The Merchant of Venice is one of the relatively few Shakespeare plays that has never been absent from the stage for too long, and it is also one of the very few, if not the only one, to provoke at least some distaste among most audiences at the present time. This does not mean that it is rarely produced. On the contrary, it is still popular, still interesting — simply a little distasteful. Its ambiguous sourness may indeed account for some of its current popularity. But this was not always the case. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the play was admired for the opportunities it provided a star actor to shine in the role of Shylock. Charles Macklin, in the 1740s, for example, was malignant, sullen, malevolent; powerful and unshakeable, he ‘stood like a tower’.1 Edmund Kean, in the early nineteenth century, was fiery and sardonic, full of lightning shifts from one point to the next, driven more by family love and racial pride than by malevolent cruelty. Later in the nineteenth century, in one of his most famous roles, Sir Henry Irving turned Shylock into a dignified elder, calm, majestic, pitiless and implacable, a figure of tragic stature. Dazed and unconscious after his defeat, he at last tottered out, ‘a broken man, only gathering himself together for one steady look of scorn at the mocking Gratiano’.2 That look, by the way, came from Kean (an indication of the power of theatrical traditions throughout the period), who also sought a sympathetic and quietly dignified retreat. So successful was the emphasis on the defeat of Shylock that frequently the whole fifth act, containing the reunion of the lovers and the elaboration of the comic ‘ring plot’, was simply cut, so that the play ended with Shylock’s shuffling exit. When Irving first produced The Merchant of Venice with the sparkling and graceful Ellen Terry as Portia, he retained the last act. But, as the run continued, the emphasis on Shylock’s tragic loss increased and the last act was cut, despite Terry’s sending the play dancing to a moonlit conclusion.3
KeywordsNineteenth Century Star Actor Walk Away Hard Edge Racial Pride
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