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’.[1]

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.[2]

[1] Both quotes are in Gross, Shylock, p. 128.

[2] 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.