Washington Allston (c. 1779-1843), an American artist, drew inspiration for this painting from the play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play is an entertaining fusion of ancient Greek mythology, fairy folklore, and medieval chivalric tales, all masterfully woven together by William Shakespeare (c. 1564 [?] – 1616). Allston’s subjects for this painting—Hermia and Helena—were close friends whose friendship was put to the test when they were written into one of Shakespeare’s complicated love stories. Curiously, no physical, visually-shown scene of Hermia and Helena’s friendship was acted out in the play. Instead, Shakespeare had the two characters reminisce to each other about picturesque scenes of their friendship. In one conversation from the play, Helena said the following to Hermia:
“Is all the counsel that we two have shared,
The sister’s vows, the hours that we have spent,
When we have chid the hasty-footed time
For parting us—O, is all forgot?
All school days friendship, childhood innocence?
We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,
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. So we grew together,
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,
But yet an union in partition;
Two lovely berries molded on one stem;
So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart;
Two of the first, like coats in heraldry,
Due but to one, and crowned with one crest.”
(William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3, Scene 2)
Hermia and Helena’s friendship, unsurprisingly, became complicated as the play and its plot unfolded. Shakespeare cruelly made Helena fall in love with a man named Demetrius, who was in love with Hermia, but she was in love with another man named Lysander. This rollercoaster of emotion took place in Athens, where King Theseus of Athens and Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons (transformed by Shakespeare into a duke and a duchess) were about to get married.
Theseus complicated events by arranging—on penalty of death—for Hermia to be wed to Demetrius, even though the intended bride did not consent to the marriage. This prompted unhappy Hermia to run away from Athens with her lover, Lysander; but the runaways were followed by Demetrius, who was in turn followed by Helena. Finally, fairies suddenly become involved in the drama, spraying magical love potions in every direction and causing a great deal of chaos and foolishness. Nevertheless, the potions and hormones eventually stabilized and the complicated love story safely came to a happy conclusion, with Hermia and Lysander ultimately being able to marry, whereas Demetrius finally reciprocated Helena’s affection. In the end of the play, the three couples—Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, and Hippolyta and Theseus—celebrated their weddings together, and hopefully, in the aftermath, Hermia and Helena were able to repair their strained friendship.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The edition used here is the Wolfgang Clemen and Sylvan Barnet version (Signet Classic/New American Library, 1963, 1964).