Helena and Hermia’s Ugliness

Helena and Hermia’s Ugliness

  Hel.  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 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. 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1.1.226-35

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, love makes the beloved beautiful, our hearts telling our eyes what to see, and love lost makes the unloved ugly. Neither Helena nor Hermia is ugly, but each believes herself to be when her lover loses interest, for stigma is not only a stereotype we project to simplify our involvement with others whose bodies are unlike our own; it is also an aesthetic we can assume when trying to make sense of our own pain and suffering. If, according to the logic of stigma, an abnormality signifies some inferiority, the reverse is true in the romantic economy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: from the perspective of the jilted lover, unlovedness must signify ugliness, however factually incorrect this may be. Physically, Hermia is short and dark, Helena tall and fair, but both are beautiful, at least according to Helena, who insists that she is just as fair as Hermia, and that her beauty is renowned throughout Athens. Perhaps Helena’s likeness to the Renaissance ideal of female beauty is what pricked Demetrius to woo her in the first place, to pledge himself to her alone. She fell in love with him, but (for reasons that are unclear, perhaps relating to typical male prurience, perhaps to the equally typical loss of interest in the sexual partner one secures once he has secured her) Demetrius betrayed her, pursuing Hermia instead. This inexplicable rejection, and the ensuing confusion and frustration she feels, sinks Helena’s self-image to spaniel-levels, a self-loathing directed at the most readily available aspect of her self, her body, for she mistakenly believes Demetrius must have rejected her because he did not think her fair, because she is “as ugly as a bear” and “as a monster” - because she actually is not as fair as Hermia. Thus, in the woods, when both Demetrius and Lysander praise her beauty like Petrarchan sonneteers, Helena is certain they are mocking her. Meanwhile, Hermia experiences her own abandonment, like Helena before her, as stigma, as a slight against her body, specifically her height and color, she being called (by herself and others) “dwarf” and “minimus” and (by Lysander) “Ethiope” and “tawny Tartar.” What is fascinating in these lover’s quarrels is the way that they write their emotions into their bodies. If love makes the object of our affection more attractive to us, the dark side of this lover’s aesthetic is that being unloved makes ourselves uglier than we are, a self-stigmatization that is as wayward in etiology as it is catastrophic in effect.

Context

Ugliness in the Elizabethan Age
Ugliness in Shakespeare