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“Is all the counsel that we two have shared,
The sisters’ vows, the hours that we have spent,
When we have chid the hasty-footed time
For parting us,–O, is it all forgot?
All school-days’ friendship, childhood innocence?” (Shakespeare Act 3, Scene 2)
The above mentioned quotation is adapted from William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3, Scene 2. Helena speaks the words to Hermia. The scene is set in Athens.
The scene divulges the heightened parody presented by Shakespeare where there is bafflement and confusion among the young lovers. The characters in the scene are Demetrius. Lysander, Hermia, and Helena. Actually, Helena loves Demetrius who loves Hermia who loves Lysander. But the foolhardy intervention of the fairy jester Puck who unwittingly drops the love potion on both Lysander and Demetrius.
When Lysander confesses his (influenced) love for Helena, she refuses to believe him and thinks that he is teasing her. She feels the same way when Demetrius confesses (again influenced) love for her. The confusion reaches its epitome as Hermia enters the scene and expresses her bafflement when Lysander says that he does not love her anymore. The scene sets the stage for confusion in and bickering among the young friends.
Shakespearean comedies are often characterized by the creation of confusion, suspicion, fights, and eventual reconciliation. This may occur between married couples, lovers, and friends. In the above passage, Shakespeare elaborates the arising confusion between two close friends.
Helena feels that Hermia is party to the trick being played by her other friends to insult her as the former expresses her astonishment at Lysander’s altered expression of affection. Therefore, this quotation is an extract from the speech of Helena where she accuses Hermia of conspiring with the men to insult her and reminds the latter of their close bonding and friendship.
Helena makes use of a number of figurative speeches and comparisons to demonstrate the strong friendship that the two women hold. The first part of the speech is accusation of Hermia for conspiring against her as she says, “Lo, she is one of this confideracy!” (Shakespeare Act 3, Scene 2) She expresses her thoughts as she is convinced that the three of her friends have conspired against her to inflict such pain and insult upon her.
She holds Hermia for forsaking their friendship to be party to such jest as she states, “Injurious Hermia! Most ungrateful maid!” Helena is most hurt as she thinks Hermia could be part of such trick as they have been childhood friends, sharing vows of everlasting bond. They have spent a lot of time together and beseech her to be on her side and not on that of the men.
She asks Hermia if all the time they had spent together was intended “For parting us”. Helena’s anger turns to Hermia who she perceives to be her best friends and this betrayal as “foul derision” and is conceived by as the worst form of betrayal.
The beginning and the end of the speech stresses on “you” and “me” defining an opposition, the central section of the speech emphasized of the omen being one. The speech, though speaks of the single soul of the two women, does not use a singular pronoun. Instead of using “we” to describe their oneness, the speech recurrently uses “we two”, “us”, “our”, and “both” (Shakespeare Act 3, Scene 2). Therefore the main idea of the speech lays in the vagueness of the pronoun “we”.
Helena’s recounting of the trickery of Demetrius and Lysander, she never mentions either of the two by name. In the beginning of the speech she addresses them as “they… all three” and then in the end she refers to them using a demonstrative pronoun “these”. Later, though she becomes more specific in her speech as she draws connection between the two women as she says that only the women matter.
Helena reminds Hermia of not only the time they spent together but also of the conversation they had. She uses “all” thrice as she describes what the women have shared together. She uses the word “counsel” in describing what the women shared. They, like young lovers, broke their vows and ended their friendship. As she also described the activities like singing, sewing, stitching, they did together; Helena says that though they were one in doing the activity as was their body, mind, and soul.
Helena compares their friendship to that of “two artificial gods,” which is an irony as she uses “gods” instead of goddesses as it conveys the patriarchal societal belief that their friendship is more superior by imparting the character of male divinities.
The repeated use of the word “one” stresses on the oneness of their soul as Helena emphasizes:
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“Have with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key,
As if our hands, our sides, voices and minds,
Had been incorporate.” (Shakespeare Act 3, Scene 2)
This indicates the oneness of their being and their togetherness as friends. The girls like “two artificial god” made “one” flower, worked on “one” sampler, while sitting on “one” cushion, and singing “one” song in “one” key. The women at once active and passive the next moment grew out to resemble each other.
This connectedness between the friends is stressed further by the dramatist as Helena compares them with “a double cherry” that apparently looks apart but is connected at the stem. Again Helena makes repetitive use of “one” as she stresses on her friendship with Hermia and the togetherness of their soul.
Clearly Helena is keen on stressing their oneness. But still she cannot comment on their oneness without stressing on their separateness. This is done by usage of the pronoun “we” which can imply both “one”, “two”, “union”, and/or “partition”. As to stress on their present separateness “we” assumes to become “you and I” – a plural pronoun.
Helena says, “But yet an union in partition” meaning that the cherries are different yet together at the stem. This is an oxymoron as there are two juxtaposing words, “union” and “partition”, used at the same time to demonstrate the difference and similarities there exist between the friends.
She asks her friend if she, Hermia, would join in the joke of two men and forget their “ancient” love. Helena reproaches Hermia for being unfriendly and unkindly in an unwomanly act in scorning her with the two men of which she is the one who is only hurt.
A drastic change in the relationship between Hermia and Helena due to the use of the love potion is observed through this speech of Helena. The speech represents the fissure that the mischievous spirits created in the love of two friends who completely lost trust and love in each other. The last line of Helena’s speech emphasises the need of existence of a female solidarity between the two women but is lost as Helena’s world falls apart with the trick of the fairies.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. NA: Classic Books Company, 1895. Print.