” (2.2.100) as our beloved Helena while she wanders muddy and forgotten through the forest.
But then, Oberon. Here is where Shakespeare shows his Christian side. This is the redeeming character for our tragic Helena.
While Helena is being torn apart by Demetrius’ sharp words, the fairy king is watching. He sees the entire exchange, and by the time Demetrius deserts her, Oberon shows a very tender affection for the girl. He goes so far as to make her a promise.
“Fare thee well, nymph. Ere he do leave this grove
Thou shalt fly him, and he shall seek thy love.” (2.1.245-246)
This fairy king values the underdog of this story. More than that, he can recognize the unfailing love Helena has for this young man, and Oberon wishes to encourage it, this human characteristic that will be the same thing to inspire Puck to declare, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” (3.2.115). Please, reader, don’t miss this. Oberon calls this pathetic, heartsick girl “nymph.” Nymphs were often the victims of satyrs in old Greek mythology. They were the enticing presences that often fled from eager lustful creatures. Then, the promise. It’s clear as a bell: the language of Oberon’s line gives us a hint that Helena has reason to hope. The fairy king is flipping the script for her.
Though she believes she’s alone, Oberon sees her. Though she believes her case is hopeless, Oberon makes her a promise. Then he begins working behind the scenes for her, to make his promise come true. Sound familiar? Our very own El Roi is depicted through Shakespeare’s fairy king. And He is depicted on behalf of the most tragic, least confident of the four lovers. He is depicted for those of us who see Helena more like a mirror than a character on a page or a stage.
Now, let’s skip the terrible muck and mix-up that happened right after Oberon orders Puck to find “A sweet Athenian lady…in love with a disdainful youth” (2.2.260-261). However, don’t forget that it happened.
Let’s pick back up at our happy ending, our strange, inexplicable happy ending. This is another incredible Christian Easter egg. By Oberon’s magic, Helena has her Demetrius. The “disdainful youth” from Act II is the only one that leaves the forest enchanted. The audience has a bit of a hitch in their hearts. Why does Helena need magic for her true love to see the value she has? Yet all is set right by Oberon’s spell. We can hardly say that we would prefer Demetrius walk in freedom of mind and continue breaking Helena’s poor heart.
Sound familiar? Have you ever seen a heart change by the power of Christ? Does it not happen as if by magic? Does it not seem like a dream dreamt by multiple people at once? Yet the man is made right, transformed into a new creation. Therefore, like Helena, we are tempted to call this changed brother or sister, “Mine own, and not mine own” (4.1.191). Helena didn’t do a thing to change Demetrius herself. Neither did Demetrius! It was a third party, a backstage deity that saw and cared for our underdog, Helena.
Helena is a Christian’s hope in a world with a higher power.