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MERCHANT OF VENICE.-MR. COOKE IN SHYLOCK.
[Continued from page 261.] BEFORE We proceed in our further observations on this play and its performance, we must mention a fact relating to it, which, by an oversight altogether unaccountable to ourselves, we omitted in its proper place, the outset of this criticism.
There is reason to believe, that from the time Lord Lansdowne gave to the stage his comedy of “ The Jew of Venice," an alteration, or rather a debasement of Shakspeare's Merchant of Venice, the latter never was acted till the year 1741. The pedantic phantom of the unities had flapped its owl wings round his lordship's head, and he thought that by giving the play regularity in the plot, he should make a comedy superior to the original. But he was greatly deceived, and, from that which we now see it, made it almost as vapid a piece as any of his own nerveless, watergruel compositions. Yet the public being unaccustomed to witness the performance of the great loriginal, received that miserable shadow of it, and were in the habit of seeing and approving of it in representation. What must those who know how to set a just value on this noble composition, as they see it performed by Cooke, think of the judgment and taste of Lord Lansdowne, and of the merit of his play, when they hear that Shylock was reduced in it to a mere subordinate character, and was always performed or rather farcified by some low buffoon of a comedian.
Macklin, who possessed a vigorous discriminating judgment, a fine natural taste, acute penetration, and with these 'a consciousness of his own strength which made him bold, resolved to revive the old comedy, and restore Shakspeare the stage, and the public to their rights in it. The bare attempt to substitute it in the place of a comedy so popular as the Jew of Venice, seemed to the manager, as well as to all who heard it, an act of temerity which could not fail to bring down upon Macklin's head the weight of public indignation. Quin, in the rude language he was accustomed to
use, under the abused name of bluntness, swore that Macklin ought to be hissed off the stage for his presumption; and Fleetwood, the manager, argued the matter in rational and friendly terms, obserying that, even granting the original to be as much superior to the alteration of it as Macklin thought it, still it would be considered as arrogance in him to persevere in his intention, contrary to the opinion of Mr. Quin, to the high authority of Lord Lansdowne, and to the public judgment itself, which had given the stamp of approbation to The Jew of Venice. He earnestly intreated him, therefore, to abandon his project, and strenuously urged the probability that his character as an actor, and his favour with the public, would become the victims of his rashness and obstinacy.
Sustained by his own native vigour, Macklin stood unmoved by every argument and persuasion, remained firm to his purpose, and declared that, be the consequence to himself what it might, he would run the hazard. The thing was right to be done, and if it should fail, the fault would be that of the public: it should not, he said, be his. Accordingly the play was put in rehearsal. Macklin, who had studied the part of Shylock with profound attention, made the players' stick close, as he himself did, to the text of Shakspeare throughout. During the rehearsal, however, he took care not to disclose the manner in which he intended to personate the character, by a look, a tone, a gesture, or an attitude; but merely repeated the lines in the unimpassioned tone of one reading an advertisement in a newspaper. This threw new obstacles in his way, and occasioned a multitude of vexatious remarks and objections from the players who, one and all, peremptorily declared, Quin, who played Antonio being at their head too, that Macklin's acting alone would spoil the performance. But he, who had from the be'ginning had a view to the character, as a ladder by which he should mount to the summit of his profession, being convinced that it afforded unbounded scope for the display of his talents, and for capital acting, secretly derided their observations, kept his mind to himself, and brought every thing to a state perfectly fit for representation. The comedy of the Merchant of Venice, as written by Shakspeare, was announced. And as the whole strength of the company was given to it, the house was crowded full in every part; some coming from curiosity, some from liking to the notion of Macklin, and to support him, and some to express their disapprobation. Quin, MILWARD, MILLS, Mrs. Clive, and Mrs. PRITCHARD
performed in it. When will the Merchant of Venice be so well filled again?
In the whole history of the stage, there is not to be found one crisis more interesting than this; one more worthy of a minute relation.
Fleetwood the manager was in a most painful state of apprehension and anxiety. The actors were chuckling at the prospect of Macklin's disgrace. Macklin himself, though firm as a rock, was far from being at ease. He knew he was right; but the audience ay, there was the rub! It was a full, a tremendous tribunal, and the judges might be partial, perverted, inlisted on the other side. The old gentleman has often talked of his feelings at that juncture, as surpassing all that he had ever experienced in his life.
The whole is so admirably described by Macklin's relation and biographer, that we think it would be a pity to take it out of his words, the purport of which he unquestionably had collected from the veteran himself, long before his death.
“ The curtain was drawn up, and the performers who had to open the play went on, and were received in the usual way. But when Shylock and Bassanio entered, in the third scene, there was an awful, a solemn silence. A pin might have been heard, if dropt upon the stage. Nothing, Mr. Macklin has declared, ever affected him so much as the coolness that was observed by the audience at his entrance. He had been then, for several years, a great favourite with the town, and the audience had been accustomed to greet him on his first entrance, with repeated plaudits. We shall leave it to the reader to conceive the state of Mr. Macklin's feelings at this juncture; for it is impossible to describe them. Not a hand moved to encourage him; on the contrary, every thing around him seemed to conspire towards his discomfiture. The terrified looks of the manager, the malicious sneers of the actors, and the tremendous silence of a brilliant and crowded audience, all united to strike him with terror, and confound him with dismay.
