Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Demetrius, You Dog!

I've said it before and I'll say it again, I notice something different every time I flip through one of the plays.  This time it is Midsummer, right at the beginning.  I know that Lysander is pleading his case for Hermia, and argues that Demetrius could have Helena instead.  What I don't think I ever noticed, though, is what he says:

Demetrius, I'll avouch it to his head,
Made love to Nedar's daughter, Helena,
And won her soul;

Maybe I'm not fully up on my terminology, but are we supposed to believe that Demetrius actually slept with Helena, and now has completely lost interest in her? We're not talking about modern times where a girl will go on a daytime talk show with 15 guys who might be the baby daddy.  You'd think that one guy just blurting out "Yeah, he slept with her and they're not married" would be a big deal, wouldn't it?  On top of that, Theseus basically says, "Yeah, I'd heard that too."  How does Helena not come off looking like a big slut?

But maybe I'm overinterpreting, and maybe "made love" really is supposed to mean something more along the lines of "showered with attention and gifts and tokens of affection, and generally made her believe that he loved her."  That's always how I'd interpreted it, without close scrutiny of the exact words.  That seems a bit more forgivable.

So which is it?  Is Demetrius just a typical young man who only wants what he can't have?  Or is he a scoundrel who takes advantage of women and casts them aside?

[I suppose there is also the third option that he's talking about a different Helena here - let some random girl we don't get to meet play the role of town slut - but that would be strangely and unnecessarily confusing.]


angelina said...

To "make love" did not become a euphemism for sexual intercourse until relatively recently, I think less than 50 years ago. Similarly, when Theseus calls the couples the "lovers" he is not referring to them in our sense of the word, just that they are young and in love. While it is possible Demetrius slept with Helena, I wouldn't base that interpretation on this line.

Phil said...

As Angelina says, the phrase didn't mean sex until recently, and is more likely to mean that he "wooed" her.

Duane said...

Thank for the confirmation. I kinda figured. Like I said, it never even occurred to me that it could have meant that, until it just happened to be staring me in the face the other day.

Josh Evans said...

I've both read Midsummer and seen the 1999 movie, and from the movie, it is pushing for more of the modern "make love" definition, but I'm no Shakespearean expert so I could be wrong.

However, you're comment:
Or is he a scoundrel who takes advantage of women and casts them aside?
is especially interesting in light of Demetrius' later threat to rape Helena to make her leave him alone.

Alan K.Farrar said...

Making love with no sexual 'sting' was certainly used in the UK within my lifetime! Several of my siblings used the word that way.

What was it Philip Larkin said? Something about:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

catkins said...

This use of the phrase to mean "to pay amorous attention" is only the second instance noted by the OED (the first is by Lyly in 1580). The derivation is from the French "faire l'amour." The sense "to copulate" is first documented in 1950, which the OED notes is now the more usual.