Excerpted from Sex With Shakespeare: Here’s Much to Do With Pain, but More With Love, by Jillian Keenan, to be published on April 26 by William Morrow. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.
It all started with Helena. For me, she is everything. As I sat alone one night, in the middle of the Omani desert, feeling gross and broken and alone, Helena had my back. I needed a friend, and she, as best friends do, showed up.
In the desert, the faint outline of two figures appeared. It was Helena and Demetrius. They were in the middle of a fight.
No, not literally. To be clear, I don’t hallucinate Shakespeare characters (although that would be awesome). What happened that night is that I understood, for the first time, just how books interact with our lives. The characters we love become more than friends. Through them, we can pass our anxieties, questions, fears, and insecurities to an external source of strength; confront what is internal in an external forum.
Literature is a conversation. Books are walkie-talkies, not radios. That night, as I sat in the warm midnight Omani desert, I let these characters sink into my life.
I spoke to them. And they spoke back.
At first, though, Demetrius and Helena ignored me. They focused on their fight.
“I love thee not; therefore pursue me not,” Demetrius yelled at Helena. He wanted her to stop following him. She, as always, refused.
“You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant!” she shouted back.
I sighed. I always hated this part. In this scene, Helena, who loves Demetrius, follows him into a forest while he yells at her to go away. But she stays with him. I had watched Helena and Demetrius have this fight onstage a dozen times, and imagined it a hundred more. But no matter how many times I revisited this conversation, I couldn’t find a reason to like it. Why did Shakespeare include such a cold, cruel scene in this lighthearted play? It didn’t fit.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s most joyful exploration of sensuality and the infinite variety of sex. Its world is sex uncensored, joyful, and diverse. I could find a huge spectrum of sexualities reflected in its characters. I saw passionate monogamy in Hermia and Lysander, confident polyamory in Oberon and Titania, playful anthropomorphism in Titania and Bottom, and loving bisexuality or homosexuality in Oberon and Puck.
But in Helena and Demetrius, I just saw assholes. The problem was that damn scene.
From its beginning, A Midsummer Night’s Dream provokes questions about sexual consent. Does Hippolyta sincerely consent to marry Theseus, or was she kidnapped and coerced? To what extremes should Hermia go to avoid a forced marriage? When Oberon puts the fairy potion on Titania’s eyes to trick her into falling for Bottom, is that comparable to putting a date-rape drug in her drink? We should ask ourselves these questions. Midsummer isn’t just a play about sexual awakening and sexual exploration. It is, at its core, a play that grapples with questions about sexual freedom, self-determination, and consent.
Even more than that, this is a play about people who do consent.
Which brings us back to my girl Helena.
Helena isn’t an easy woman to love. She’s whiny and self-pitying. It’s hard to sympathize with her desperate fight for Demetrius, who seems so unworthy. We first hear about Helena before we see her, when Lysander reveals her romantic history with Demetrius. Lysander’s description of Helena is friendly and sweet. But her first appearance onstage is far less flattering. In fact, she’s pathetic. She whines about Demetrius, oblivious to her best friend Hermia’s far more serious plight of being forced to marry against her will. And her love of Demetrius is even worse. What kind of monster leaves his fiancée for her best friend? What kind of woman keeps chasing him, even after that betrayal?
What kind of people talk to each other this way?
“Do I entice you? Do I speak you fair?” Demetrius shouted at Helena. He ran his fingers through his hair, frustrated, and kicked the toe of his boot against a sand dune. “Or rather do I not in plainest truth tell you I do not nor I cannot love”—his voice caught in his throat, and he turned his back to Helena—“you,” he finished.
I stayed at my seat and watched them fight.
“And even for that do I love you the more,” Helena replied, wrapping her hands around her stomach. She stood there, looking at Demetrius’ back. Then she made a decision.
“I am your spaniel, and Demetrius, the more you beat me, I will fawn on you,” she said.
The starkness of those words, my least favorite line in the play, hung in the air. Demetrius looked down. I looked up.
