Macklin, Charles (d. 1797), actor and playwright, was probably born at Culdaff, Co. Donegal, one of two children of Terence Meleghin (or McLaughlin) and his wife, Agnes (née Flanagan; c.1660–1759). After his father's death in 1704, he was educated at a boarding school in Islandbridge, Dublin, run by a Scotsman named Nicholson, an allegedly harsh schoolmaster. Macklin made his acting debut in a school production of Thomas Otway's tragedy ‘The orphan’, credibly performing the heroine, Monimia. Accounts vary as to his subsequent whereabouts: he may briefly have lived in England around 1708, and possibly spent a more prolonged period working as a servant in TCD. Around the age of twenty-one he moved to London, where he worked as a waiter in a coffee-house before taking to the stage, playing with provincial companies in Bristol and Bath. By 1725 he was employed at the Lincoln's Inn Fields theatre in London, where, according to one source, he appeared as Alcander in Dryden and Lee's ‘Oedipus’. He spent the next few years on the provincial circuit, and in the early 1730s established a long-standing relationship with the actress Mrs Ann Grace, with whom he had a daughter, Maria (1733–81), and a son, John (c.1749–1790).
An actors’ strike at Drury Lane (led by Theophilus Cibber) gave him the opportunity to play a variety of mainly comic roles between October 1733 and March 1734, including Brazen in ‘The recruiting officer’ by George Farquhar (qv). Although he was marginalised when Cibber returned, Macklin became a regular member of Drury Lane in the autumn of 1734; he played many minor roles and developed a close relationship with the theatre's new patentee, James Fleetwood. This new-found professional stability was disrupted on 10 May 1735 when Macklin struck fellow actor Thomas Hallam in the eye with a stick during a green-room quarrel. The injury proved fatal and Macklin was charged with murder. He so successfully orchestrated his own legal defence, that a manslaughter verdict was returned, for which he was ordered to be branded on the hand and then discharged.
By January 1736 he was again playing at Drury Lane, where he remained for the next few years, his position strengthened by his alliance with Fleetwood. On 14 February 1741 he achieved sensational success with what was regarded as a revolutionary portrayal of Shylock. Having prepared meticulously for the role, Macklin transformed Shylock from the conventional figure of low comedy to a tragic villain, creating a harsh, realistic character apparently so compelling that contemporaries concluded ‘this was the Jew that Shakespeare drew’ (an aphorism usually attributed to Pope). The part became his signature role, which he would perform for the next fifty years. Macklin's innovative acting was realistic and fluid, favouring verisimilitude over the stylised and static dramatic delivery of his counterparts. It proved a highly influential technique, and paved the way for his friend David Garrick's celebrated dramatic transfiguration of Richard III in October 1741. Macklin's enhanced reputation and growing success was abruptly terminated when the Drury Lane actors, led by Garrick, went on strike in May 1743. In the consequent negotiations Fleetwood reinstated all of the company except Macklin, who blamed Garrick for his exclusion and never wholly relinquished a grudge against the English actor.
Unable to find work, by early 1744 Macklin had established an informal acting school. He staged various productions in the Haymarket Theatre, and launched the career of the English actor and playwright Samuel Foote. By December that year Fleetwood had been replaced by James Lacy, and Macklin was back at Drury Lane, playing Shylock. Ambitious to develop his career, he turned his attention to writing and, in the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion, Drury Lane produced his play ‘Henry VII, or, The popish imposter’ (January 1746). The play proved unpopular, as did a farce staged soon afterwards (‘A will and no will’), but his success as an actor continued undiminished, and in the 1746–7 season he was an effective Iago to the acclaimed Othello of Spranger Barry (qv), with whom he became close friends.
