Imagine going out to see The Merchant of Venice one evening with the full expectation that Shylock, as on so many previous nights, would be played for laughs. This had been the norm during the first half of the eighteenth century when George Granville’s comic adaptation of the play The Jew of Venice held the stage.
Imagine being stunned when the part was suddenly performed seriously, with real menace. The Shylock that evening in 1741 was Charles Macklin, an Irish actor and playwright who had immersed himself in Jewish London in order to mimic the rhythms of Jewish speech. But for all its claims to realism his redefinition of the role was ferocious: there are reports of audience members fainting when in the trial scene Macklin would crouch down to whet his knife on the stage floor.
Seeing Macklin, Alexander Pope famously declared “This is the Jew that Shakespeare drew!”. For over forty years Macklin owned the role of Shylock; audiences returned again and again to experience his savage malevolence. Macklin’s appeal was more than a virtuoso turn. His performance both channeled and crystallized the virulent anti-Semitism of Georgian Britain.
Now imagine a very different performance, just after Macklin’s retirement in 1789, when Daniel Mendoza, the great Jewish boxer, defeated the English champion Richard Humphreys in their third and final fight at Doncaster. Courageously struggling against ubiquitous ethnic hatred in the ring, in the press, and in his everyday life, Mendoza had emerged as a different kind of Jew, one whose manliness and honor paradoxically shored up a fantasy of English toleration.
But in Doncaster Mendoza did something that tells us just how thoroughly The Merchant of Venice and Macklin’s performance defined British anti-Semitism. Mendoza brought Humphreys to the brink of defeat and then gently let him regain his ground. Again and again Mendoza held the nearly insensate Humphreys with his fist raised to land the final blow, only to theatrically set him down. The message was lost on no one: by repeatedly staging this act of mercy he became the anti-Shylock and powerfully countered Macklin’s legacy.
This widely reported intervention in the ethnic imaginary of Britain was remembered for generations. Pierce Egan’s account of the fight 25 years later in the popular Boxiana series praised Mendoza’s “humanity” and used Antonio’s condemnation of Shylock in Act IV scene 1 to capture the prejudice of Humphreys’ numerous supporters. Egan still cast Mendoza as Shylock, but not as performed by Macklin. Rather Egan invoked the new version of the play and the part associated after 1814 with the actor then electrifying the London stage: Edmund Kean.
Kean’s more sympathetic interpretation of Shylock, which foregrounded the moral shortcomings of the Christian characters to provide a rationale for Shylock’s malevolence, provided a script for comprehending Mendoza’s historical significance. Egan’s subtle appropriation of Kean’s performance allows us to see that Mendoza had to enact Shylock’s threatening otherness in order to indict the anti-Semitism that permeated his life inside and outside the ring. Mendoza had to be both dangerous and human in order to counter ethnic hatred.
That Mendoza was lauded by Egan in the 1820s is remarkable because the fighter’s reputation was thoroughly damaged by his part in the Old Price (OP) Riots of 1809. On the opening of the new Covent Garden Theatre in September that year, audience members protested the imposition of higher ticket prices by drowning out the performance. Rioting in the playhouse was common in the eighteenth century, but the OP Riots channeled anti-establishment feeling, moral outrage, and ethnic prejudice into elaborate forms of protest that lasted over three months.
John Philip Kemble, Covent Garden’s actor-manager, hired Mendoza and other boxers as heavy muscle in an attempt to restore order. The press ran faux advertisements that represented the violence in the pit as a theatrical event to satirize both the management and the players/boxers.
In early October the Jewish boxers made their first appearance in the pit. Audience members in the galleries started hanging placards and distributing handbills with anti-Semitic mottos and epigrams. Expressions such as “Turn out the Jews”; “Oppose Shylock and the whole tribe of Israel”; “Shall Britons be subdued by the wandering tribe of Israel”; “The Covent Garden Synagogue, Mendoza the Grand Rabbi”; “Genius of Britain support our cause/Free us from Kemble and Jewish laws” were now displayed in the theater, printed in the press, and integrated into visual representations of the conflict. Kemble had activated an anti-Semitic firestorm.
Kemble himself was satirized as Shylock: the increase in prices became a sign of usury. Throughout the unrest Kemble resisted this characterization. He even cast himself as Antonio on repeated occasions but to no avail. In a widely reported incident one of the OP sympathizers dressed as a rabbi in order to be ritually ejected from the theater. The mock-rabbi was the anti-Mendoza: an earlier effeminate and notably religious stereotype supplanted the manly pugilist who had warranted respect for his courage and “defensive science”. The turning out of actual Jewish audience members ensued on other occasions.
The dismantling of Mendoza’s public persona shows how quickly prior performances of The Merchant of Venice could be weaponized. Isaac and George Cruikshank’s print Killing no Murder shows Mendoza and other bruisers assaulting audience members in the pit. Mendoza is fashionably dressed but he is not just any gentleman.
Like many of the satirical images of Kemble during the riots, the actor manager’s “Roman” nose has transformed into Mendoza’s “Jewish” profile. Uniting Kemble and Mendoza in the same figure literalized the relationship between management and muscle, and it metaphorically activated the object around which the entire scene of violence revolves: Mendoza’s knife. The knife was the crucial prop in Macklin’s performance of Shylock and here Cruikshank returns us to the very scene that Mendoza had resolutely resisted in his third fight against Humphreys.
In Doncaster, Mendoza had famously shown mercy to a fallen man; here in Covent Garden with the knife at hand, Mendoza is once again the murderous Shylock that dominated the London stage prior to the advent of Kean in 1814. From buffoon to monster to exemplary citizen and back again, British anti-Semitism went multiple rounds with Shylock until Kean changed the rules of the game and made it possible for Egan to see the importance of Mendoza’s struggle.