The Irish actor Charles Macklin performed at Drury Lane in the eighteenth century and (together with Charles Fleetwood) rose to eventually assume joint control of the theatre. Macklin excelled in a number of roles, but he was most famous for playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.
For decades at least, Shylock had always been played as a comic character. George Granville, who adapted the play as The Jew of Venice in 1701, chose the comedian Thomas Doggett to perform the role, and ever since then, the actor who played Shylock was frequently the troupe’s funniest clown.
All that changed when Macklin took to the stage as Shylock on Valentine’s Day, 1741. What made Macklin different was not just his acting, but who he was. Everyone knew that Charles Macklin was more than just a clown. He was someone who very well might take out a knife and demand a pound of flesh in earnest. You see, Charles Macklin was a murderer.
As Emily Hodgson Anderson relates in her article “Celebrity Shylock,” Macklin had famously quarreled with a fellow actor, Thomas Hallam, in 1735. Apparently, Hallam had borrowed Macklin’s favorite wig without asking, and wore it onstage in a new farce called Trick for Trick. When he found out, Macklin reportedly yelled, “Goddamn you for a blackguard, scrub, rascal!” He then thrust his cane into Hallam’s face. The cane went right into the actor’s left eye and even penetrated the brain. Poor Hallam died the next day.
Macklin was charged with murder. Conducting his own defense, he argued that the whole thing had been an accident. He pointed out that he had even arranged for a physician for Hallam after the fatal blow. Ultimately, he was convicted of manslaughter, being sentenced to pay a fine and have his hand branded with the letter “M” for murderer.
Though Macklin had been known for his comic roles in the past, his killing of Hallam left a darkened view of himself in the minds of audience members. When he first came out onstage as Shylock, the crowd might not have been sure what to expect. What they got was a Shylock who was purely terrifying. And they loved it.
Macklin still played Shylock as a villain, but as a villain in earnest, rather than some comedic blocking character. It was not until Edmund Kean took to the role in 1814 that British actors began playing Shylock as truly sympathetic. But that is another story.