Athens I am thought as fair as she.
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so.
He will not know what all but he do know.
And as he errs, doting on Hermia’s eyes,
So I, admiring of his qualities.
Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Helena utters these lines as she comments
on the irrational nature of love. They are extremely important to
the play’s overall presentation of love as erratic, inexplicable,
and exceptionally powerful (I.i.227–235).
Distressed by the fact that her beloved Demetrius loves Hermia and
not her, Helena says that though she is as beautiful as Hermia,
Demetrius cannot see her beauty. Helena adds that she dotes on Demetrius
(though not all of his qualities are admirable) in the same way
that he dotes on Hermia. She believes that love has the power to
transform “base and vile” qualities into “form and dignity”—that
is, even ugliness and bad behavior can seem attractive to someone
in love. This is the case, she argues, because “love looks not with
the eyes, but with the mind”—love depends not on an objective assessment
of appearance but rather on an individual perception of the beloved.
These lines prefigure aspects of the play’s examination of love,
such as Titania’s passion for the ass-headed Bottom, which epitomizes
the transformation of the “base and vile” into “form and dignity.”