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The Shakespeare Sisterhood: Portia (The Merchant of Venice)

Portia is distinguished by a patrician elegance of person and presence, which is so innately her own that it depends but little for its effect on the aristocratic pretension of her surroundings. Although far from popular -- her reputation for extraordinary mental endowments being sufficient to constitute a formidable obstacle to public favor -- she is one of the most delightful of Shakespeare's women. Her intellectual quality is indeed marked; but that can never render a woman less lovable, when, as in Portia's case, it is subordinate to the affections.

Schlegel, regarding her from a purely critical point of view, pronounces her "clever;" and although Mrs. Jameson protests against the application of so dubious an epithet to this "heavenly compound of talent, feeling, wisdom, beauty, and gentleness," we must confess that to us it seems well chosen. "Clever" does not, indeed, imply the possession of illustrious powers; but it does signify that nice "dexterity in the adaptation of certain faculties to a certain end or aim" which is eminently graceful and feminine, and exactly describes the mental characteristics of Portia, as most conspicuously displayed in the trial scene, wherein her success is achieved, not by the exercise of inherent wisdom, or an educated judgment, but by the merely clever discovery of a legal quibble.

That the word has fallen into disrepute, from unworthy associations, should not impair its legitimate value. True, it does "suggest the idea of something we should distrust and shrink from, if not allied to a higher nature;" but we contend that, in Portia, cleverness is allied to a higher nature -- to qualities which are, indeed, scarcely less perfect than her fair panegyrist has portrayed them -- in a woman whose "plenteous wit" and excelling accomplishments are more than equalled by her tenderness, her magnanimity, her graceful dignity, and her lofty honor.

How to cite this article:
Palmer, Henrietta L. The Stratford gallery, or, The Shakespeare sisterhood. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1859. Shakespeare Online. 20 Oct. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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Portia. From A Stratford Gallery.