Charles Macklin – actor, playwright, murderer

Charles Macklin’s acheivements are not usually remembered but nearly 220 years after his death in 1797, Charles Macklin once again made an appearance on the stage in Mr Foote’s Other Leg, which enjoyed good runs at the Hampstead and Haymarket theatres before finishing in January this year.event_media-banner_lrg

Macklin’s appearance (played by Colin Stinton) as tutor to Samuel Foote and David Garrick is rightly brief but withholds a story worthy of its own play. An event that took place on this day in 1735.

Charles Macklin
Macklin by John Opie

Charles Macklin was born Charles MacLaughlin in County Down, Ireland in 1700. His father died when he was a young boy and in 1707 his mother remarried a Dublin man, which is where the family moved to. Aged eight he attended Island Bridge Academy, a school run by the very strict Mr Nicholson, a Scotsman whose methods and mannerisms would become immortalised in the character, Sir Pertinax Macsycophant in Macklin’s play The Man of the World.

Macklin first arrived in London with two friends and a pocket full of money stolen from his mother. The money soon ran out and while Macklin’s friends pursued their own paths he got a job as an entertainer in a public house; he sung, danced, mimicked and generally played the comic fool to the delight of the customers. He soon became a known attraction, trebling the takings in the till. Such was his popularity that it was claimed that the buxom landlady married him in attempt to prevent him from leaving. However, as soon as word of this convenient merger reached his friends they quickly extracted him and escorted him back home to Dublin.

Back at home Macklin’s mother put all thoughts of the theatre and entertainment out of his head and instead found him employment at Trinity College as a Badgeman (someone who ran errands for the undergraduates). Based on Macklin’s recollections of the students he saw and served at Trinity, it is estimated that he was 15 or 16 years old at the time.

His stay at Dublin didn’t last and by the early 1720s Macklin was on the stage touring with a company based in Bristol and from there his career as an actor and comedian continued unimpeded.

Theophilus Cibber
Theophilus Cibber

In 1733 Macklin played the Drury Lane theatre and a year later at the Haymarket. The big names in theatre at the time were the Cibber’s – Colly Cibber was coming to the end of his career but his son, Theophilus was about the same age as Macklin and already an established member of the Drury Lane Theatre Company.

Just as his career was really starting to take-off  it was was very nearly ended when, in 1735, Macklin stood on trial for murdering fellow actor, Thomas Hallam.

Macklin had been in London two years and was steadily becoming an established name with regular appearances at the Drury Lane Theatre. On May 10th Macklin was appearing in an after-piece along with American actor, Thomas Hallam. Macklin arrived at the theatre and was in costume before he realised that the wig he had worn the previous evening was missing. Macklin went in search of the wig and found it in the green room, on the head of Hallam. An exchange of words ensued with Macklin proclaiming that the wig was central to his characterisation and as he had worn it the previous evening it was only right that he should wear it again. Hallam wasn’t budging claiming ‘first come first serve’ on the basis that the wig was not actually Macklin’s but from a stock of props kept at the theatre.

This reasoned argument did nothing to pacify Macklin who grew more and more frustrated.

Macklin: GOD – ye for a black guard scrub Rascal, How durst you have the Impudence to take this Wig?

HallamI am no more a Rascal than your self.

In his exasperation Macklin lifted a waking cane that he was holding and jabbed it at Hallam’s head. The court heard that Hallam suddenly moved his head sideways so that the cane went directly into his eye; and further.

A witness later stated in court: He clapt both his Hands to his Eye, and cry’d, “O’ Lord ! I believe my eye is put out”, and would have fal’n in the Fire, if Mr. Cole had not catch’d him. When he was set down, I asked him how he did; “Lord!” said he, “I believe my eye-ball is shev’d to the other side of my head.” I believe the Prisoner had him by the Hand, all the while the Surgeon was dressing him.

Macklin came to his senses immediately, threw the cane into the fireplace and asked for a doctor to be sent for by which time Hallam had passed-out. The wound proved fatal and Hallam died the next evening having never regained consciousness.

Macklin was charged with murder and appeared at the Old Bailey on 10th December. Evidence was heard from witnesses who described the feud, the attack, and Macklin’s regret in the immediate aftermath. Macklin himself, not entitled to legal representation, did his own cross examinations and gave his own version of events.

The jury found him guilty of Manslaughter and, as was customary, he was branded in the hand a few days later.

In 20th Century Hollywood a similar incident would have ended the career of an actor but Macklin went back to the Drury Lane theatre, regularly performing there until 1748. His portrayal of Shylock made him famous and, it is claimed, was his finest achievement as an actor. He also wrote a number of plays, Man of the World and Love in a Maze, being the most successful. 

Macklin-plaqueAs his career declined with age Macklin took to offering elocution lessons to aspiring young actors and was synonymous with David Garrick and Samuel Foote who were both tutored by him.

He died in July 1797 aged 97; despite his memorial at St Paul’s in Covent Garden stating he was 107.


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