The Irish actor Charles Macklin (c.1697-1797) first played the role of Shylock at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1741. To research the character, Macklin studied the gestures, dress and speech of London's Jewish community. Reverting to the interpretation of Shylock as written by Shakespeare instead of following the version then in common use, the 1701 adaptation The Jew of Venice by Lord Lansdowne, Macklin portrayed Shylock as a serious character rather than as a figure of low comedy. His performance prompted Pope's oft-quoted, but probably apocryphal, verse: 'This is the Jew | That Shakespeare drew.' Macklin gave his final performance of the character in 1789, when he was about ninety-two years old. The performance represented here is almost certainly from the 1767-8 Covent Garden season. Macklin is at left centre. The other actors have been identified as follows: the role of Bassanio, on the left, is played by Robert Bensley (1742-1817); Portia, centre, is portrayed by Macklin's daughter Maria Macklin (c.1732-81). On the right are Antonio with bared chest, played by Matthew Clarke (fl. 1755-83), and Gratiano, played by Michael Dyer (died 1774). In the background, seated on a dais, is the Duke, played by David Morris (died 1777); at the foot of the dais are Nerissa, who was performed by Jane Lessingham (1739-83) in all but one performance that season, and the clerk.
Zoffany sets the scene as a composite of Venice and England. The Duke, wearing a Doge's cap, sits on a raised chair and rests his elbow on a pedestal supporting the lion of St Mark. The artist represents Shakespeare's Venetian magnificos as four English judges dressed in their legal robes of scarlet, which was also the colour of the robes of Venetian senators. Two of the judges have unrecognisable features, but the other two are obviously portraits. In profile on the extreme left is William Murray, Lord Mansfield (1704-93), who became Lord Chief Justice in 1756. The reason for his inclusion not apparent. Perhaps it was because of his great fame as a judge, or he may have commissioned the painting. Another explanation might be found in a celebrated lawsuit brought by Macklin in 1775 against a hostile crowd who had sabotaged his performances of Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice. The presiding judges, Lord Mansfield and Richard, Lord Aston, found for Macklin, awarding him £600 and costs. Both the trial and consequent triumphant performance of The Merchant of Venice were much reported in the press at the time and recorded in subsequent biographies of Macklin. The second judge in this painting, who has never been definitively identified, may be Aston.
Zoffany produced his most notable theatre paintings between 1762 and 1770, before leaving England for six years in 1772. The picture shows evidence of reworking, and he may have made the alterations on his return, introducing the topical event of the famous trail and adding the legal dramatis personae. This painting could be seen as an attempt by Zoffany to record a recent historical occasion in combination with his old, once-popular subject, the theatrical conversation piece.
At the Royal Academy exhibition of 1779, John Kitchingman exhibited a miniature in oil, The Head of Macklin, an unacknowledged copy made directly from Zoffany's portrait. Mander and Mitchenson list three other portraits by Zoffany of Charles Macklin as Shylock: The Shylock-Tubal Scene, Hughes-Stanton Collection; a Full-Length Portrait, Maugham Collection, National Theatre; and a Head Study, National Gallery, Dublin). In addition, numerous engravings are associated with this painting. The picture is unfinished.
Dictionary of National Biography, XII, London 1909, pp.623-8
Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson, The Artist and the Theatre, Melbourne, London and Toronto 1955, pp.54-63
Mary Webster, Johan Zoffany 1733-1810, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London 1976, pp.44-5, reproduced