June 19, 1989 12:00 PM

The quality of Shakespeare was not strain’d when Dustin Hoffman took to the boards as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice this month in London’s West End. Hoffman, 51, had feared that it might be, since he was performing the Bard’s work for the first time. The only neophyte in a cast of classically trained actors directed by Peter Hall, former head of the National Theatre, the American Oscar winner had every reason to expect that he would get his pound of flak from critics and Shakespeare-savvy audiences. Some reviewers did suggest that Hoffman understated Shakespeare’s most controversial role, memorably played in recent times by Laurence Olivier and Alec Guinness, and they noted a few stumbles in his attempt to speak trippingly. But the general consensus was that the American was a “good sport.”

That certainly had been the star’s intention ever since he first approached Hall last summer about doing Shakespeare. (Hoffman originally asked to play Hamlet, but the director said he was too old.) “I am determined to be a company player and not have all that big-star stuff,” he said before Merchant went into rehearsal. As opening night approached, he warned that English audiences would get a chance to “see a legitimate Shakespeare company beat the hell out of an American actor.” Yet Hoffman also did his homework, albeit with an unlikely teacher. Before arriving in London, Dustin said, “Eddie Murphy sat down and read it through with me four times. If I can do just half of what he did, I’m there.”

The opening night audience included Joan Collins, Paul McCartney and Tom Stoppard, turning out to get a first look at the production, which may eventually move to Broadway. Dame Peggy Ashcroft went backstage with Sir John Mills to offer congratulations. Hoffman declared that visit from the idols of his youth “the greatest moment in my life as an actor.”

When it was over, Hoffman had only one wish: “I would like to make love to my wife tonight,” he said. “I have been too nervous in the last few days.”

Why would a man who commands $6 million a film put himself through such anxiety for a reported $3,000 a week? “I didn’t want to die and go to actor heaven or actor hell,” Hoffman said, “and have some guy say, ‘You were a star and you didn’t do Shakespeare?’ ”

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