These portraits show two well-known Victorian actors in a ground-breaking production of The Merchant of Venice at the Lyceum Theatre in 1879. Henry Irving (1838–1905) became well known for his sympathetic portrayal of Shylock, while Ellen Terry (1847–1928) brought both power and tenderness to the role of Portia.
The images were produced through the process of photogravure – where a photographic negative is transferred to a metal plate and etched in. They form part of a six-volume collection of The Plays of Shakespeare, bound in green cloth with gilt flowers. This includes notes by the editor, author and publisher Charles Knight (1791–1873), alongside images of actors in each play.
Henry Irving as Shylock
Soon after he took on the management of the Lyceum Theatre, Irving staged and starred in The Merchant of Venice. While on a cruise in Tunis, he had been inspired by a Jewish merchant who struck him with the ‘lofty air of a king’ which quickly changed to hair-tearing rage in a quarrel about money. Many critics said Irving’s performance, in a Levantine robe, gave Shylock tragic dignity. It suggested that the Jew’s descent from calm to frenzied revenge was caused by Christian mistreatment. In 1879 Irving wrote that the play showed how ‘the worst passions of human nature are nurtured by undeserved persecution’.
Henry Irving adapted Shakespeare’s play to draw out this tragic meaning. He omitted some of the most anti-Semitic lines and added a poignant scene after Jessica’s elopement, showing Shylock returning across a desolate stage, to find his house deserted.
Ellen Terry as Portia
This print shows Ellen Terry in the role of Portia, disguised as a male lawyer in the climactic trial scene (4.1). It is based on an 1883 painting by Louise Jopling (1843–1933), a close friend of Terry’s. The painting, once owned by Irving, is now lost – though the red legal robes have survived to be displayed at Terry’s house in Kent.
Ellen Terry played many of Shakespeare’s heroines to great acclaim. But she said that the role of Portia (which she first acted in 1875) had given her the ‘feeling of the conqueror’ for the first and last time.
 Both quotes are in Gross, Shylock, p. 128.
 Ellen Terry, The Story of My Life: Recollections and Reflections (New York, 1907), p. 115. Quoted in John Drakakis (ed.), The Arden Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice (London: Bloomsbury, 2010), p. 116.
- Full title:
- The Plays of Shakespeare, with notes by Charles Knight, and illustrations in photogravure.
- 1906–10, London
- Book / Illustration / Image / Photogravure
- William Shakespeare, Charles Knight [notes on the play], Louise Jopling [artist]
- Usage terms
- Public Domain
- Held by
- British Library
- Article by:
- James Shapiro
- Comedies, Ethnicity and identity
Jews in 16th-century England practised their religion secretly, and many of those raised in the Jewish faith either converted to Christianity or pretended to have done so. James Shapiro considers Elizabethan prejudices and paranoia about Jews, putting Shakespeare's Shylock in context.
- Article by:
- Farah Karim-Cooper
- Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage, Comedies, Power, politics and religion
The valuation of property and people – particularly women – in Shakespeare’s Venice reflects contemporary anxieties nearer home, suggests Farah Karim-Cooper.
- Article by:
- Andrew Dickson
- Ethnicity and identity, Shakespeare’s life and world, Global Shakespeare
Andrew Dickson describes the position of racial and religious minorities in Renaissance England, and considers how this might have influenced Shakespeare's depiction of immigrants, outsiders and exiles.