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The Shakespeare Sisterhood: Constance

Constance of Bretagne exists to our sympathy only in her maternal relation; in her affection for her son, Arthur, all other emotions are swallowed up; in him are concentred all her ambitions, hopes, desires; so it is not surprising that we forget the heiress of a sovereign duchy, and her strictly personal misfortunes -- which, alone, should suffice to invest her with peculiar interest -- to bestow our pity upon the mother of a fair young prince, despoiled of his birthright, and betrayed by those who had promised to befriend him.

Her dramatic situation -- "the mother-eagle wounded, and bleeding to death, yet stretched over her young in the attitude of defiance" -- may be, critically considered, unsurpassed in sublimity, but its painfulness is too unmitigated to constitute it a source of pleasure to even the most stoical reader.

The spectacle of an utterly helpless being -- weak and defenceless only by reason of her sex; with no weapon but words, "full of sound and fury," availing nothing; perfectly conscious of her impotency, yet resisting desperately to the last -- oppresses the mind with something of its own overwhelming weight of forlornness. The only forms of sorrow to be pleasurably contemplated in woman are pious resignation and heroic fortitude; the violent passion of grief, as "torn to tatters" in the person of Constance, defeats itself; the mental exhaustion consequent upon the effort to follow it, is exactly similar to the physical prostration it produces in its victim.

The maternal love of Constance, as a dramatic effect, is very beautiful; but it partakes too much of sentiment, too little of pure instinct, to command our undivided admiration; we feel, as she did, that it depends for its devotion, in great measure, on her son's poetic attributes, of beauty, high birth, and princely presence -- not, as it should, on the simple, all-sufficing because -- because he is the fruit of her womb.

The following speech to the boy-prince illustrates our meaning, and has left its impress of unloveliness on our high ideal of Constance; a mother after our own heart could never have found it in hers to give utterance to such a libel on the only love which is indifferent to physical, moral, or mental perfections in its object:
Arth. I do beseech you, madam, be content.

Const. If thou, that bid'st me be content, were grim,
Ugly, and sland'rous to thy mother's womb,
Full of unpleasing blots and sightless stains,
Lame, foolish, crooked, swart, prodigious,
Patch'd with foul moles and eye-offending marks --
I would not care, I then would be content;
For then I should not love thee; no, nor thou
Become thy great birth, nor deserve a crown.
But thou art fair; and at thy birth, dear boy,
Nature and fortune joined to make thee great: --
Of nature's gifts thou may'st with lilies boast,
And with the half-blown rose. But fortune, O!
She is corrupted, chang'd, and won from thee;
She adulterates hourly with thine uncle John;
And with her golden hand hath pluck'd on France
To tread down fair respect of sovereignty.
Constance is distinguished by her imagination, the natural vivacity of which is intensified by suffering till it assumes an almost morbid predominance over every other faculty; this exaggerates even her desperate sorrows, and colors every event with its extravagance -- hyperbole is its natural language, and frenzy its legitimate realm. Her eloquence is the declamation of exalted passion, which can scarce find images grand enough to express its concentrated vehemence.

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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Constance. From A Stratford Gallery.