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A lecture on Shakespeare

March 29, 2009

In his profile of Portia de Rossi ["De Rossi on 'Ted' and Ellen and Babies," March 15], Scott Collins writes: "But De Rossi, born 36 years ago in Australia as Amanda Rogers (she chose her stage name -- Portia is the heiress who begs Shylock for mercy in "The Merchant of Venice" -- as a teenager) . . . "

I'm not sure if it's been awhile since he read or watched "The Merchant of Venice," but he could just as well have described Portia as "the heiress who cross-dresses as a man in order to act as the lawyer in Shylock's trial and saves the day by hoisting him on his own linguistic petard."

It is a bit of a stretch to say that Portia "begs" Shylock to do anything; she enjoins him to show mercy, and when he does not, she turns the tables on him by showing him the lack of mercy that he showed to Antonio.

Not only would most Shakespearean scholars not agree with the one-line descriptor of Portia's character, but it perpetuates an unfortunate tendency to deny the agency of Shakespearean heroines in mainstream descriptions of Shakespeare's work -- even, and in this case especially, when such a description is not supported by the text.

Throwaway references like this reinforce the perception of Shakespeare as a conservative, canonical figure rather than acknowledging the subversive energies of his work.

Incidentally, I have the feeling that it also misses the point when it comes to the subject of your profile of Portia de Rossi because his summary occludes the possibility that Portia de Rossi might have picked the name precisely for the reason that the Portia of the play is a resourceful, intelligent heroine.

Laura Chen

Wadham College, Oxford

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