Charles Macklin

Charles Macklin
Portrait of Charles Macklin by John Opie, circa 1792

Charles Macklin (26 September 1699 – 11 July 1797), originally Cathal MacLochlainn (or Charles McLaughlin in English), was an actor and dramatist born in Culdaff, a village on the scenic Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal, part of the Province of Ulster in the north of Ireland. He was one of the most distinguished actors of his day, equally in tragedy and comedy. He gained his greatest fame in the role of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. He is also famous for killing a man in a fight over a wig at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.


Early Life

Macklin was thought to be born in Ireland in 1690 and moved to England in either 1725 or 1726; the dates in his early life are not entirely clear. However, in his own words, he was born 'in the last year of the last century', making the year 1699 the year of his birth. In fact, 'The Monthly Mirror' of February 1796, a year before his death, stated that: 'Macklin, according to this statement, must be in his hundred and sixth year, or thereabouts, whereas he is in fact no more than ninety-seven. His family’s name was McLaughlin, but “seeming somewhat uncouth to the pronunciation of an English tongue,” he changed it for the English stage. He found various jobs as an actor in London, but his thick Ulster accent was an obstacle to success and could not find a steady theatre home until he was noticed in a small character role in Henry Fielding’s Coffee-House Politician at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1725. It was after that fine performance, that would go unnoticed by a lesser actor, that he was snatched up by the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane theatre as an actor and a resident acting manager, serving with James Quin. Their relationship was professional, but full of plenty of animosity. Macklin devotes a lengthy section of his memoirs to Quin, giving examples of their disagreements. Macklin admits that “nothing but the necessity of business could ever make them associate together”. Even the necessity of business sometimes dissolved; however, after some contract and pay disagreements in the 1741-42 season, Macklin and nearly the entire Drury Lane resident company left and attempted to find work elsewhere.

Shylock and Other Roles

Macklin’s most important role, the one that catapulted him to stardom in eighteenth century London, was Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. For several decades, the popular version of the play was a “fixed” text by George Granville, titled The Jew of Venice. In it, many roles were expanded, while Shylock and others were dramatically shortened. The eighteenth century audiences were used to seeing a comic Shylock, often dressing him in a red wig and a large nose, resembling the commedia dell’arte character Pantalone.

Macklin wanted a different path to playing this character. While Macklin didn’t return to the Bard’s script exactly as it was written, he did make his own edits to Shakespeare’s script that were much closer than Granville’s text. Next, rather than dress Shylock as a clown, Macklin researched his role. He studied Josephus’ History of the Jews, and observed Jewish people in London. He learned that Italian Jews, especially from Venice, were known to wear red hats, so he took that as a basis for his costume.

Finally, opening night came. This faithfulness to Shakespeare’s original intent for the character, combined with Macklin’s revolutionary method of attempting some semblance of realism in his performance, resulted in uproarious applause. Macklin himself confesses, “On my return to the green-room, after the play was over, it was crowded with nobility and critics, who all complimented me in the warmest and most unbounded manner”. King George II saw the production and was so moved he could not fall asleep that night. A bystander in the audience of the show admitted famously, “This is the Jew / That Shakespeare drew”.

Many tried to replicate Macklin’s performance of Shylock, but none of the six actors that attempted the role at the rival Covent Garden theatre from 1744 to 1746 were able to match nearly the acclaim that Macklin had received for his Shylock. Even Macklin was unable to match his performance. He did have a varied career, filled with at least 490 roles, but none of them were anywhere near the uproar his Shylock caused. Even his two closest in hype, roles from The Confederacy and Love for Love, were roles designed to emulate Shylock. He played Shylock for nearly the next fifty years, as well as Iago in Othello and the Ghost in Hamlet. In Ben Jonson's Volpone, he played the part of Mosca. He was the creator of Sir Pertinax Macsycophant, a famous burlesque character, and he was Macbeth at Covent Garden in 1772, in a production with authentic Scottish costumes.

Together with David Garrick, his student, friend, and partner, Macklin revolutionized acting in the 18th century. Garrick and Macklin eventually had a falling out in the mid 1740s, which derailed Macklin's rise whilst propelling Garrick's own career. Macklin, then the stage manager at Drury Lane, participated in an actor walkout. When the actors, led by Garrick, were forced to accept the owner's terms, they had to abandon Macklin, who, as the stage manager, should have quelled the actors' strike, rather than participated in it. Macklin felt betrayed by Garrick and the other actors.

Macklin retired from the stage in 1753, then opened a tavern at which he gave a nightly lecture followed by a debate, which Macklin called the British Inquisition,. The evening began with a lecture by Macklin. According to some histories, Macklin claimed at one of these shows to have such a good memory that he could recite any speech after reading through it once. As a challenge, Samuel Foote allegedly wrote The Great Panjandrum, a nonsense poem designed to be particularly difficult to memorize. The word Panjandrum has since passed into the English language.

Macklin returned to the stage, but finally retired in 1789, when he found he was no longer able to recall the entire part of Shylock. He lived another eight years, supported by the income from a subscription edition of two of his best plays, The Man of the World and Love in a Maze.


He wrote many plays, including Love a la Mode (1759), The School for Husbands, or The Married Libertine (1761), and The Man of the World (1781). The True-Born Irishman (1763) was a hit in Ireland and a flop in England.


He married his former mistress, Ann Grace, in 1739. Their daughter, Mary Macklin (ca. 1734 – 1781), was a well-known actress in her own era. His wife died in December 1758; he married again the next year, to an Elizabeth Jones.

Legal problems

Macklin lived a tempestuous life, often involved in lawsuits, sometimes acting as his own lawyer. In 1735 he quarrelled with a fellow actor named Thomas Hallam, whom he accidentally killed by thrusting his cane through Hallam's eye. The pair had argued over a wig whilst performing a new farce, 'Trick for Trick'. The incident occurred in the Green Room of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in front of many witnesses and Macklin, after the sudden fit of temper, was sorry and arranged for a physician to attend to Hallam. Unfortunately, the cane had pierced through Hallam's eye into his brain and he died one day later. Macklin was tried for murder, conducted his own defence and, though not acquitted, escaped with manslaughter. The punishment for manslaughter was the branding of a letter 'M' upon the hand, by this period not with a hot but with a cold iron, although there is no evidence that this was actually carried out on Macklin. In 1772 he sued the organizers of a riot among the theatergoers who had demanded that he be fired. He recovered £600, but graciously chose to accept instead the defendants' purchase of £100 in tickets at three benefits for himself, his daughter and the management.


He lived a long life and may have died a centenarian, although that is not without doubt. While his second wife gave his birth year as 1690 on the memorial tablet installed in St. Paul's Church, Covent Garden, making him 107 at his death; others have suggested that he was born in 1699 or 1710. His memorial shows a dagger piercing the eye of a theatrical mask, a contrite reference to his altercation with Thomas Hallam.

Macklin is remembered today in his native Inishowen, where the Charles Macklin Autumn School is held each October in the village of Culdaff.


Template:Lives of Shakespearian Actors Volume 2 Template:Memoirs of Charles Macklin Template:Charles Macklin: An Actor's Life This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Cousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London, J. M. Dent & Sons; New York, E. P. Dutton.

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