My name is Kate Van Riper, and I am interning with Philippa Kelly, Cal Shakes’ Resident Dramaturg, for the month of May. I am a senior at Head-Royce School in Oakland, and planning to study English Literature in college.
Shakespeare often explores the nature of close female friendships in his comedies, like that of Helena and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He captures their friendship at a pivotal moment: the girls are entering young adulthood and discovering how new love might complicate their long-standing relationship.
As my own senior year of high school comes to an end, it’s been strange to realize that my habits and traditions with my friends will shift next year as we all disperse to college. Also, especially as girls, we are part of a culture that encourages competition and comparisons to other women. Helena and Hermia deeply love each other—and yet, as their lives become more complicated, they find themselves pitted against each other.
In Midsummer, Helena already feels “lesser than” Hermia at the start of the action. Though she knows that technically, “through Athens [she is] thought as fair as [Hermia]” (I.i.233), her self-esteem is gutted by Demetrius, who has withdrawn his affection from her and dumped it, unwelcomed, at Hermia’s door. Comparisons between the girls’ physical appearance are a recurring topic in their conversations. For example, while arguing with Helena in the forest, Hermia reveals her insecurity about her height, implying that her stature unfavorably compares to Helena’s.
After Puck’s misguided manipulation of the four lovers, Helena is taken aback when both Lysander, Hermia’s boyfriend, and Demetrius, declare their love for her instead of Hermia. Helena is convinced that they are playing an elaborate joke on her, and offers them rebukes: “never did mockers waste more idle breath” (III.ii.171). Thinking that Hermia is in on the joke, Helena shifts from anger to deep hurt and rage—she’s now betrayed by both her childhood and romantic loves. Helena desperately pleads with Hermia: “Will you rent our ancient love asunder,/To join with men in scorning your poor friend?/Our sex, as well as I, may chide you for it,/Though I alone do feel the injury.” (III.ii.220-224). Note how their friendship is “ancient,” as distinct from their relationships with men; Helena appeals to an idea of sisterhood and true loyalty to someone she’s been “twinned” with since childhood.
Though their relationship is tumultuous, Shakespeare makes clear the fiercely embedded kinship between Helena and Hermia. In the midst of her anger at Hermia for supposedly deceiving her, Helena recalls their childhood together:
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 grow together,
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,
But yet an union in partition. (III.ii.208-215)
To Helena, their bond has a tangibility that rivals the embraces of her beloved Demetrius; it is a stem forever connecting the two women, and to break it would be to break the bonds of nature. Helena’s words make the conflict between herself and Hermia painful as well as humorous for the audience. Of course, Helena knows exactly how to provoke Hermia about her height, since she has probably heard her complain about it often! And of course the betrayal of one’s other half would hurt more, or at least in a different way, than betrayal by a lover.
I find it so interesting that through the Hermia/Helena friendship, Shakespeare lends his female leads a depth of character that is lacking in their male counterparts. We get to see Helena and Hermia’s shortcomings as friends, their shared childhood, their deepest insecurities, and their tenderness towards one another. And it sometimes amazes me how deeply their dynamic resonates with my own experience as a young woman leaving high school, moving across the country (perhaps a “forest” of sorts?) and entering the adult world.