The Masochist in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream
Helena Depersonalized
Mini-essay written by Elizabeth Brunner, 1995,  for English 339 at Cal Poly under Professor Steven Marx

       At age sixteen, I threw myself wholeheartedly into the irrational pursuit of Donny Evans, swim team captain and country club lifeguard. I did his homework, cleaned his room, mailed him poems, and offered as much flesh as I dared. If the suburbs can create such sexual angst, imagine the lust stirred by moonlight, fairies, and a warm midsummer night. In  Shakespeare's comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream, Helena represents the frenzy of young love when fueled by rejection and driven to masochistic extremes.
       As the lovers sink deeper into the fantasy world of starlit woods, the Greek virtue of moderation disappears. Emotions intensify to a melodramatic pitch. Helena, in particular, plunges to a primitive and desperate level of passion. She pleads for attention from the "hardhearted adamant" Demetrius (II. i. 195). Teenage vulnerability, virginal desire, and an adolescent crush combine with the romance of an unobtainable object. Demetrius' hostility only strengthens Helena's willingness to degrade herself. 
      Shakespeare chooses language of pain and humiliation to express Helena's longing. Cruelty increases her sexual need: "The more you beat me, I will fawn on you" (II. i. 203). The anquish of unreturned love seems worse than a physical blow. With self esteem shattered, Helena will accept any affirmation of her existence in the shadow of vibrant Hermia. Lynn Chancer explains the psychological dynamic: "the masochist keeps searching, hoping, pursuing, looking outward toward the sadist for the approval and recognition she or he would dearly love to feel from within" (Chancer 66). Without a strong ego, Helena accepts any response from Demetrius and clings to his expressed hatred.
       Helena cries, "Use me but as your Spaniel, spurn me, strike me,/ Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,/ Unworthy as I am, to follow you" (II. i. 205-6). Helena offers herself as household pet and whipping post. She exchanges dignity for the chance to trot after Demetrius like an eager puppy. Her proposal comes strikingly close to modern sado-masochistic pornography. Sexologist G.W. Levi Kamel describes the S&M game of "kennel discipline" with submissives "licking the master's boots, being led around on a leash, wearing a dog collar, and even being forced to eat from a dog bowl ..." (Kamel 165). Already reduced to chasing her loved one through the forest, Helena's romantic aspirations become distorted: "What worser place can I beg in your love ­/ And yet a place of high respect with me ­/ Than to be uséd as you use your dog?" (II. i. 208-210).
        Helena's desire to be a domesticated animal contrasts with Bottom's transformation into an ass. Although Bottom never consents to Puck's magical intervention, the donkey head gives him temporary command over fairy slaves. Helena seeks only to be the unwanted dog on the opposite end of the power scale. The encyclopedic guide to S&M practices, Different Loving, interprets, "If submissives relish the feeling of giving up control, the person who enjoys depersonalization fantasies takes this powerlessness further. He experiences the most radical transformation possible: He becomes less than human, even nonhuman" (Brame 152). Helena would sacrifice her identity just to be in the presence of Demetrius. Her perversion of love backfires; Demetrius remains sickened by her image.
      Magical flowers eventually save Helena from the end of a leash. Ironically, the barking of hounds accompanies Demetrius' proclamation of love. Although merriment ends the play, I'm left wondering about the prospects for happiness between a needy, submissive woman and a husband seduced by   poppy juice. Shakespeare's allusion to masochistic images requires healing beyond Puck's capacity.
Works Cited
Brame, Gloria G., William D Brame, and Jon  Jacobs.  Different Loving: An Exploration of the World of Sexual Dominance and Submission.  New York: Villard Books, 1993.
Chancer, Lynn S. Sadomasochism in Everyday Life. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1992.
Kamel, G.W. Levi. "Leathersex: Meaningful Aspects of Gay Sadomasochism." S and M: Studies in Sado-masochism.  Ed. Thomas Weinberg and G. W. Levi Kamel.  Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1983.

Author: Elizabeth Howell Brunner
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