My next column for The Sunday Guardian.
Since Valentine’s Day has just passed, I feel obliged to write about love; but in the charged and troubling atmosphere of romantic and sexual advances that we live and work in today, I thought perhaps I should write about pursuit instead.
The most stubborn lover in Shakespeare’s canon is Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play whose plot is driven almost purely by a series of pursuits. Helena pursues Demetrius, Demetrius pursues Hermia, Lysander and Hermia love each other; then, Lysander pursues Helena, Demetrius switches from a pursuit of Hermia to a pursuit of Helena, and Hermia pursues Lysander. The play concludes when there are no further pursuits – when Hermia and Lysander return to a state of mutual desire and when Helena’s pursuit of Demetrius is finally reciprocated, although induced artificially.
Helena’s urgent, insistent passion for Demetrius, though, is disquieting, her mood always reflecting in her choice of words and rhyme scheme. In the beginning, Helena is adoring and Demetrius is indifferent. When Helena is alone, she soliloquises beautifully of her love. But when she actually meets him, her language is altered: she ceases to rhyme effortlessly; her language is charged, passionate; she is not meditative or even wistful as she was earlier; she becomes forceful, reckless, more pathetic. Her reasoning, which only induced pity when she woefully expressed love and sorrow in her soliloquy, goes a step further when this quality of desperation is added to it.
The fact that she has ceased to rhyme works for her: when rhyme has left her, reason has joined her. Her argument is strong: she turns the tables on Demetrius and blames him for drawing her towards him rather than herself for blindly following – it is your fault for making me chase you, and not mine for chasing you. Her rhetoric, though, is clever: we no longer see Helena as the victim of unrequited love, but as the victim of cruelty. Swiftly, she places a bargaining chip: Hermia’s whereabouts in return for Demetrius’s affection.
But things take a darker turn as Helena’s love turns slavish – at one point, she offers to be nothing more than Demetrius’ dog. At her weakest moment, Helena is driven to her strongest and most persuasive argument: that she cannot help being in love with Demetrius, implying that this whole thing is entirely Demetrius’s fault. As a pursuer, Helena is convincing and articulate on the one hand and desperate and pitiable on the other. Her language, however, is always rich and full. When anyone else pursues – say, when Lysander pursues Helena – the language of pursuit is abrupt, almost crude. The poetry is not elegant like Helena’s, it is rife with rhetorical questions, charmless imagery and obvious metaphors, never as fluid as Helena’s, never as inventive. When Lysander pursues, he is childish; when Demetrius pursues, he is lewd; and when Hermia pursues, she is trite. Helena, above everyone else, riddles and woos with exquisite grace.
But this is the way of sexual predators. They bargain for sexual favours. They blame victims for drawing them. Their rhetoric is often both beautiful and persuasive, their urgent violence is a sign of the truth of their emotion. They deify the very feelings that drive them to violence: it is born of love, you see, and how can love be wrong? The objects of their affection may spurn them, but they are wrong to do so; more likely, they are simply saying no while signalling yes.
Demetrius minces no words in making his feelings clear to Helena. His language is clear-cut and direct: he uses no imagery or metaphors to put his point forth to Helena; more importantly, he uses statements without loopholes – no conditional clauses, no room for possibility. He is unkind, but he also gives her no false hope. Throughout, though, he seems weaker than Helena in that he needs to run from her to get her to leave him alone. ‘Run when you will,’ says Helena to Demetrius, almost as though she is warning him: no matter where he goes, she will continue to chase, thus setting the terms of her pursuit: her only term is that she will never stop.
Thankfully, our notions of romance have matured from pursuit to agreement; we don’t chase very much and we know that we shouldn’t. In Demetrius’s place, we grope for ways and laws to protect us from the ferocity of another’s passion. And in Helena’s place, we, at least those of us with broader views of love, seek help. Best of all, when we are told that he’s just not that into us, we understand, we walk away. At least we should.