Helena’s kink: Jillian Keenan on A Midsummer Night’s Dream

“The more you beat me, I will fawn on you”

This discussion is based on the first chapter of Jillian Keenan’s book Sex with Shakespeare (2016). A very substantial extract from that chapter can be read on the Slate magazine website, which is handy if you don’t have the book immediately available.

One night, as she sat in the Omani desert, wearing a long black abaya over her cartoon duck pajamas, and with just a goat for company, Jillian Keenan experienced a revelation about Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play is, she says

Shakespeare’s most joyful exploration of sensuality and the infinite variety of sex. Its world is sex uncensored, joyful, and diverse. I could find a huge spectrum of sexualities reflected in its characters … [But] Midsummer isn’t just a play about sexual awakening and sexual exploration. It is, at its core, a play that grapples with questions about sexual freedom, self-determination, and consent.

The problem, for Keenan, had been that it might not offer acceptable answers to all of those questions. That has been a problem for me too, one I dealt with by largely ignoring the play, until I read Keenan’s chapter on it. It has been one of my least favourite of Shakespeare’s plays since I saw it in a production by Tomás Mac Anna in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre over 40 years ago. That was the only time I watched a full performance of the play — and I realized, while rereading it as preparation for this newsletter, that I had also only ever read it once before now.

It’s a comedy, but in many places the humour seems unnecessarily cruel and pointless. Characters are ridiculed for their station in life, their ignorance of dramatic conventions, their susceptibility to love potions and other magic, and their lack of self-awareness.

The play is mainly concerned with two pairs of (actual or would-be) lovers. Demetrius wants to marry Hermia, who is, however, in love with Lysander. Lysander returns her love and wishes to marry her. However, Demetrius has the approval of Hermia’s father, Egeus, who threatens to take her life — literally if it comes to it, but otherwise by confining her permanently to a convent — if she will not accept his choice of suitor. Before resolving to marry Hermia, Demetrius had dallied with Helena, who is now besotted with him.

For Keenan, the main problem with the play had always been its portrayal of Helena. She comes across (and has often been played) as a pathetic, pleading doormat with no self-respect. When we first see her and Demetrius together, in the first scene of Act 2, he is saying “I love thee not, therefore pursue me not … Hence, get thee gone, and follow me no more.” But Helena insists that she has no choice but to follow him. When Demetrius tells her that he cannot love her, Helena responds with a shocking declaration of self-contempt:

And even for that do I love you the more.
I am your spaniel, and Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.
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.
What worser place can I beg in your love
(And yet a place of high respect with me)
Than to be usèd as you use your dog?

Though she had read and watched the play many times, Keenan now saw something new in her imaginative reenactment. Her insight was to see that this speech doesn’t have to be understood (or played) as self-abasement. It actually fits the play better as an assertion of Helena’s desire. When she asks Demetrius to “strike me”, she doesn’t add, even implicitly, “if you must: I can tolerate it”. She is asking him for what she wants. Maybe, Keenan realized, Helena is kinky.

If she is, we then have to reexamine Demetrius’s response to her pursuit of him, and her protestations of love. He seems to be repelled, but perhaps what he recoils from are not merely the unwanted attentions of a former lover. Keenan believes that Demetrius is terrified by his own response to Helena’s display of submission:

Coming to terms with the details of our sexual identities is hard for everyone … This process is often even more difficult for sadists. I can’t imagine how scary and confusing it must feel to realize, in the early stages of sexual development, that you long to “hurt” the people you desire. Many sadists have told me that, at first, their fantasies terrified them.

As evidence for Demetrius’s disturbed and conflicted state of mind, Keenan relies on the irregularity of his verse, looking closely at the third line in this passage:

Do I entice you? Do I speak you fair?
Or rather do I not in plainest truth
Tell you I do not, nor I cannot, love you?

The first two of these lines are regular, the second almost perfectly so, but that regularity breaks down in the third. Keenan sees this, though she doesn’t explain it very well. She summarizes the irregularity by saying that the line has “one extra syllable”. We’ll come to the significance of the extra syllable, but there are some other points to be noted before that.

  \   x  x  \  x    \  x  \  x     \    x  
Tell you I do not, nor I cannot, love you?

