Helena and Hermia and Homoeroticism

In Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, he plays with and examines multiple different forms of ‘normal’ heterosexual relationships. The ‘mischievous-ness’ aspect, so celebrated of the work, places different male and female characters together under a love juice. Characters continue to change the objects of their desires throughout the play, under the guise of the juice, forcing the viewer to accept different partners, thus allowing for the possibility of homoeroticism. The rigid gender hierarchy present in Shakespeare’s time and play leads to a sexual hierarchy as well. Same sex relations were not permitted, yet the play does have moments of ambiguity.

Hermia and Helena are both two “conventionally” feminine characters, as Valerie Traub explains in her work, The (In)Significance of ‘Lesbian’ Desire in Early Modern England. However, although both characters desire, and are desired openly by men, there does exist ambiguous references to a homoerotic relationship between the two. Hermia and Helena are connected because of a love trapezoid, and a longstanding friendship. Both females are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to attain their hearts desires, pushing aside social boundaries for example with Hermia and Lysander’s attempt at elopement.

The change in their relationship begins with the advent of the magic juice, with Lysander now pining for Helena. Hermia, angry and upset speaks a monologue, seemingly admonishing Hermia, which could potentially be read as desiring Hermia—passionately pleading for a “union in partition”(2.3.210). In this same speech she explains the true nature of their friendship, reminding Hermia of the “counsel that [they] have shared”(3.2.198). Continuing, the language of Helena changes. She compares their friendship to that of a natural thing—a stem of berries. Their friendship is in fact so close; they have grown together as one. Valerie Traub even envisions this speech as Hermia reflecting upon their first sexual intimate encounter together.

However, Shakespeare does not seem to be presenting a straightforward love story between two females. He rather creates the potential within the dynamic of Helena and Hermia. Reading their relationship through a hyper sexualized lens allows for the potential homoeroticism to appear. The two are intimate friends who share lovers due to circumstance. However, this reading only speaks to Helena’s love for Hermia, it does not address the potential for unrequited love.

A second scholar, Douglas E. Green, does see a desire from both females. He pinpoints the moment where Hermia’s “reluctance to sleep with or even next to the man,” (380) with whom she is about to marry demonstrates a lack of heterosexual desire. Furthermore, for Green, Hermia’s intimacy with Helena as demonstrated in Helena’s description of their friendship proves the potential for her to love Helena over Lysander.

Midsummer Night’s Dream: Critical Essays, edited by Dorothea Kehler

The (In)Significance of ‘Lesbian’ Desire in Early Modern England, Valerie Traub