Helena unloads on Hermia, questioning her best friend, whom she believes is in cahoots with Lysander and Demetrius in trying to humiliate her. Let me set the scene.
Lysander and Hermia have stolen away into the forest of Athens to elope in hope of evading the harsh Athenian law. This law gives Hermia’s father the right to choose her husband and the man he wishes her to marry is Demetrius.
Prior to this, Demetrius had ‘showered’ Helena in ‘oaths of love’ but has since turned his affections towards Hermia, much to Helena’s dismay. Hoping to win back his love, Helena tells Demetrius of Lysander and Hermia’s plan to elope and Demetrius immediately pursues them into the forest with Helena hot on his heels.
Once in the forest, all hell breaks loose when Puck, a powerful spirit and the servant of Oberon places ‘love juice’ on the eyes of both Lysander and Demetrius who unwittingly fall madly in love with Helena. Both men begin to fight for Helena’s affection enraging, Hermia.
Still with me? Good! If not, there are many synopsis to help clarify this wild four-way relationship online.
So here we are… The four lovers, deep in the forest, Lysander and Demetrius trying desperately to prove that they both love Helena more than the other when Hermia stumbles into the chaos. Hermia is as baffled as Helena is, not understanding why both mens affections have turned so rapidly.
In this moment, Helena ’discovers’ that they are all taking the piss out of her. She believes they are making fun of her and uses the opportunity to question the history of her friendship with Hermia.
Language and Thought Breakdown
The first thing I noticed about this monologue was the stark shift in Helena’s thought and beat changes. She opens with a short, rather comedic accusation and then turns completely into a rapid questioning Hermia about their relationship. The language becomes poetic, image filled and laden with metaphor. To describe their friendship, the repetition of the idea of being ‘two bodies but a single person’ is present throughout the entire second half.
Something else I noticed about this speech was the amount of rhetorical questions. It almost feels as if Helena is in utter disbelief at what is happening. It could also indicate to an actor that Helena is genuinely confused and wanting answers. I would always encourage an actor to genuinely ask any question on the page and genuinely expect an answer to that question. Shakespeare made it a question for a reason, so lean into it!
Let’s break down the text into thought and beat changes to see if any other clues on character and the story pop out.
Thought Change: /
Beat Change: Space
Feminine Ending: (F)
[FULL TEXT] Helena: Lo, she is one of this confederacy!
Lo, she is one of this confederacy! /
Now I perceive they have conjoin’d all three
To fashion this false sport, in spite of me. /
Injurious Hermia! / Most ungrateful maid! /
Have you conspired, have you with these contrived
To bait me with this foul derision? /
Is all the counsel that we two have shared, /
The sisters’ vows, the hours that we have spent, /
When we have chid the hasty-footed time
For parting us, /—O, is it all forgot? /
All school-days’ friendship, childhood innocence? /
We, Hermia, like two artificial gods, /
Have with our needles created both one flower, /
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion, /
Both warbling of one song, both in one key, /
As if our hands, our sides, voices and minds, /
Had been incorporate. /
So we grew together, / (This finishes the previous line, but a new beat)
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted, /
But yet a union in partition; /
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem; /
So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart; /
Two of the first, like coats in heraldry, /
Due but to one and crowned with one crest. /
And will you rent our ancient love asunder, /
To join with men in scorning your poor friend? /
It is not friendly, ’tis not maidenly: /
Our sex, as well as I, may chide you for it, /
Though I alone do feel the injury. /
So, she is part of this alliance!
Now I get it, all three of them have joined together
To contrive this ugly game to hurt me.
Oh, unjust Hermia, most ungrateful lady!
Have you planned, have you orchestrated with these guys
To torment me with this contemptuous mockery?
Are all the innermost thoughts and feelings we’ve shared,
The vows of sisterhood, all the hours we’ve spent,
When we would scold time,
For making us part so soon, Oh have you forgotten all that?
All of our childhood school days, our childhood innocence?
We, Hermia, like two gods, skilled in the art of creation,
Have with needle and thread sewn together one flower,
From one piece of cloth, sitting on the same cushion,
Both singing the same song, in perfect harmony
As if our hands, our bodies, our voices and minds
Had been one indivisible body.
We grew like this together,
Like a double cherry, with two seemingly separate bodies,
However united despite being divided;
Like two lovely berries created together on one stem,
With two apparently separate bodies but a single heart.
Two of us of one body like a double a coat of arms,
Due to different husbands but who come under the same crest.
And will you tear our ancient love apart?
To join with these two men to humiliate your poor friend?
A friend wouldn’t do that, a lady wouldn’t do that,
All women, not just me, would be angry at you for doing it,
Although I’m the only one who’s suffering.
Unfamiliar Words & Phrases
Bait: Goad, provoke, humiliate, torment.
Spite: To vex or to upset.
Foul Derision: Ugly mockery or ridicule
Counsel: Inner most thoughts or advice.
Artificial gods: Skilled in the art of creation.
Incorporate: Indivisible, one body.
Coats in heraldry: A coat of arms had a shield on it, often with two major colours, yet coming under a single crown and crest which sit at the top of the coat of arms.
Crowned with one crest: Allocated to one person. Coats of arms were allocated to a specific individual and in this context, Helena is possibly referring to a single husband.
What is at the heart of this piece? Helena isn’t simply upset that she has lost the love of a man who once loved her or even because she believes people are trying to humiliate her. More accurately, Helena is mourning what could be the loss of her best friend. That sounds utterly tragic, and it is!
This is such a wonderful piece for many reasons. While at the beginning it may feel like Helena is going to simply tear shreds off Hermia, she uses logic to question the history of the entire friendship with loads of rhetorical questions. It’s a very powerful argument and in the context of the play, comedy needs moments like this to breathe. Moments of truth. This is a great example of Shakespeare taking a time out in the middle of an otherwise chaotic scene to really explore what it might be like to lose your best friend.
There may be a temptation to simply play for laughs in a comedy. Something to remember is that, the higher the stakes, the more tragic a situation may be. These stakes are about as high as any friendship can get. In many ways this is a heartbreaking piece as it feels like it could be the end of the friendship and not just a friendship but a deep feeling of sisterhood. The repetition of the idea of growing up ‘having once been one’ speaks to a much deeper level of emotional connection.
Here’s the tricky part…having said all that; it is the job of the actor to keep the ball in the air energetically and keep the play moving forward. Find the moments of comedy within the piece and keep using the rhythm of the language to power forward. Remember, the opposite is true of tragic stakes also – the higher the stakes, the higher the level of comedy. Good luck!