The stage history of The Merchant of Venice from the time Shakespeare wrote it to the present day, and a look back at some RSC productions.

First recorded performance

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.

The_Merchant_of_Venice_production_photos_1978_1978_Photo_by_Joe_Cocks_Studio_Collection_c_Shakespeare_Birthplace_Trust_172074 (1)
Marjorie Bland as Portia and Patrick Stewart as Shylock. The Merchant of Venice (1978), directed by John Barton.
© RSC – Image Licensing


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

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

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

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.

Ellen Terry

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.

William Poel

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.

Jonathan Miller

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.

Modern Shylocks

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.

Portia (Dorothy Tutin) disguised addressing the court.
Photo by Angus Mcbean © RSC – Image Licensing

Staging The Merchant of Venice at the RSC

Gregory Doran (1997)

This production opened with a darkly atmospheric scene on the wharves of a Renaissance Venice, with merchants and prostitutes busy trading their wares. In contrast, Belmont was a bright and glittering place, presided over by a brisk Portia who appeared in a splendid new dress in every scene. Philip Voss was a soberly dressed, intelligent and deeply feeling Shylock whose grief at his daughter's escape was clear to see. On discovering her flight, he stood in the dark tower of his prison-like house, clutching his head as the structure spun madly around him. At the trial, Bassanio spilled out a great flood of gold coins (provided by Portia) in his offer of payment of the debt. The coins were left unheeded as the action proceeded until Shylock and Antonio both knelt on them, facing one another, the one having escaped death, the other spared it at the cost of his faith. Shylock repeatedly slipped back as he tried to get up from such a treacherous floor and no-one was prepared to help him, The same dangerous carpet of gold remained on the floor for the final scene in Belmont, adding an appropriately ominous note to the betrayals and reconciliations of the lovers.

David Thacker (1993)

The text in this modern-dress production had been carefully editorialized to allow an unambiguously wronged Shylock, driven to retaliate against an unjust society. In a manner reminiscent of the nineteenth-century Shylock of Henry Irving, David Calder's Shylock made a poignant return to his abandoned house, having fought his way through the bawdy carnival revellers, behind whose pig masks were hidden his daughter and her clandestine lover. This Shylock was first seen as a smartly suited businessman at his computer desk in an ultra-modern City bank. After the desertion of his daughter, he abandoned all attempts to be assimilated into Venetian society and adopted, instead, an explicitly different and Jewish style of dress.

Bill Alexander (1987)

This Portia was complacently accustomed to wealth and privilege, blithely dismissing her Moroccan suitor with the slur on his race which is so often cut. The frequent spitting and physical violence dealt out by the Christians to Antony Sher's exotic, Levantine Shylock clearly showed a society ruled by a sadistically bigoted group. At the trial, Shylock approached his victim with terrifying energy and determination, donning his prayer shawl and chanting Jewish prayers. This Antonio wanted nothing more than to be killed in such a sensational way, thus ensuring that he would bind his beloved Bassanio to him even after death. In the production's final moments, Antonio lingered in order to help Jessica retrieve her fallen crucifix (a gift from her new husband), only to hold it deliberately out of her reach as the stage went to black.

John Barton (1981)

This was a revival of the 1978 production, recast and restaged for the RSC's main house. Shylock, played by Davd Suchet, was now an opulently dressed, cigar-smoking business man, confidently moving among the Christians, sure of his superiority. Portia, played by Sinead Cusack, sat with a symbolic golden chain across her lap as she waited for her suitors to choose among the caskets. Portia was the only character to show compassion to Shylock in his defeat at the end of the trial. She stretched out to help him stand up after he had stumbled to the floor, but he ignored her hand and stoically got up by his own means.

John Barton (1978) 

Since this production was staged in the RSC's studio theatre, The Other Place, there could be little in the way of scenery. A few pavement café tables and the late-nineteenth-century costume suggested an Italy where women and Jews might well be oppressed. Patrick Stewart's Shylock spoke with the carefully precise enunciation of a non-native speaker. Only his yarmulke and the glimpse of a yellow sash under his shabby black waistcoat indicated any cultural difference, both of which were ostentatiously on show in the trial scene. Despite his wealth, this Shylock was too mean to spend any of it on outward show; he smoked miserly little hand-rolled cigarettes, the stubs of which he kept in a tin for future use. At the end of the trial he himself knocked off his yarmulke and exited on a forced laugh at his own expense in response to Gratiano's brutal joke. This Shylock was survivor, whatever the personal cost might be. Portia's household had a strongly Chekhovian atmosphere. She was first seen wrapped in her dead father's black greatcoat, contemplating the caskets as the key to freedom and happiness, the unlocking of which was not in her power.

Terry Hands (1971)

The opening of this production addressed the play's strange mixture of Venice and Belmont - the one an urban trading centre, the other a fairy-tale world of riddles and captive virgins. It began with the fantastical spectacle of toy galleons being moved about the patterned stage floor according to the fall of the dice thrown by Antonio and his companions in what looked like a giant game of snakes and ladders. The casket by which Portia was won contained a life-sized golden effigy of the woman herself (played by Judi Dench). Emrys James's Shylock was the bogey man of fairy tales, described by the critic of the Daily Telegraph as 'a stage villain, barefoot, robed in old curtains, with a mouthful of spittle and plenty of oi-yoi-yoi'.

Clifford Williams (1965)

Eric Porter gave a tough, unsympathetic reading of the role of Shylock in this production set in the Elizabethan period, in which Janet Suzman played Portia. Audiences were given the opportunity to see the play in an unfamiliar context by the season's scheduling of Christopher Marlowe's play, The Jew of Malta. Eric Porter played the leading character in this production, too - the unscrupulous Jew, Barabas. For the first time at Stratford there was the unmistakeable suggestion of a homosexual dimension to the relationship between Bassanio and Antonio.

Michael Langham (1960)

The compelling performance of Peter O'Toole as Shylock dominated this production. With irresistible authority, O'Toole commanded the stage, drawing the audience's eye even if only sitting and sharpening his knife on the sole of his shoe. His was a tragic, very human Shylock, giving a grimly ironical laugh at the sparing of his own life at such a cost and still priding himself on his sense of what is right as he promised to sign the deed if it were sent after him. Dorothy Tutin's girlish Portia was a tiny figure set against this tall man; when they faced each other at the end of the trial it was clear that the two were irreconcilable.

Theodore Komisarjevsky (1932)

The comedy of the play was emphasized in this production. The director defied the old conventions of sentimentality and the picturesque with a bold stylization of design and acting style. An exuberant Venice of higgledy-piggedly hump-backed bridges and toppling bell towers split down the middle to usher in Belmont. Bruno Barnabe's Launcelot Gobbo was central to the carnival spirit of the production. Flamboyantly dressed as Harlequin, he led a masque of pierrots to open the show and his clowning with his father was full of inventive and dextrous physical comedy. Randle Ayrton as Shylock managed to bring out the comedy of the role and its humanity in a complex, unsentimental performance.

A full list of RSC productions with details of cast and production team can be found in the RSC Performance Database on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website.

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