In the first soliloquy of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Helena talks primarily of a love that contains depth, a love that looks at who a person is, personality-wise, as opposed to nothing more than their appearance. Helena explains, “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind” (1.1.240). In the shallow culture in which Helena lives, and even in today’s society, it is difficult for people to look beyond the outer shell and follow a deeper perception. the concept of the “perfect person” is constantly drilled into people’s minds. In Helena’s day, this was through expectations taught to children from their parents. Today, this type of expectation comes mostly from the media and entertainment industries.
Helena describes love as the “admiring of his qualities” and as possessing the ability to “transpose to form and dignity” (1.1.238-240). Though this may not be a perfect definition, it is much closer to the Biblical definition as described in 1 Corinthians than most common definitions of Helena’s day. Because of the strong influence of the shallow culture in which Helena lives, she, too, finds it difficult to keep society’s pressure out of her definition of love. One of the first things she points out in her soliloquy is the fact that, “Through Athens I am thought as fair as she” (1.1.232). She then proceeds to explain how she wishes Demetrius would think she is as fair as Hermia. If Helena believes so strongly in love coming as a result of admiration of one’s personality, one must question why she loves this man who focuses merely on the appearance of women and pays no regard for who they are as a person. then, again, the number of men in her day who didn’t found their love on such superficial characteristics was probably pretty low, if not zero. Either way, Helena’s perception of love is not perfect, her thoughts are still influenced by the surrounding culture.
Helena’s interpretation of love, as a deep, powerful emotion is virtually unseen in the rest of the play. Rather, the opposite, superficial love, plagues most characters of the play. theseus, Demetrius, and Lysander constantly offer comments about females. Rather than focusing on who these women are, these comments pertain to the appearance of the women. For example, Demetrius exclaims, “O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine” (3.2.140) after looking at her for the first time after receiving the potion.
The whole concept of love in A Midsummer Night’s Dream revolves around one’s appearance. This superficial focus, though silly and worthless, fits the play well, as the society of the time in which the play is set focused mostly on one’s appearance. Men selected their wives based on appearance and status, neither of which tells really anything about the person.