In 1747, with the rise of Garrick to the management of Drury Lane, and the failure of his farce ‘The fortune hunters’, Macklin accepted an engagement at the Smock Alley theatre, Dublin. His relationship with manager Thomas Sheridan (qv) (1719–88) became so acrimonious, however, that by 1750 he was dismissed, and he spent the next two years back in London at the Covent Garden theatre. Increasingly frustrated by the failure of his own dramatic compositions and the choice of roles available to him, Macklin decided in 1753 to retire from the stage and open a coffee-house and school of oratory in Covent Garden. The venture was disastrous, and by January 1755 he was bankrupt.
Macklin now collaborated in the proposal for a new theatre in Dublin (Crow Street), but his involvement faltered as his relationship with Barry disintegrated. His professional problems were compounded by personal loss when, on 28 December 1758, Mrs Macklin (as she called herself, though it seems that the couple never formally married) died. Almost immediately, Macklin began a relationship with one of his servants, Elizabeth Jones (1733–1806). In the following year he finally achieved success as a playwright with his extremely popular satiric comedy ‘Love à-la-mode’, staged at Drury Lane, in which Macklin returned to the stage to take the part of the fortune-hunting Scotsman, Sir Archy Macsarcasm. After the failure of his next play (‘The married libertine’, Covent Garden, 1761), he played at Crow Street where he delighted Dubliners with ‘The true-born Irishman’, an acerbic satire of Irish Anglophiles (though its London incarnation, ‘The Irish fine lady’, failed at Covent Garden in 1767). Aside from occasional stints in London, Macklin remained in Dublin throughout the 1760s, playing at Crow Street, Capel Street, and Smock Alley; the last theatre successfully staged his comedy ‘The true-born Scotchman’ in July 1764.
From 1770 Macklin devoted much energy to teaching, though he enjoyed another significant success with his experimental and complex staging of ‘Macbeth’ at Covent Garden in 1773. He played the title role in ancient Scottish dress, rather than the more usual contemporary military costume, a visual spectacle that caused much excitement among London theatre-goers, and anticipated the future direction and methodology of Shakespeare productions. His success was again mitigated by theatrical in-fighting, and as public controversy was increasingly reflected in violently disruptive audiences, Macklin was dismissed from the company in November 1773. Furious with the manager, George Colman, for capitulating to the mob, Macklin sued several participants in the disturbances, securing their conviction in May 1775 for conspiracy to riot. Astutely, he did not fully press his claim for damages, and consequently enjoyed a triumphant return to the Covent Garden stage.
He continued to act and teach, and on 3 February 1778 he married Elizabeth. In May 1781 he was finally granted permission by the lord chamberlain to stage an English production of ‘The true-born Scotchman’, renamed ‘The man of the world’ – commonly interpreted as an attack on the influence of Scottish politicians, who filled London in the wake of Lord Bute. The play, a classically constructed comedy, featured the famous burlesque character of Sir Pertinax Macsycophant (played with vigour by Macklin), and proved overwhelmingly popular with audiences, who delighted in Macklin's satirical swipes at government, court, and opposition alike.
Macklin continued to appear intermittently on London and Dublin stages throughout the 1780s, though his performances were increasingly hampered by deteriorating health and loss of memory. He was forced to withdraw from his benefit performance as Shylock at Covent Garden on 7 May 1789. This was to be his last appearance. His retirement was dogged by poverty, only partially relieved by Arthur Murphy's (qv) publication of Love à-la-mode and The man of the world (1790) which secured him an annuity of £200. He died at his home in Tavistock Row, Covent Garden, 11 July 1797, and was buried at nearby St Paul's, Covent Garden.
Macklin could be a difficult and litigious colleague, but his electrifying performances were ranked second only to those of Garrick, and his contribution to theatrical culture was of lasting significance. His papers are held at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, and Harvard University. There are portraits of Macklin as Shylock (Joseph Zoffany, c.1768, Tate collection, London) and as Sir Pertinax Macsycophant (Samuel de Wilde, c.1781, NGI, Dublin, and the Garrick Club, London).