‘Thou painted maypole’
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
When I give my lectures on Shakespeare I often wear my T-shirt with the quote ‘Though she be but little she is fierce.’ Being short of stature myself I like to think this applies to me.
The line is said by Helena about Hermia who indeed is little and fierce and an interesting character. Not, however, as interesting as the wonderfully, tragically, hilariously neurotic Helena.
It’s only right that Shakespeare gave Helena this, one of the best lines of all the plays, after having given her one of the worst: ‘I am your spaniel… / The more you beat me, I will fawn on you’ (Act 2:1). What kind of awful line is that?!
But, as noted, Helena is neurotic. She has zero self-esteem and is supremely envious of Hermia:
Call you me fair? That ‘fair’ again unsay.
Demetrius loves your fair: O happy fair! (Act 1.1).
She goes on to exclaim over Hermia’s beauty and the fact that Demetrius loves Hermia while she, Helena, loves Demetrius. We learn that Demetrius had in fact loved Helena until he met Hermia and in her monolog Helena astutely observes the eternal and universal, ‘Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind’ (Act 1.1).
It is then in the forest, where upon Helena’s conniving Demetrius meets her, that her ‘spaniel’ words are spoken. One cannot help but pity Demetrius who tries in vain to rid himself of the clinging love-mad lass, who in her raving of love for him once again manages to produce a line of wisdom, an observation of the gender roles of her society:
We cannot fight for love, as men may do;
We should be wooed and were not made to woo (Act 2.1).
Later comes the line even more neurotic than the spaniel line: ‘Stay, though thou kill me. Sweet Demetrius’ (Act 2.2). No, no, no, Helena!
So symptomatic of women/victims throughout the ages: a sense of worthlessness. Mourns Helena: ‘I am as ugly as a bear… a monster…’ (Act 2.2). When, only seconds later, Lysander, under Puck’s misplaced enchantment, awakes and falls in love with her she doesn’t believe it:
Wherefore was I to this keen mockery born?
When at your hands did I deserve this scorn?
Is’t not enough, is’t not enough, young man,
That I did never, no, nor never can,
Deserve a sweet look from Demetrius’ eye,
But you must flout my insufficiency? (Act 2.2)
She is astute enough to recognise that Lysander’s love for her is not true. Sadly for her she gets the reason wrong. She believes she is worthy of no man’s love. She believes that her friends merely mock her. Even her beloved Demetrius who now claims to love her:
O spite! O hell! I see you all are bent
To set against me for your merriment…
Can you not hate me, as I know you do,
But you must join in souls to mock me too? (Act 3.2)
Poor, poor Helena! How dreadful to feel this way. Amongst all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, surely Helena’s pain is as heart-rendering?
And what follows is so very funny. So awful and so funny. The four lovers hurl insults at each other. Thou cat, thou burr, you canker blossom, vixen, dwarf, thou painted maypole.
What a beautiful insult! Maypoles are, after all, beautifully flowered, a celebration of light and life.
Maybe this penetrates Helena’s psyche and gives her the oomph to flee this disastrous encounter: ‘My legs are longer though, to run away’ (Act 3.2). And run she does.
All is not yet well however. Alone in the forest, darkness again descends upon her:
O weary night, O long and tedious night,
Abate thy hours! Shine comforts from the east,
That I may back to Athens by daylight,
From these that my poor company detest;
And sleep, that sometime shuts up sorrow’s eye,
Steal me awhile from mine own company (Act 3.2).
Who has not felt such despair, alone in the dark, longing for sleep? Poor, poor Helena!
Well. We know she gets her Demetrius in the end but this is Shakespeare. All is not love and joy. There is doubt. When the four lovers awaken in the morning and Hermia notes that everything seems double, Helena replies:
And I have found Demetrius like a jewel,
Mine own and not mine own (Act 4.1).
Still undeserving. Still uncertain. But Helena’s last line is interesting. As the lovers’ eyes and minds clear they start to see those who found them. The duke. Hermia’s father. And, as Helena observes, ‘And Hippolyta’ (Act 4.1).
Not to make too big a point of this, Helena sees the Amazon queen. Maybe she draws a bit of strength from that?
Helena plays the role of many of Shakespeare’s fools, offering us nonsense sprinkled with wisdom. But Helena does it with so much more pain than the fools, such depth of feeling. Helena reaches out to us from the heart of a real, suffering person.
Shakespeare’s characters are all a part of us. Helena more than most?
William Shakespeare, the Complete Works, the RSC edition, 2007. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen.
Films seen this time:
- BBC, 1981. Director: Elijah Moshinsky. Helena: Cherith Mellor.
- Cherith Mellor as Helena is very good. Helen Mirren is always good. One of BBC’s best productions.
- 1999. Director: Michael Hoffman. Helena: Calista Flockhart.
- Flockhart as Helena is very good. https://rubyjandsmovieblog.blogspot.se/2017/07/a-midsummer-nights-dream.html
- RSC, 1996. Director: Adrian Noble. Helena: Emily Raymond.
- Raymond as Helena is very good. https://rubyjandsmovieblog.blogspot.se/2017/08/a-midsummer-nights-dream-rsc.html
- 2014.The Globe. Director: Dominic Dromgoole. Helena: Sarah MacRae. Hermia: Olivia Ross.
- An unsubtle interpretation with little of the depth of feeling the play offers, though Hermia and Helena do better at times. Otherwise it’s hammy, especially the Mechanics, especially Peter Quince, who overdoes it completely. They all shout too much, but they all have their moments as well. Flawed but entertaining and the beginning and finale are impressive.