Charles Macklin (or sometimes Melaghlin, McLaughlin, Mecklin, Maclean, etc.) was born in County Donegal, Ireland, in 1699. He was sent to a boarding school, exhibited some theatrical ability, trained as a performer at Bristol and other provincial theatres and may have gained some experience as a harlequin in London as early as 1720. The first certain evidence of his performing dates 24 September 1730, when a playbill has him at Bartholomew Fair playing Sir Charles Freeman in “The Beaux’ Stratagem”. He seems to have been willing to play almost anything anywhere throughout much of his career, for his is a history of hopping from one theatre to another (and usually squabbling with his managers if not his fellow performers) – not what one might expect from an actor who helped reform his profession. He was a stocky, bluff, blunt, stubborn, testy Irishman with a will of his own, mostly self-educated, thirsty for public approval and willing to work hard and fight hard to succeed. He had two ‘wives’ and a son and daughter, to all of whom he was almost too devoted. His daughter Maria had a modest stage career, partly engineered by Macklin; his dissolute son was a terrible disappointment. Only to his stage career was Macklin really married.
He acted roles large and small in good plays and bad, and managers would normally have found his varied talents very ‘useful’ indeed. He could sing (Peachum in “The Beggar’s Opera” was one of his favourite roles), dance in pantomimes, write comedies and farces (but he had to fight to be paid for his efforts), teach (he was one of the best acting coaches of the century and ran an academy of oratory for a while) and manage (though he wasn’t cut out for that kind of work). But what he is remembered and honored for are a handful of roles, especially Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” and Macbeth but also Sir Archy MacSarcasm in his own “Love à la Mode”, Touchstone in “As You Like It” and Sir Pertinax Macsychophant in his “Man of the World” (G0448). His interests as an actor are evident in such varied characters as Brazen and Appletree in “The Recruiting Officer”, Teague and Abel in “The Committee”, Foppington in “The Careless Husband”, Poins and Prince Hal in “Henry IV part 1”, Osric and the Gravedigger in “Hamlet”, Face in “The Alchemist”, Sir Jasper in “The Country Wife”, Malvolio in “Twelfth Night”, Marplot in “The Busy Body”, Iago in “Othello” (another of his rare ventures into tragedy) and Sir Wilful in “The Way of the World”.
But his repertoire, while it confirms his usefulness, hardly suggests an actor who was willing to face public disapproval and the alienation of his cohorts by playing ‘the Jew that Shakespeare drew’ – as Pope called his Shylock. Macklin clearly had, in addition to all his other good and bad qualities, a willingness to take risks. Today, we are so accustomed to Shylock being played as a serious, almost tragic character that we can hardly imagine how audiences on 14 February 1741 at Drury Lane (eight months before Garrick’s Richard III sensation at Goodman’s Fields Theatre) must have taken Macklin’s innovation. They had been accustomed to Granville’s “The Jew of Venice” – a Restoration watering down of the Shakespeare play with Shylock played as a comic character. Macklin was thorough in his study of the play, but the effect was not stodgy or antiquarian but electric in its theatricality and realism.
Of the many descriptions of Macklin’s Shylock (which he continued playing with great success for decades) one of the best was by the German visitor Lichtenberg: ‘Imagine a rather stout man with a coarse yellow face and a nose generously fashioned in all three dimnensions, and a long double chin, and a mouth so carved by nature that the knife appears to have slit him right up to the ears, on one side at least, I thought. He wears a long black gown, long wide trousers, and a red tricorne … The first word he utters, when he comes to the stage, are slowly and impressively spoken: ‘