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The History of the Play

It is generally believed that The Merchant of Venice was written between 1594 and 1598; but all we know is that it was written before 1598. In that year Francis Meres published his Palladis Tamia, where, in a comparison of English poets with the classics, he mentions Shakespeare as a leading contemporary dramatist, and in the list of his productions gives Merchant of Venice.

Henslowe's Diary, under date of 25 August, 1594, shows that a new play which he describes as 'the Venesyon comodey,' was performed. No one can prove that this is a reference to the Merchant of Venice. Inasmuch as most editors and critics delight in conjecture, it is surprising that no one has tried to prove that this is a play wherein Shakespeare dramatizes his adventures with the 'Venison' of Sir Thomas Lucy, of Charlecote Park.

A quarto edition was printed in 1600, and upon this the Folio text of 1623 was based. In 1619 a spurious edition, bearing the false date 1600, was foisted upon the world. Till 1906 it was generally regarded as the earliest edition and allowed vastly more authority than it in fact deserves.

No one knows when the play was first performed. A version by George Granville, Viscount Lansdowne, was played at London in 1701, and 'held the stage for exactly forty years.' It is printed in Furness as a literary curiosity.

Of the famous actors who have interpreted Shylock, Richard Burbage, the Elizabethan star, may have been the first. In 1741, Charles Macklin, an Irishman, restored the Shakespearean version to the stage, for which he should receive everlasting credit. When he was nearly a hundred years old, he made his last appearance in the role of Shylock. The next great actor to take the part was Edmund Kean, in 1814, whose original interpretation made a powerful impression.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the greatest impersonation was that by Edwin Booth, who displayed all the resources of his genius. In many ways, it was his finest role. Henry Irving attracted wide attention by making Shylock a sympathetic character, but he was neither Elizabethan nor particularly impressive. Richard Mansfield, with his uncanny intelligence, gave a memorable presentation, in which the fiendish character of Shylock was predominant, and yet his humanity not lost. Contemporary with him was the great German actor, Ernst von Possart, who made Der Kaufmann von Venedig a favorite play with Continental audiences. He was one of the best of all Shylocks. At the present writing (1922) the only important English-speaking actors of the Jew are Edward Sothern, who, with Julia Marlowe as Portia, gives an admirable production; Walter Hampden; and David Warfield.