The Relation of Linguistic Form to Semantic Content:

In A Midsummer Might’s Dream

The forms of language that Shakespeare chose when writing certain characters determine not only how those characters would sound on stage, but how they develop as well. That is: the plot of the play is affected by linguistic form, just as it is affected by the (semantic) content of those forms. In the case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream the character of Helena is a perfect example of this. The forms that her language falls into tell the audience much more about her than the content of the speech will get across. Though any random selection of lines from the play could show the same, lines 129-140 in Act 2, Scene 2 seem to be particularly susceptible to analysis in this fashion.

The strong use of alliteration in line 132 of this speech illustrates that Helena remains completely involved with her love for Demetrius and his previous refusals to return that love. The emphasis placed on the negative (through repeated stresses on ‘nor’, ‘no’ and the initial syllables of both occurrences of ‘never’) shows the reader that not only does Helena remain preoccupied with her past experiences with Demetrius (see, for example: 2,1,188-244 and also at 2,2,90-108), but that she strongly believes that her affections will never be returned (despite evidence to the contrary). The rhetorical figure of alliteration is important here, not only for the sound of the text, but also for the content of the play itself. The language heightens the action, and adds to the dynamic created between Helena and her two ‘suitors’. Shakespeare might have written a similar line, without the alliteration, and that line might have had the same literal meaning, but the meaning the audience/reader received would have been much less passionate.

Another notable feature of this speech is its use of the rhyming couplet. Why does Shakespeare resort to the more formally structured rhyming couplet here, rather than his usual blank verse? Again, the choice of form is related to the content of the play itself. Helena uses the form of the rhyming couplet over and over again throughout the entire play (just a few instances: 1,1,180-193; 2,2,94-106; 3,2,146-162). This formal regularity relates to Helena’s character. Helena, unlike the other characters, remains steadfast in her original passions: she loves Demetrius, and this is unchanging. Similarly, her speech patterns do not markedly change; she returns over and over again to the same form of rhyming couplet, particularly in incidences of extreme passion.

This leads one to ask: how (or why) does this form relate to instances of passion? One answer might be that when Helena is excited (or disturbed), she falls back on the order provided by the more rigorous form of the rhyming couplet to aid her in expressing a point. Rather than thinking on her feet, she merely follows the pattern of the speech, relying on an already-provided form to guide her. At other times, when she is more ‘stable’, she seems to restrict her use of the rhyming couplet (see 2,1,229-234; 3,2,193-220) and is able to deliver her ideas without the ‘crutch’ that rhyme provides.

Just as Helena exhibits the linguistic trait of ‘following’ (in this case, following a particular speech pattern) she also ‘follows’ in her physical actions. She literally follows Demetrius around the forests outside Athens. It seems that there is (again) a parallel to be drawn between her language and her actions. Rather than creating her own path she follows a course determined by another. In this way, her speech patterns reflect her personality. But, the further she demarcates herself from following Demetrius around, the more variation, and individuality, is provided in her speech patterns (the long speech of 3,2,193-220 is a good example of this).

In lines 138 and 139 of the speech, Helena uses the word ‘lord’ to refer to Lysander, and subsequently, calls herself a ‘lady’. With the use of lord and lady (two words generally used as indications of dignity or class) it seems that Helena is attempting to draw attention to an affinity that lies between herself and Lysander. She hopes that he will recognize that she, like him, is a dignified person, and will end the cruel charade of feigned love that she believes he is perpetrating. In addition to the meaning of these two words, they are both stressed, and together they create an instance of alliteration (albeit a small one). Again, through the use of stresses, Shakespeare heightens the meaning of the speech through by formal means.

As we have seen (even in this small fragment), Shakespeare uses a rather homogenous mixture of both literal meaning and linguistic form to deliver the content of his plays. Though (for obvious reasons) the use of literal meaning the more prevalent of the two, a full reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (as of any Shakespearean work) entails that the reader take into account the effect of form on content.