No Rhyme, But a Reason

Act Three, Scene Two of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, begins with Oberon’s entrance and pondering of whether Titania has yet awaked (and found an object for her potion-ed dotage).  Within five lines, Puck arrives, and with him a sequence of rhymed couplets.

From line 5, and through the next (nearly) two hundred lines, the verse remains composed of rhyming iambic pentameter couplets (with a side trip into “fairy verse”: catalectic* trochaic tetrameter).  Even with changes of speakers (Oberon and Puck, Hermia and Demetrius, Oberon and Puck again, Helena and Lysander… joined by Demetrius and then Hermia), the rhyme continues.

Around line 194, the rhyme comes to a grinding halt:

What love could press Lysander from my side?

Lysander's love, that would not let him bide,
Fair Helena, who more engilds the night
Than all you fiery oes and eyes of light.
Why seek'st thou me? could not this make thee know,
The hate I bear thee made me leave thee so?

You speak not as you think: it cannot be.

Lo, she is one of this confederacy!
Now I perceive they have conjoined all three
To fashion this false sport, in spite of me.
Injurious Hermia, most ungrateful maid!
Have you conspired, have you with these contrived
To bait me with this foul derision?

— III.ii.185-197

It is only when Helena begins to feel that not only Demetrius and Lysander are mocking her, but her friend Helena too (the content), that the sequence of rhyming couplets ends (the form).

after nearly two hundred lines of rhyme, the sudden shift is jolting…

But why?

It’s interesting that the first non-rhyming line to come out of Helena’s mouth is: “Injurious Hermia, most ungrateful maid!”  Building on what we discussed last week–the patriarchal view of the world of the play –it’s almost as if betrayal and mockery of a women by a man (or in this case, two men) is acceptable, but for a woman to betray another woman is tantamount to a destruction of the order of the feminine world itself (the rhyme scheme representing the order of the world).

Helena continues her rhymeless indictment of Hermia:

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?
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 grow 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.
And will you rent our ancient love asunder,
To join with men in scorning your poor friend?
It is not friendly, 'tis not maidenly.
Our sex, as well as I, may chide you for it,
Though I alone do feel the injury.

I am amazed at your passionate words.
I scorn you not: it seems that you scorn me.

— III.ii.198-221

As Hermia vents her rant against this seeming socio-gender breakdown, it’s no surprise that the imagery is of separation into two what had been one:

  • we two
  • parting us
  • We, Hermia, like two artificial gods
  • one flower
  • one sampler
  • one cushion
  • one song, both in one key
  • grow together
  • double cherry, seeming parted
  • union in partition
  • Two lovely berries molded on one stem
  • two seeming bodies, but one heart
  • Two of the first
  • rent our ancient love asunder

When Helena responds, there is no return to rhyme; the damage has been done… at least until the fairies take control of the scene again.


*catalectic: a poetic line that is incomplete, either at its beginning or end; in the case of what I’m calling “fairy verse” this means that the four-stressed trochaic line is missing its last unstressed syllable

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