The first syllable of the line is stressed. The reversal of stresses in the first two syllables of a line is a widely used, minor variation in English verse (it can also be seen in the first of these three) and is barely noticeable. If we read the remainder of the line according to the usual rules, we get stresses on “do”, “nor”, “can” and “love”. Given that the statement is a denial of love, it seems striking that neither of the “not”s is emphasized. The same is true of the “I”s. These are all significant words: ordinarily we might expect at least some of them to take a share of the stress. Instead, we have a line that draws the reader’s attention to the very thing it purports to deny.

What should we make of “nor”, the stressed syllable at the centre of the line? Though it confirms the sense of “not”, it is not, like it, an important word, but merely a conjunction. It seems to me that some of its weight gets redistributed to the “I” immediately after it. In a sense the stresses up to that point have been evened out.

The final stress in the line falls on “love”. Then there’s that hypermetrical “you”, like an afterthought. It’s as if Demetrius lost track of what he was saying, blurted out the admission that he is incapable of love, remembered who he was speaking to and tried to claw back the admission by limiting it to his former lover.

If we pay attention to the rhythm as well as to the bare, literal meaning of the words, this line suggests that Demetrius believes that he cannot love (anybody). That could be why he transferred his attentions and his affections to Hermia, believing that the goodwill of Egeus might advance him in life. If he can’t have love, he might as well enjoy the material benefits of an advantageous marriage. But if Keenan is right, it may be that Demetrius feels that he “cannot” love, not because he is cold, hard-hearted or unfeeling, but because the only way he can express love is by inflicting pain and/or exercising dominance, and that realization frightens him.

There’s another point at which Keenan bases her argument on a line’s eleventh, unstressed syllable. In the passage quoted above, beginning “And even for that do I love you the more”, she argues that “as her speech progresses, Helena’s verse becomes more regular. She’s gaining power and rhythm as she speaks”. In support of this, she suggests that the first line of the passage is hesitant, uncertain; that Helena is only at this point deciding that she is ready to tell Demetrius what she really desires. The problem with this argument is that Helena’s speech is not increasingly regular: it’s regular the whole way through, from the first line.

If, as I think entirely possible, the uninterrupted flow of her speech shows that Helena is confident and determined, it seems that she had already arrived at her confidence and determination before she makes the startling demand that Demetrius treat her as his spaniel. This is how Keenan reads the line:

… to make his verse perfect, Shakespeare only had to remove the word the from the first line. Then it would be “and even for that do I love you more” — perfect iambic pentameter. By including that unnecessary three-letter word, Shakespeare forced a weak ending.

I can’t agree. Keenan is reading “even” as two syllables. If she were right, the stresses in the line would fall on “ev[en]” “for” “do” “love” and a kind of elided “th’more”.

 x   \ x  \    x   \ x   \   x   \    x
And even for that do I love you the more.

This is clumsy to read and would be very awkward in performance. “For” sounds stilted when emphasized in this way, and “do” is an auxiliary verb which would normally be skipped over. If “more” is genuinely hypermetrical then the final stress must land on “the” (which, on Keenan’s argument, is unnecessary to the sense). Let’s look, instead, at what happens if we treat “even” as a monosyllable: “And ev’n for that do I love you the more.” Now the stressed syllables are “ev’n”, “that”, “I”, “you” and “more”.

 x    \   x    \   x \   x   \   x    \
And ev’n for that do I love you the more.

During the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (and later) the monosyllabic use of “even” was extremely frequent — to the point where authorship attribution studies have sometimes determined which joint author wrote a particular passage according to which contraction it contains: “ev’n” or “e’en”.

Fortunately, Keenan’s interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream doesn’t depend on her reading of this one line. It might be dramatically more effective for an actor playing Helena to hesitate, and appear to come to a resolution, before launching into “I am your spaniel, and Demetrius, / The more you beat me I will fawn on you.” Perhaps that’s what happened in the original performances. There is no evidence for that in the text. But it is one of my core, fundamental and fervent beliefs that any dramatic performance must and should contain many things for which there is no evidence in the text. (That’s something I’ll probably have more to say about when I write about Doctor Faustus and, I hope, some of the plays of Thomas Middleton.)

Keenan has shown that, even if Helena doesn’t want Demetrius literally to beat her and spurn her like a dog, she knows that they are about to enter dangerous territory and she is determined (well before he is) to go there. That makes the play much more palatable to me, even if I still have reservations about fairies dropping magic potion into the eyes of unsuspecting sleepers.