Notwithstanding all this, he approached with Bassanio, who solicits a loan of three thousand ducats, on the credit of Antonio still not a whisper could be heard in the house. On the entrance of Antonio, the Jew makes the audience acquainted with his motives of antipathy to the merchant: Mr. Macklin had no sooner delivered this speech than the audience burst out into a thunder of applause, and in proportion as he afterwards proceeded to exhibit.
and mark the malevolence, the villany, and the diabolical atrocity of the character, so in proportion did the admiring and delighted audience testify their approbation of the actor's astonishing merit, by still louder and louder plaudits and acclamations, to the end of the play. Never was a performer's triumph more complete; never were enemies and opponents more confounded and abashed; never was manager more agreeably surprised. The sudden, unexpected, and happy catastrophe of that night's representation conferred on Mr. Macklin immortal fame as an actor, and transmitted to posterity another proof of the amazing genius and wonderful talents of the unrivalled Shakspeare. The play was repeated again and again, with unbounded approbation. In short, it ran nineteen nights successively, the last of which was appropriated to Mr. Macklin's, benefit.”
This performance so forcibly struck a gentleman who was present, that, in the enthusiasm of his feelings, he exclaimed aloud,
We have the evidence of Macklin himself, as well as the general hearsay evidence of the times, for saying, that the person who paid this elegant and applicable compliment was no less a man than the great bard of Twickenham, Alexander Pope. Some persons of unnecessary, officious scrupulosity, however, have questioned the probability of this, as an anachronism; but let it be remembered, that the first representation of Shylock was on the 14th of Februaary, 1741, and that Pope lived to the 30th of May, 1744; that isy three
years and nearly three months after. From that time, “ The Merchant of Venice” has kept possession of the stage, and “ The Jew of Venice” been very properly exiled from it. Indeed, what can be thought of the taste or judgment of the noble author of the latter, when it is stated that, so far from being made detestable, his lordship's Shylock is made a droll, and perfectly laughable. For instance, being at supper at Bassanio's, he is seated at a table separate from the christian company, in conformity with the supposed tenets of his tribe; and drinks to his money as to his only friend.
Macklin was the first player to whom the dramatic representation of Great Britain stood indebted for the happy alteration that has taken place in the costume of the stage, which Mr. Kemble
has the credit of having followed up to its present state; and which, though still occasionally inconsistent,* is infinitely more rational than it was under the regime of Mr. Garrick, during whose man-agement the absurdities of the stage dress, if enumerated in detail, would make a very long article. Macklin was the first who changed the dress of Macbeth from scarlet and gold in the modern cut, a three-cocked hat, a long plaited military queue with a bunch at the end of it, and by way of royal dignity, after his investment at Scone, a large bag and solitaire, to the Scottish kilt, hose, and plaid.
When he had fixed upon playing Shylock, he made it his business to go frequently to the Exchange, and enter into conversation with Mediterranean traders, from whom he learned that, by an ordinance of the republic of Venice, the Jews were compelled to wear red hats as a distinguishing badge of their tribe, and from that time he always wore one, in the character of Shylock.
Of the plays of Shakspeare which have undergone deterioration from the barbarous hands of alterers and innovators, we know not one, the spoliations on which, auditors of taste and feeling have greater cause to regret, than this of the Merchant of Venice. According to Shakspeare, the second act opens with a scene, which by a license no pretence can justify, has been expunged, though it is exquisitely beautiful. All our readers know the story of Portia and the caskets. Of the many suiters who come to try their fate, Bassanio is the only one which the pruning knife of the London managers has left visible to the audience; and Mrs. Inchbald's and other modern editions of the plays follow, not the author's text, but the
* For instance, our Othellos of late wear turbans. In the name of wonder why? Though a Moor by birth, Othello is a Venetian general; and to the Venetians, every thing Mahometan was ever alien and abhorrent. Their customs, their laws, their prejudices forbade any innovation in their military uniform; more particularly a mussulman innovation. Yet, while Cassio and Iago, the officers of his corps, his lieutenant and ancient, or ensign, wear bats, in the Venetian costume, Othello is ornamented with a turban. Is it out of compliment to the OttOMITEs he is sent to overthrow, or to the malignant and the turband Turk, that beat a Venetian, and traduced the state? This is Kemble all over; this is studying the picturesque with a vengeance. Mr. Garrick once took it in his head to play Othello, and figured away in an entire Moorish dress. And that absurdity it was that occasioned the facea tious Quin to call him DESDEMONA'S LITTLE BLACK BOY WITH