Despite its deliberate failure to meet the Victorian vogue for spectacular theater,1 Henry Irving's Lyceum production of The Merchant of Venice set "a record without precedent in the annals of the stage" (L. Irving 356). Mounted and rehearsed in the space of three weeks—Irving having opted to avoid "hampering the natural action of the piece with any unnecessary embellishment" (H. Irving, MV preface)—the production, which opened on 1 November 1879, ran for seven straight months, or two hundred and fifty consecutive performances. During the course of that season it was estimated that "330,000 people had visited the Lyceum," generating receipts amounting to some fifty-nine thousand pounds (L. Irving 357). Subsequently, Irving revived the production "nearly every season, took it on every tour, played it perhaps a thousand times, and was still playing it the week he died, more than twenty-five years after the first night" (Hughes 227).2 On 14 February 1880 the fact that The Merchant had "for the first time in history [been] played for a hundred nights in succession" (Theatre 1/3/80, 188) was celebrated with dinner for three hundred at the Lyceum at a cost of six hundred pounds (L. Irving 357). And nearly ten years after it opened, the production still had enough cachet that Irving was summoned by the Prince of Wales to perform the trial scene from The Merchant of Venice along with The Bells (also a play about a Jew) on a specially prepared stage at Sandringham. With one minor exception it was the only theatrical entertainment that Queen Victoria had attended in the twenty-eight years since the death of Prince Albert (512).
Undoubtedly, Irving's star status contributed to the success of the production, but there seemed to be more to it than that; the favorable reception of Irving's Shakespearean offerings was by no means assured. He had had only middling results with both Coriolanus and Twelfth Night (Hughes 226) and was widely considered to have failed outright with Macbeth (E. M. Moore 209). Yet, with The Merchant of Venice, Irving "made Shakespeare [truly] popular—an achievement of which but few of his predecessors . . . could boast" (Theatre 1/12/79, 292). Thus, the phenomenon seems to be one that cannot be accounted for by cult of personality alone. Moreover, the fact that the production "provoked a controversy" over which both Irving's supporters and detractors "took up extreme positions" (Hughes 225) suggests that something else lay at the heart of it all. That something else, without a doubt, was Irving's treatment of the figure of Shylock, for in Henry Irving's Lyceum production of The Merchant of Venice, in all but the most literal of senses, Shylock wins the trial.
While aspects of Irving's Shylock were recognizably indebted to theatrical predecessors such as Charles Macklin and Edmund Kean, Irving was considered to have utterly redefined the role. In popular terms he was widely perceived...
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