Performance history expert Rebecca Brown guides us through the stage history of The Merchant of Venice from the time Shakespeare wrote it to the present day.
The title page of the first edition of the play, printed in 1600, states that it has been 'divers times acted by the Lord Chamberlaine his Servants'. The first recorded performance was at court on Shrove Sunday, 10 February, 1605. King James and his courtiers must have enjoyed it because it was performed again two days later.
Public, rather than court, performances of Shakespeare's plays were performed in the open air, in daylight, on a simple thrust stage. No scenery and a minimum of props allowed the action to move swiftly and the audience to focus on the language. Music and costume added to the effect. Shakespeare wrote his plays with the strengths and talents of his fellow players in mind. His gifted boy players took the female roles so that the original audience had the unsettling experience of watching boys playing girls playing boys in the roles of Portia and Nerissa in the trial scene.
It is impossible to know how Shylock was first played. Since the early nineteenth century, Shylock has usually been played with dignity and a measure of understanding of why he does what he does. Perhaps the role was originally played by Will Kemp, the leading comic actor in the group, and the portrayal was harshly comic and influenced by the traditions of commedia dell'arte, or, perhaps, played in the red wig and false nose worn by villainous Jewish characters in the medieval Mystery plays. Perhaps Richard Burbage, the actor building a reputation for himself in tragic roles took the part - we simply don't know.
The Jew of Venice was the title given by George Granville to his adaptation in 1701. The comedian Thomas Doggett played Shylock and provoked laughter with his absurd miserliness, in a characterisation more akin to the commedia dell'arte's Pantalone. This comic approach became so entrenched over the next 40 years that in 1741 Charles Macklin felt it necessary to keep his preparations for the role secret from his fellow actors. He restored much of Shakespeare's text in his acting version and, on his opening night, his ferocious Shylock astonished and terrified all beholders, causing young men in the packed benches to faint with fright. Macklin's success in this star role continued for many years: he acted the role until he was nearly 90.
Edmund Kean was the next great Shylock, first playing the role at Drury Lane in 1814. He electrified his unprepared audience with the intelligence and pathos of his interpretation. His Shylock could still terrify but this portrayal never let the audience forget what had brought him to this pass. Before anything else, this man was a wronged father and a deeply feeling human being. Kean's son, Charles produced the play to great acclaim 50 years later at the Princess's Theatre. His success was not so much due to the acting as to the magnificence of the sets and scenic illusion. Audiences gathered to marvel at the vivid, crowded stage, the sumptuous costumes, and the gondolas floating on real water.
Henry Irving, the actor-manager of the Lyceum Theatre in the nineteenth century, had huge success playing a dignified, superior Shylock. He studied Jewish traders in the Levant, noting their dress, movement and speech. In Irving's hands, the role became decidedly tragic, after some necessary careful editing of the text to preserve Shylock's moral high ground. According to Irving, Shylock was 'the type of a persecuted race; almost the only gentleman of the play, and the most ill-used'. Irving's most affecting moment was not to be found in Shakespeare's play at all. His brilliantly sentimental invention showed the weary, dignified patriarch returning home across a picturesque Venetian bridge, complete with gondola beneath it, to find his house empty and his beloved daughter gone. As with many subsequent portrayals of the role, it was this betrayal and loss that pushed Shylock into his murderous course of action. It was no easy task to keep a balance in the play between this dominant Shylock and the other main plot line of Portia and Belmont. Great actor that she was, Ellen Terry still made her mark in the role. Her Portia was the epitome of warmth and charm, so much so that, for some of her Victorian reviewers, her eagerness to be won by Bassanio was considered downright unladylike.
An exception to this overwhelming trend towards sympathy for Shylock was William Poel's 1898 production for his Elizabethan Stage Society. Poel's aim in all his Shakespearean productions was to recreate the simple fluid staging of the original playing conditions. The thoroughly unsentimentalised Shylock of this production accordingly wore a red wig and false nose and presented a harshly comic reading of the part.
In 1970 Jonathan Miller directed Laurence Olivier at the National Theatre in a successful production, set in the late nineteenth century, which was later filmed. Olivier's Shylock appeared initially in the dark frock coat of a late-Victorian businessman and only later, under the enormous stress of his daughter's betrayal, did he take out a prayer shawl from a drawer in his desk and wrap it around his shaking body. After his final exit from the trial scene he gave a shocking, animal howl of pain from the wings, ensuring that the remainder of the play could not escape his shadow. At the end of the play Jessica kept apart from the happy couples, as she gravely paced the stage to the sound of the Kadish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
The Merchant of Venice continues to be one of the most frequently performed of Shakespeare's plays. Dustin Hoffman played Shylock in Peter Hall's production at the Phoenix Theatre in London in 1989, transferring to New York the following year.
In 1994 Peter Sellars brought his production for Chicago's Goodman Theatre to the Barbican Theatre in London. The play was set in the contemporary technological sophistication of California's Venice Beach. Banks of TV monitors showed footage of the Los Angeles race riots during the trial scene as the black Shylock demanded justice from the white Duke of Venice.
In 1999 Henry Goodman won great praise for his performance as Shylock in Trevor Nunn's production at the National Theatre, set in a Venice which resembled 1930s Berlin. This production was later filmed.
Jack Gold directed the play, with Warren Mitchell as Shylock, as part of the BBC series of Shakespeare's plays in 1980. In 2004 Al Pacino starred as Shylock in Michael Radford's handsome film version.
RSC productions of The Merchant of Venice »
Photo by Joe Cocks shows Portia (Marjorie Bland) inviting Shylock (Patrick Stewart) to show mercy (Act 4 Scene 1) in the RSC's 1978 production directed by John Barton.© SBT
Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC