Critics often recognize the similarity between Hermia and Helena because both represent the difficulties of adolescent love. But these two young women are more different than their male counterparts, Lysander and Demetrius, who are, indeed, indistinguishable. Not only do these two young women show the trials and tribulations of young love, but their interactions emphasize the importance of female friendship and the gender expectations that often make women's lives difficult. As the play opens, Hermia is under trial. Her father insists she marry Demetrius, the man he prefers, rather than Lysander, the man she loves. Her father reminds the audience that Hermia has no choice in this matter: Hermia is his property, and the laws declare he can dispose of her as he wishes, even if this means sending her to her death. Theseus agrees: According to him, Hermia's father should be a god to her. She is merely a form in wax that has been imprinted with her father's power. Even though Theseus offers her the choice of living in a nunnery rather than dying, he won't allow her to make her own decision about a husband. Her "fancy" conflicts with her father's "will," emphasizing that an adolescent girl has no power against the will of law.
Later in the play, Hermia is criticized for her being "dark," an Ethiope, in contrast with "light" Helena's blondeness. Hermia's "darkness" is significant, reminding us of the racial slurs that continue to plague our culture. Similarly, her fears that Lysander has abandoned her because she's shorter than Helena show that body image issues aren't a recent problem for women: Even in the sixteenth century, women equated build with desirability, often discovering themselves on the short end of this stick. Hermia's belief that Lysander has deserted her because of her body type also emphasizes the fickleness of love, which is often based not on deep features of character, but on trivial aspects of...