Mr. Kean’s Shylock

‘Mr. Kean as Shylock’, 1814 print from LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection, CC BY-SA 4.0

Source: William Hazlitt, ‘Mr. Kean’s Shylock’, The Morning Chronicle, 27 January 1814, reproduced in William Hazlitt, A View of the English Stage, or, A series of dramatic criticisms (London: Robert Stodart, 1818), pp. 1-2

Production: William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Drury Lane, London, 26 January 1814

Text: Mr Kean (of whom report had spoken highly) last night made his appearance at Drury-Lane Theatre in the character of Shylock. For voice, eye, action, and expression, no actor has come out for many years at all equal to him, The applause, from the first scene to the last, was general, loud, and uninterrupted. Indeed, the very first scene in which he comes on with Bassanio and Antonio shewed the master in his art, and at once decided the opinion of the audience. Perhaps it was the most perfect of any. Notwithstanding the complete success of Mr Kean in the part of Shylock, we question whether he will not become a greater favourite in other parts. There was a lightness and vigour in his tread, a buoyancy and elasticity of spirit, a fire and animation, which would accord better with almost any other character than with the morose, sullen, inward, inveterate, inflexible malignity of Shylock. The character of Shylock is that of a man brooding over one idea, that of its wrongs, and bent on one unalterable purpose, that of revenge. In conveying a profound impression of this feeling, or in embodying the general conception of rigid and uncontrollable self-will, equally proof against every sentiment of humanity or prejudice of opinion, we have seen actors more successful than Mr. Kean; but in giving effect to the conflict of passions arising out of the contrasts of situation, in varied vehemence of declamation, in keenness of sarcasm, in the rapidity of his transitions from one tone and feeling to another, in propriety and novelty of action, presenting a succession of striking pictures, and giving perpetually fresh shocks of delight and surprise, it would be difficult to single out a competitor. The fault of his acting was (if we may hazard the objection), an over-display of the resources of the art, which gave too much relief to the hard, impenetrable, dark groundwork of the character of Shylock. It would be endless to point out individual beauties, where almost every passage was received with equal and deserved applause. We thought, in one or two instances, the pauses in the voice were too long, and too great a reliance placed on the expression of the countenance, which is a language intelligible only to a part of the house.

Comments: William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was an English essayist, journalist and literary critic. He was one of the leading writers on Shakespeare of his day, popularising critical understanding of the works. As a dramatic critic he played an important part in building up the reputation of Edmund Kean, whose London debut as lead performer was in this production of Shakespeare‘s The Merchant of Venice at Drury Lane on 26 January 1814, which had a sensational effect (despite the theatre being less than a third full at the start).

Links: Copy of A View of the English Stage at Hathi Trust

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