A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first Shakespeare play I ever watched. Reflecting on it now I see that this early experience of fairies, mystical forests and young love, of which I am sure I understood very little at the time, was instrumental in starting my future obsession with Shakespeare. Throughout my acting training the play would frequently resurface and was in fact the final production I worked on whilst at drama school. I played the King of the Fairies, Oberon, and it was a highlight of my training to finish on a play that had first kicked off my passion in acting and Shakespeare. But today we are looking at another character and a particularly iconic monologue from Helena that concludes Act 1 Scene 1. For anyone who has ever been involved in an audition panel you have no doubt seen and heard the monologue, a lot! But though for many of us this monologue is etched in our minds, and often a little overdone, today I want to try to unpack it’s secrets and see if we can bring this very well known monologue to life in a new way.
How to understand a Shakespeare monologue?
There are really only two steps:
#1 Understand the context. Read the play and understand the broader story. From here we can understand our place in the story and how this particular monologue contributes to that overall picture.
#2 Understand the thoughts. We must break down the monologue into thoughts. Following the thoughts and clearly understanding them puts you ahead of 90% of the Shakespeare monologues I see. Often Shakespeare’s monologues are generalised, singsongy performances that lack sense and clarity.
#1 Understanding the context of Helena’s Monologue (Act 1 Scene 2)
Like most of Shakespeare’s monologues the core message or intention is very simple. Helena is distraught, and frustrated that the guy she likes: “Demetrius” is now in love with her best friend “Hermia”. By all accounts Helena is “as fair” as Hermia, and the whole thing makes no sense! If you have ever been in love and then found out that the person you love is into your best friend, it sucks. What makes it worse is that he used to “hail down oaths” that he was in love with Helena. Whether you are in 1589 or 2020, this hurts, and is also very annoying!
What has just happened?
This monologue occurs early on in the play, but we do get a lot of information to help us to get a gage of where Helena is at. So first of all from the opening scene we get a sense of where this love rectangle is at. Lysander and Hermia are in love, but Herma’s father Egeus doesn’t want a bar of it. He seems to have a man crush on Demetrius. Demetrius wants Hermia, but Hermia is all about the Lysander. Helena, is loveless, and the man she wants seems set on Hermia. Wow, these Grecians knew how to fall in love!
That first scene helps us get a sense of what is happening, but it is the scene immediately preceding the monologue that is most helpful. Helena enters and shares her frustration with Hermia and Lysander, saying that she wishes she could be more like her friend so that Demetrius will fall in love with her. Hermia and Lysander comfort the love sick Helena and reveal their plan to run away. This they promise will resolve all her issues, and make everything go back to normal. The two leave and Helena uses this monologue to process everything that has happened so far…
#2 Understanding Helena’s thoughts.
So we know what has just happened and the state that poor Helena is in. We know that she has just spoken with Hermia and Lysander and is annoyed that Demetrius has fallen for Hermia. So now let’s break down the thoughts.
Here is the original text. I have added spaces at what I consider the major beat changes and a / where I see a clear thought change. This is somewhat subjective, but I believe if you can clearly understand these shifts you will be well on your way.
Note: even though I have added quite a few thought changes many thoughts are still part of the same argument, I merely want you to find the slightly different image or intention behind each thought.
Beat change: space
Thought change: /
How happy some o’er other some can be!/
Through Athens I am thought as fair as she./
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so;
He will not know what all but he do know;
And as he errs, doting on Hermia’s eyes,
So I, admiring of his qualities./
Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
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 judgement taste:
Wings, and no eyes, figure unheedy haste:/
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled./
As waggish boys in game themselves forswear,
So the boy Love is perjured everywhere;/
For ere Demetrius look’d on Hermia’s eyne,
He hail’d down oaths that he was only mine;
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt./
I will go tell him of fair Hermia’s flight:
Then to the wood will he tomorrow night,
Pursue her; and for this intelligence
If I have thanks, it is a dear expense./
But herein mean I to enrich my pain,
To have his sight thither and back again.
Why does Helena tell Demetrius about the plan? (Troubleshooting)
So before we dive into our next section I have to bring this up. In almost every Shakespeare play there is a plot point that definitely helps keep the play moving, but just doesn’t seem to make sense. I believe we find this in the final section of this monologue. Why on earth goes Helena tell Demetrius they are running away? Surely if they do runaway and get married Demetrius would be much more likely to eventually come back to Helena. I just don’t get it! However, you have to make a decision as the actor working on this monologue. Some suggestions:
The common theory is that Helena is hoping to curry favour from Demetrius. She hopes that giving this intel cause Demetrius to look on Helena more fondly. Stupid, but probably the most common explanation. Maybe her hope is that after he sees how in love Hermia and Lysander are he will be well and truly rejected and have no choice but to go back to Helena.
Another is that she hopes being alone together in the woods she can rekindle some passion with Demetrius. Again not the best idea, as we come to see very soon.
And the final possibility is that Helena is so worked up and hot headed she is just simply is not thinking it through. This could be a factor in all the theories, because we all do stupid things when we are in love. But at the end of the day it just doesn’t add up and her final words also confuse me, “But herein mean I to enrich my pain, To have his sight thither and back again.” Does she want to be in pain? These are a few areas of the monologue that aren’t simple, but you have to make decisions about.
So we have broken the monologue down into clear thoughts, but maybe those thoughts are still not making complete sense and this is when we need to get the dictionary out.
some o’er other some: some in comparison with others
holding no quantity: having no proportion (therefore unattractive)
unheedy: reckless, headstrong
forswear: swear falsely, perjure [oneself], break one’s word
dissolve: melt, liquefy
intelligence: piece of news
Modern Translation (Helena Act 1 Scene 1)
How happy some people are in comparison to others!
Throughout Athens, I am thought of as being as beautiful as Hermia. But what does that matter? Demetrius doesn’t think so. He can’t see what everyone else can see. And as he strays, lost in Hermia’s eyes, likewise I admire his beauty.
Crude and horrible things, which are of no worth, love can convert into beautiful and dignified things. Love doesn’t look with eyes, but with the mind. That’s why they paint winged Cupid blind. Love doesn’t have good judgment.
The wings and blindness of Cupid symbolise the reckless speed when falling in love. Therefore, love is thought of as a child, because he often makes the wrong choice. Just like mischievous boys who go back on their word as they play games, so too does the boy Love perjure himself everywhere. But before Demetrius saw Hermia’s eyes, he swore that he belonged only to me. Then when he felt attracted to Hermia, his passion dissolved. His promises melted down like hail in the heat.
I will go and tell Demetrius of beautiful Hermia’s plan to run away. Then he’ll got to the forest tomorrow night to follow her. And if he thanks me for this piece of news, it will all be worth it. But in this way I plan to make my pain worse, by seeing him go there and back again.
So there you have it. We have explored in detail this very popular monologue from Helena in a Midsummer Night’s Dream. If you are working on this piece for an audition or for performance I want to reiterate how vital it is to focus on meaning and understanding. If you understand the context of the character, how she feels and what she is going through, and the individual thoughts and argument of the piece, then you have nailed it! Put in the time and don’t ever say a word you don’t understand.