A Midsummer Night’s Dream is most obviously a play about romantic love, but the play is also about friendship, and what happens when love comes between friends. In the play, lifelong friends Helena and Hermia nearly sacrifice their friendship as they compete for men’s attention, raising questions about the value of friendship versus the value of finding a life partner. In a deeply affecting speech, Helena underscores the pain of having a wedge driven between her and her closest confidante: “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? Oh, is all forgot?” (III.ii.) Near the end of the speech Helena goes further, pointing to the irony of Hermia’s apparent conspiracy with men to destroy their friendship: “And will you rend our ancient love asunder / To join with men in scorning your poor friend?” Helena’s speech implies that the female characters in the play face a choice: love or friendship. Believing that Hermia is conspiring with Lysander and Demetrius, Helena assumes that Hermia has chosen love over friendship, leaving her with neither romantic nor platonic love.
Throughout the play, we find suggestions that as the female characters come of age, they are expected to put aside their own interests and desires in order to please the men in their lives. For example, Hermia faces grave consequences for refusing to obey both her father, Egeus, and the figurehead for Athenian law, Duke Theseus. In Athens, as Theseus explains, the patriarch’s word should be sacred: “To you your father should be as a god” (I.i.). We also know that Theseus “wooed” Hippolyta with his sword. Oberon humiliates Titania by making her fall in love with Bottom as punishment for quarreling with him. The suggestion that female characters should honor and obey their fathers and husbands leaves them little room for childhood pursuits like friendship with other females. Hermia’s speech in Act I scene i suggests she’s willing to make this sacrifice even before she fights with Helena. She announces she’s going to meet Lysander “in the wood where often you and I / Upon faint primrose beds were wont to lie…” Here, the use of the past tense indicates that Hermia is replacing Helena with Lysander. This sense is reinforced when she says, “Farewell, sweet playfellow.”
By the end of the play, the main source of Hermia and Helena’s conflict – Demetrius’s and Lysander’s enchanted love for Helena – has been removed, and the path is clear for the two women to repair their friendship. However, we don’t see the two women actually make up, so we don’t know whether they resume being friends or not. In fact, once the enchantment has been removed from Lysander and Helena and Hermia are united with their appropriate partners, we hear little from either woman. The last line Hermia speaks is “Yea, and my father” (IV.i.) referring to Egeus’s continued control over her fate. The only reason Egeus agrees to allow Hermia to marry Lysander is because another, more powerful man – Duke Theseus – overrules him, saying “Egeus, I will overbear your will, / For in the temple by and by with us / These couples shall be eternally knit.” (IV. i.) Hermia and Helena, in becoming married women, are following the commands of men. We can assume they now follow the rules of love (and marriage), rather than the rules of friendship.