Demetrius and Helena in the wood

Act 2 Scene 1 – Key Scene

In this scene, Oberon makes himself invisible so he can overhear a heated, and at times nasty, argument between Helena and Demetrius who are in the woods chasing Hermia and Lysander.

Take a look at an extract from this scene. Using the following steps, remember to look at it line by line and if you’re looking at the scene for the first time don’t worry if you don’t understand everything at once.

  • Look
    Take a look at the scene. Who has the most lines? Are they using prose or verse? Actors at the RSC often put the language into their own words to help them understand what they are saying. We’ve added some definitions (in black), questions (in red) and paraphrased some sections (in blue) to help with this. You can click on the text that is highlighted for extra guidance.
    I love thee not, therefore pursue me not.
    Where is Lysander and fair Hermia?
    The one I’ll slay, the other slayeth me.
    Thou told’st me they were stolen into this wood;
    And here am I,
    and wood within this wood,
    Because I cannot meet my Hermia.
    Hence, get thee gone, and follow me no more.

    In some versions this line is slightly different, and uses the word ‘stay’ instead of ‘slay’. How does this change the meaning? Demetrius claims that he will 'stay' or stop Lysander but that Hermia stops or 'stays' him. How does the meaning of the word change when he is referring to Lysander as opposed to Hermia and do you think it is different to using the word 'slay'? Whichever word is used, this is a play on words which expresses the effect of Demetrius' unrequited love for Hermia. Why do you think Shakespeare uses these words to describe this emotion?

    You told me they had come into these woods. Now I’m here -

    Made mad or angry.

    In the woods because I cannot find Hermia.

    You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant;
    But yet you draw not iron, for my heart
    Is true as steel.
    Leave you your power to draw,
    And I shall have no power to follow you.

    A magnet.

    Helena uses different metals – iron and steel – to describe both Demetrius and herself. What does this suggest about both of their wills? Why might she compare them in this way?

    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?

    Attract or tempt.

    Demetrius uses several questions to challenge Helena to think about her actions and why she has followed him. How do you think he feels in this moment?

    And even for that do I love thee 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.

    Here Helena repeats that she is Demetrius’ ‘spaniel’ and talks about how she will continue to follow and ‘fawn’ on him no matter what he does. Why do you think she uses animal imagery here?

    Tempt not too much the hatred of my spirit,
    For I am sick when I do look on thee.
    And I am sick when I look not on you.

    Helena uses the same language as Demetrius here to describe how she feels when she sees him. Why do you think Shakespeare does this and how does it make you feel towards both characters?

    You do impeach your modesty too much,
    To leave the city and commit yourself
    Into the hands of one that loves you not.

    Call into question.

    What is Demetrius threatening here? How does Helena react? How would you play this in a production?

    (Text edited for rehearsals by Erica Whyman)
  • Listen
    Read the scene aloud and watch the actors talking about it and trying different approaches to Helena's character. Are there any words or lines that really stand out?
  • Watch
    Take a look at the actors performing this scene. How do the characters come across in this version?
  • Imagine
    Explore some images from past versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the RSC. Which sets and staging choices for the scene feel right to you?