And for the first time, perhaps, we both listened—really listened—to Helena.
“Use me but as your spaniel—spurn me, strike me, neglect me, lose me,” she said. “Only give me leave, unworthy as I am, to follow you. What worser place can I beg in your love (and yet a place of high respect with me) than to be uséd as you use your dog?”
Demetrius stood there, frozen. Then he sat down on a sand dune, his body hunched over and his forehead in the palms of his hands. He swallowed. His next words had none of the rancor of his earlier threats. Suddenly, he sounded tired and sad.
“Tempt not too much the hatred of my spirit, for I am sick when I do look on thee,” Demetrius said, unable to make eye contact.
Helena walked over to the dune and settled down next to him, the tips of her fingers sinking into the sand. “And I am sick when I look not on you,” she replied.
Demetrius looked at the ground for long seconds. Finally, he looked up and met Helena’s eyes.
“You do impeach your modesty too much, to leave the city and commit yourself into the hands of one that loves you not,” he muttered, furrowing his brow with amazement. “To trust the opportunity of night and the ill counsel of a desert place with the rich worth of your virginity.”
Helena shrugged. “Your virtue is my privilege,” she said, simply. She put her hand on Demetrius’ ankle, and, for a second, he let it rest there. Then he stood up, abruptly, and shook his head. Their détente was over. He demanded again that she leave him alone, and ran off. His outline disappeared into the desert.
I expected Helena to jump up and follow him, as she always does. But this time she didn’t. Instead, she looked over at me, acknowledging my presence for the first time, and smiled.
Then she shook her head. My breath caught in my throat.
No matter how many times I had watched Helena and Demetrius have this fight, the words had always been the same. It was always hard to watch Helena debase herself in the face of Demetrius’ obvious scorn. On paper, that scene is sad, unfunny, and doesn’t make sense within the context of the play. Taken at face value, their fight is exactly what it appears to be: Demetrius is selfish and cruel, and Helena is ridiculous and pathetic. This interpretation relies on the worst stereotypes of both genders, since it requires us to accept that men are unfeeling and inconstant in love, and that women are clingy, desperate, and lacking in self-respect. Which is why, for years, I hated that scene.
But I’d never seen it like I did that night—so soft, so honest, so compassionate. I had never before seen Demetrius’ obvious pain. I’d never seen Helena’s strength.
We tend to skim over Shakespeare’s most challenging scenes, like this one, or play them for absurd laughs, because otherwise they’re too hard to digest. We can’t confront lines like “The more you beat me, I will fawn on you” because Midsummer is a comedy, and if people were to engage with the literal or even figurative meanings of those words, it wouldn’t be funny anymore. Even worse, we gloss over lines like:
You do impeach your modesty too much,
To leave the city and commit yourself
Into the hands of one that loves you not;
To trust the opportunity of night,
And the ill counsel of a desert place,
With the rich worth of your virginity.
At face value, that’s a rape threat. How can we stomach a rape threat in a romantic comedy? If we reduce Helena to a pathetic cliché and Demetrius to a cruel player, how can we smile and be satisfied at the end when they end up together?
That interpretation is unfair to these characters. They deserve better. Demetrius is not a monster, and Helena is not a pathetic damsel in a tower, waiting for a man to climb up her hair. Her actions throughout the play prove otherwise. She’s relentless and unstoppable. She knows what she wants, and latches onto it like a lioness on the hunt. She’s not stupid, either. So why would she invite the object of her affection to “beat” and “strike” her? Why, if Helena isn’t silly, self-effacing, and desperate (an interpretation I’ve seen in too many performances), does she ask for this treatment?
Maybe it’s what she wants.
How might the possibility that Helena and Demetrius are kinky change their relationship? How might that possibility change this frustrating and challenging scene?
Look again at the first words of their exchange. Demetrius says, “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?” Already, something is wrong. We can’t take this scene at face value. From that perspective, Demetrius is just angry with Helena for following him into the forest. But there’s more at stake here. Demetrius is in genuine pain—and I can prove it.
