Constance Benson as Portia in The Merchant of Venice

Constance Benson as Portia in The Merchant of Venice

In 1886 Frank Benson married Gertrude Constance Featherstonhaugh and, as Constance Benson, she would play opposite him in most of the company productions from then on. They partnered each other as nearly all the major Shakespearean couples. There was certainly an added frisson for the audience in seeing a husband and wife team play together. The fascinated gossip about Henry Irving and Ellen Terry shows that Victorian audiences were just as curious about the offstage relationships of their stars as we are today.

Constance is pictured here in The Merchant of Venice. On this occasion, the couple weren't playing precisely opposite one another. That would have required Frank to take on the somewhat thankless role of Bassanio. Instead, he preferred the show-stealing Shylock, which did of course give them one lengthy and crucial scene together: the court scene where, disguised as a male lawyer, gets the better of Shylock with his bloodthirsty contract for a pound of Antonio the Merchant's flesh.