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Home :: Archive :: 1993 :: July ::
Re: Boys Playing Women
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 448.  Friday, 23 July 1993.
 
(1)     From:   William Godshalk <
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        Date:   Thursday, 22 Jul 1993 20:58:23 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 4.0443  Re: Boys Playing Women
 
(2)     From:   Tom Loughlin <LOUGHLIN@FREDONIA.BITNET>
        Date:   Thursday, 22 Jul 1993 10:40 pm EDT (Fri, 23 Jul 93 02:40:25 UT)
        Subj:   Boys Playing Women
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           William Godshalk <
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Date:           Thursday, 22 Jul 1993 20:58:23 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 4.0443  Re: Boys Playing Women
Comment:        Re: SHK 4.0443  Re: Boys Playing Women
 
At the 1992 Shakespeare and Renaissance Association of West Virginia meeting,
James Forse suggested that at least some of the major roles in Shakespeare's
plays were acted by mature female impersonators. I've skimmed the printed
essay, "ROMEO AND JULIET: A Play for All Seasons," in SELECTED PAPERS 16
(1993): 88-117, and I'm not sure the idea got into the printed version. Paul
Yachnin pointed out that other scholars (I can't remember whom) also espoused
the idea. If indeed mature female impersonators took the roles of, say,
Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth, then we would have to change our ideas of the boy
actors. They played only minor roles. In this case, THE CRYING GAME would give
us some grasp of what a female character looked like on Shakespeare's stage.
She looked and sounded like a mature woman. When Cleopatra thinks of seeing
"Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness" (Riverside V.ii.220), we do not
have irony, but the disdain of the female impersonator for a boy actor.
 
But is there any firm evidence (beyond the three bearded sisters) that mature
men played females on the Renaissance stage?
 
Yours, Bill Godshalk
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tom Loughlin <LOUGHLIN@FREDONIA.BITNET>
Date:           Thursday, 22 Jul 1993 10:40 pm EDT (Fri, 23 Jul 93 02:40:25 UT)
Subject:        Boys Playing Women
 
   I'd just like to inject a slight word of caution into the discussion about
boys playing women.  The original question, it seemed to me, based itself upon
the assumption that an attempt at verisimilitude was at the heart of Shake-
speare's theatre.  I find many time in talking to people in Shakespearean
discussion that the tendency to attach modern notions of theatre to the Eliz-
abethan stage is common.  When I teach Shakespearean acting, and even in my
attempts to direct graduate students in Shakespeare productions, I find that
the hardest habit to break is the habit of thinking realistically.  Thus, the
question "Did boys try to act or sound like women?" is a question which only
someone with a 20th-century notion of what theatre is would ask.
 
   Understand that I am not saying that the question is without merit nor is
unworthy of discussion or research.  It is one of those theoretical questions
to which we will probably never know the real answer.  What I am saying is that
ultimately I believe such a question would never have mattered to Shakespeare
or to his audience, since they had an entirely different understanding of the
theatrical event and its purpose and meaning.  Shakespeare was probably way
ahead of his time in that he had a very clear and advanced notion of "the
mirror up to nature," but even so that idea was clearly limited to speech and
action, not to scenery or other re-creative efforts towards "realism."
 

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