Shakespeare wrote the majority of his verse in iambic pentameter—a poetic form in which each line has ten syllables. Those syllables break into five so-called “feet,” with two syllables per foot: an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable (ba bump / ba bump / ba bump / ba bump / ba bump). Demetrius’ first two lines—“Do I entice you? Do I speak you fair? / Or rather do I not in plainest truth”—are perfect iambic pentameter. But the third line—“Tell you I do not, nor I cannot, love you?”—isn’t. It has one extra syllable.
That might seem minor, but it’s not. Breaks in the verse form are significant in Shakespeare. They’re the clues that Shakespeare left us to understand his characters. Irregular iambic pentameter can indicate a lot of things: extreme anger, mental illness, or inebriation. But in this scene, I don’t think those possibilities fit. Demetrius isn’t drunk or mentally ill. And if Shakespeare wanted to suggest anger, I suspect he’d put the irregularity in the line “Do I entice you? Do I speak you fair?” which seems like a more appropriate place to emphasize rage. Demetrius isn’t as angry as his words suggest. In this context, I think the irregular pentameter indicates emotional turmoil or pain.
In other words, Shakespeare says that it crushes Demetrius to tell Helena that he does not—or cannot—love her.
If it’s so painful for Demetrius to treat Helena this way, he’s not just a jerk who doesn’t love her. There must be some more nuanced explanation. Something happened.
Coming to terms with the details of our sexual identities is hard for everyone. That’s especially true for people who have non-normative sexual identities. It was hard for me to accept that I’m a fetishist. I was in denial for a long time. This process is often even more difficult for sadists. I can’t imagine how scary and confusing it must feel to realize, in the early stages of sexual development, that you long to “hurt” the people you desire. Many sadists have told me that, at first, their fantasies terrified them. And in the early stages of awareness, it doesn’t necessarily help when sadists and masochists first meet. It’s overwhelming. We feed into each other, and the realization that our fantasies could become realities is the scariest thing of all.
What if this conflict explains the mystery of why Demetrius got engaged to Helena and then abruptly left her to pursue Hermia instead? What if he couldn’t confront the terrifying implications of a relationship in which both he and Helena started to become aware of some scary sexual impulses? Helena and Demetrius aren’t very old. They’re teenagers. There’s no way they’ve had enough experience to understand their sexual selves yet.
I’ve been there. Once, when I was fifteen, years before my first kiss or even my first date, I got into a playful pillow fight with my friend Dan. (Pillow fights are a common way to test the waters of rougher play.) The fight had escalated into teasing and playful threats when, abruptly, Dan grabbed a remote control and slapped it across my butt, hard, two times. We both froze.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s fine,” I replied, a bit too soon.
The rest of the afternoon was awkward, and I left not long after. The next morning, Dan emailed me.
“I’m so sorry about yesterday,” he wrote. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m such an asshole.”
Remembering that letter, my heart aches for him. Dan and I have long since lost touch, and I can’t make assumptions about his sexuality. But I can let my experience and impressions of how humans interact influence my assumptions about Demetrius. Here’s what I know: Teenagers are awkward, easily embarrassed, and scared of their sexual impulses. And I believe that when humans—especially young adults—treat each other badly, it’s often motivated by fear rather than by cruelty.
I don’t think Demetrius is cruel. I think he’s scared. I was, too.
What if his voice cracks with pain, not anger, when he tells Helena that he cannot love her? What if Helena’s response is not just shameful degradation?
And even for that do I love you 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 . . .
What if that line—“The more you beat me, I will fawn on you”—is not a silly moment of hyperbolic desperation, but rather the most honest moment in the scene? Helena’s first line in that section—“And even for that do I love you the more”—is not perfect iambic pentameter. It has one extra, unstressed, syllable. We call that a “weak ending.” (Those are also, unfortunately, known as “feminine endings.”) There’s another weak ending in the final line.
