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Shakespeare & Beyond

Historical connections: The Black page in Henry Irving’s Victorian production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’

On November 1, 1879, the Lyceum Theatre in London’s West End opened its doors to eager theatre-goers for the first in what would be a run of 250 continuous performances of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – which was a long run for a Victorian play! The production was directed by actor Henry Irving shortly after he had taken up the post of theatre manager at the Lyceum. It was (mostly) well received by audiences and critics, and Irving was especially praised for his own performance as Shylock.

Irving was following in the footsteps of 19th-century actor Edmund Kean in presenting Victorian audiences with a more sympathetic version of Shakespeare’s villainous Jewish character than those they had become accustomed to seeing. Irving’s production has become well known for effectively moving away from the early modern English antisemitism in Shakespeare’s play. But in contrast, Irving’s interpretation of the Black characters in the play, and specifically his addition of one new character, amplified some of the problematic racial tropes in Shakespeare’s play.

In his production Irving introduced a new character to Portia’s household, a Black servant boy. Literary critic and Irving expert Alan Hughes describes this character as a “little black page” who appeared on stage as part of Portia’s entourage in the first of the performance’s casket-opening scenes. In this part of the play, the Prince of Morocco tries his luck at ‘winning’ Portia by choosing from one of three caskets. According to Hughes, the little boy carried the “train” of Portia’s dress on stage when she received the Prince, and also revealed the casket boxes to the Moroccan guests and the audience from behind a curtain.

Contemporary reviewers of the production don’t mention this character in Portia’s company in later scenes of the play. So even if the boy had appeared on stage at other moments of the play, it seems that he was specifically associated with the scene involving the Prince of Morocco. This is also suggested by a picture of the boy alongside Portia which was published in the Illustrated London News on January 3, 1880. The image featured next to a brief, glowing review of Victorian actress Ellen Terry, who played the role of Portia in Irving’s production.

In the image the little Black boy is bowing down next to Portia with his face hidden and his arm outstretched, waiting to receive the key that the actress is dropping into his hand. The caption on the full-length newspaper drawing explains that it is of “Miss Ellen Terry as Portia, in the ‘Merchant of Venice’, at the Lyceum Theatre” and includes the quote “Here, take the casket, Prince; and if my form lie there, then I am yours – Act II Scene 7”. This quote directs us to the moment in Shakespeare’s play where Portia addresses the Prince of Morocco after he decides to open the golden casket. Because the article and caption don’t mention the Black page, the newspaper misleadingly invites readers who have not seen the play to identify the little boy as the Prince of Morocco himself, who, in Shakespeare’s play, asks Portia to “deliver” him “the key” to the golden casket directly (2.7.61).

The drawing and its implications seemed to have stayed culturally relevant even in the years after the first run of the performance, as is suggested by this copy of the picture drawn in 1887 by an artist named W. Clémence:

The Merchant of Venice scene with Portia and the Black pageThe Merchant of Venice scene with Portia and the Black page
The Merchant of Venice, Miss Ellen Terry as Portia. Drawing by W. Clémence. Folger ART Box C625 no.1

Irving’s inclusion of the little Black boy in the production is curious, since Shakespeare’s play doesn’t reference any Black characters in Portia’s household. Given the boy’s ties to the Prince of Morocco’s casket scene, it is possible that Irving added this character to emphasize features of the African, Muslim Prince. His Blackness complements the Prince’s own Black or tawny “complexion”, which Shakespeare describes as sunburnt from the “burnished sun” near the Prince’s home (2.1.1-2). The little Black page in Belmont echoes the racial differences and foreignness associated with Belmont’s newest visitor in Shakespeare’s play.

As Portia’s subject, the Black page in Irving’s production is also part of a power dynamic that highlights themes of racial hierarchy in Shakespeare’s play text. The balance of power created by the relationship of a white mistress with authority over a Black servant emphasizes the white supremacy at the heart of Portia’s racism. Portia’s racism in Shakespeare’s play is particularly noticeable when she tells the audience her hopes that “all” men with the Prince of Morocco’s “complexion” should lose the casket lottery, as the Prince indeed does (2.7.83). Portia’s feelings that her Black or brown suitors are less desirable than her white ones is an example of how white superiority is shaped in Shakespeare’s text. The addition of the Black servant in Irving’s production reproduced this dynamic of white over Black through social status, by presenting the white Portia in a superior social position to her Black servant.

It is possible that the little page may have been Irving’s nod to another Black character in Shakespeare’s play: the Venetian “Moor” who is “with child” (3.5.34). The Moor is impregnated by Launcelot, the clownish character who leaves the service of Shylock to work for Bassanio. This woman is apparently known also to Lorenzo, who breaks the news of her pregnancy to Launcelot. Some critics have suggested that she may have been a maid or servant working in Venice.

As with Irving’s Black page, we know only a few facts about this woman. Like the page, the Moor is a nameless Black figure in the play who is important enough for the audience to know about, but not important enough to be given a speaking part. Whereas Shakespeare’s Moor is seen on the page and absent on stage, Irving’s Black page is absent from the text, and doesn’t appear on cast lists, but has a visible presence on stage. Both characters are mysteriously part of Venice but also not really active, speaking subjects in the city. These Black characters are both so limited in their characterization that they function as props, rather than characters, who represent little more than symbols of racial difference within Venice.

So while Irving’s production may have set the stage for more just and complex performances of Shakespeare’s Shylock than those which had come before, the Victorian director’s use of the Black page in his production shows how forms of race-thinking had been sustained and intensified in the English theatrical imagination from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

This is the second post in a series with Medieval and Early Modern Orients (MEMOs). See related posts on Shakespeare & Beyond. For citations and bibliography, please see the full version of this post on the MEMOs blog.