Consider this: to make his verse perfect, Shakespeare only had to remove the word the from the first line. Then it would be “and even for that do I love you more”—perfect iambic pentameter. By including that unnecessary three-letter word, Shakespeare forced a weak ending.
It’s not a coincidence. In Shakespeare, little is.
And as her speech progresses, Helena’s verse becomes more regular. She’s gaining power and rhythm as she speaks:
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love
(And yet a place of high respect with me)
Than to be uséd as you use your dog?
What if this portion of Helena’s dialogue isn’t silly self-debasement? What if it is instead the most explicit and brave declaration of sexual consent in the Shakespearean canon? Better still, what if Demetrius’ next remark isn’t a rape threat anymore?
You do impeach your modesty too much
. . .
To trust the opportunity of night, And the ill counsel of a desert place,
With the rich worth of your virginity.
There was nothing ominous about the way I’d just heard Demetrius speak those lines. He said them sincerely, amazed and confused at Helena’s willingness to take such a risk to follow him. That night, displaced from Shakespeare’s magical forest to Oman’s vast desert, Demetrius’ implication transformed even as the words remained the same. He underlined the fundamental question at the core of every sadomasochistic relationship: Demetrius asked Helena how she could trust him enough to submit herself to physical risk at his hands—and Helena assured him that she can, and does.
Isn’t this a more powerful, and more empathetic, way to explain their relationship than merely “Demetrius is mean” and “Helena is pathetic”?
Let’s listen to these characters. Try to hear them as they speak. The way Helena describes her love for Demetrius is unpalatable to a lot of people—it’s not my exact cup of tea, either, by the way—but she says it’s “a place of high respect” to her. (And after all, this is the same play in which another character declares: “I woo’d thee with my sword, and won thy love doing thee injuries.”) Let’s take Helena at her word.
Maybe Helena does want Demetrius to treat her that way. Maybe that’s what he wants, too.
Or maybe not. Maybe in Helena, and in all Shakespeare—hell, in all literature—I only see what I want to see.
But, if so, who cares? The people who crowded into the standing-room section of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre for the first performance of Midsummer weren’t academics and noblemen. There are no gatekeepers here. Shakespeare’s plays were, and are, soap operas: designed for mass appeal. We all have our own versions, and those interpretations are as valid as anyone’s. In “Hamlet: My Greatest Creation,” one of my all-time favorite essays, Norman Holland argues that the reader has as much responsibility for the creation of great literature as the author, since literature is nothing without reader response. Characters are like clouds: we all see different animals hidden in them.
Shakespeare created Helena, but I can too. My Helena is kinky. In Midsummer, she chooses the love she wants. It doesn’t matter what we think of Demetrius or whether we approve of their dynamic. Helena loves him unflinchingly, and for that she deserves our respect. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play about consent, and its message is clear: not only can we consent to sex, we can consent to love. It only demands our honesty.
In the desert, I looked up to see if Helena was still with me, and she was. I walked over to her and sat down.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote that the purpose of theater is to “hold a mirror up to nature.” But it wasn’t until I sat next to Helena that night and looked into her eyes that I felt, with a sudden jolt of recognition, that Shakespeare might be holding a mirror up to me, too.
If I could find myself reflected in Shakespeare’s world, maybe that meant I wasn’t as unnatural as I feared.
“I thought I was the only one,” I told Helena. “I’ve been lonely for a while.”
Helena winked. “The story shall be changed,” she told me.
Then she jumped up, dusted the sand off her abaya, and ran into the desert, still following Demetrius—determined to change her story, and mine.
I realized that I could figure out the Shakespeare Thing. That with time, I could even work through the Spanking Thing. But the Love Thing wouldn’t be so easy. Love is a tricky bastard.
I would need some help.
Excerpted from Sex With Shakespeare: Here’s Much to Do With Pain, but More With Love, by Jillian Keenan. Copyright © 2016 by Jillian Keenan. With permission of the publisher, HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.