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Home :: Archive :: 1994 :: October ::
Re: Boy Actors and Women's Roles
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0793.  Friday, 7 October 1994.
 
(1)     From:   Jean Peterson <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 5 Oct 1994 19:20:38 -0400
        Subj:   Boys and AYLI
 
(2)     From:   Helen Ostovich <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 5 Oct 1994 16:39:20 +0059 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 5.0785 Qs: Schiller's *Robbers*; Women's Roles
 
(3)     From:   David Joseph Kathman <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 5 Oct 94 18:27:23 CDT
        Subj:   Boy Actors
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Jean Peterson <
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Date:           Wednesday, 5 Oct 1994 19:20:38 -0400
Subject:        Boys and AYLI
 
As I understood Donnellan, he was implying that adult MEN, not children, played
women's roles in the Renaissance theater, and I don't think there's as much
scholarly resistance to the idea as he implies.  I seem to recall having read a
number of speculations that "older" women's parts were perhaps taken by adult
males (some candidates: Hermione, Cleopatra, Lady M., and Mistress Quickly;
outside Shakespeare, I know there have been claims that an adult played Moll
Cutpurse).  But his claim that such parts "could not be played by children with
no sexual experience" struck me as utterly wrong-headed, based on two
questionable assumptions...
 
1) the assumption that the style, method, and practice of acting in the era
demanded a "natural"/naturalistic correspondence, an emotional and experiental
sympathy between actor and role that is more suited to present styles and
methods of acting that to the Renaissance theater (hate to keep re-opening this
can of worms)
 
2) the assumption that "children"--adolescents, really--had no sexual
experience, a perception of "childhood" asexuality and innocence that
originates in the 19th century.  There is plenty of evidence that the
adolescent actors were especially targetted as objects of sexual attention, and
some of the smuttiest plays of the period (Epicoene, The Dutch Courtesan) were
written especially for the "Children's companies"--as if there were a special
kick to be got out of bawdy from the mouths of babes. And on the more
hetero-sexual side of things, betrothals and marriages between what we would
now consider children (12, 13 year-olds) were not uncommon, nor was sex: the
Shepherd laments in *The Winter's Tale* "I would there were no age between ten
and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest, for there is
nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry,
stealing, fighting..." (3.3.59).
 
Nonetheless, I am quite excited to see this AYLI!
 
And RE: David Everett's comments on *Shrew*:
 
        Quite apart from its audience appeal, the approach has some
        thematic appropriateness to a play that from the beginning
        emphasizes the unreliability of language (and other conventional
        sign-systems, such as costume): the language of the body becomes
        the only unambiguous speech.
 
And yet the play *from the start*--that is, from the Induction--emphasizes
that the body is an UNRELIABLE sign, that costumes, periwigs, and an onion
in a hanky can make a convincing "Madam Wife" out of Bartholemew the Page,
an irony increased and emphasized if Kate herself is/was a boy in drag.
 
Jean Peterson
Bucknell University
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Helen Ostovich <
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Date:           Wednesday, 5 Oct 1994 16:39:20 +0059 (EDT)
Subject: 5.0785 Qs: Schiller's *Robbers*; Women's Roles
Comment:        Re: SHK 5.0785 Qs: Schiller's *Robbers*; Women's Roles
 
Re:  Women's Roles
 
There is no evidence that pre-adolescent boys played women;  the evidence is
that young boys played pages and old men.  The so-called boys who played women
might have been anywhere from 14 to 22 years old.  A boy might be as old as 25,
if he were still an apprentice.  The pitch of his voice and the smoothness of
his skin are more to the point than age itself.  Certainly men played certain
female parts, especially hag-roles or comic send-ups like Lady Wouldbe in
VOLPONE, or the Nurse in R&J. Most of the evidence of shifting from Boys'
Companies to adult acting companies suggests that the boys were 22 or more
years old.  In any case, evidence of any kind is pretty sparse.  The cast lists
that remain do not show assignment of roles; they merely name actors (not all
of them) in the play.
 
Helen Ostovich
McMaster University
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Joseph Kathman <
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Date:           Wednesday, 5 Oct 94 18:27:23 CDT
Subject:        Boy Actors
 
With regard to Michael Field's query about boy actors in Shakespeare's day:  I
wouldn't call the idea that boys played the women's roles on the Elizabethan
stage a "theory", as Declan Donnellan so quaintly put it; I'd call it a very
well-established historical fact.  Specifically:
 
1) Mr. Donnellan, via Mr. Field, appears to be claiming that the women's roles
in the original productions of Shakespeare's plays must have been played by
women.  However, there is absolutely no evidence that any women (as opposed to
boys dressed as women) acted regularly on the professional stage in England
before the Restoration, and certainly not with any of the major companies such
as Shakespeare's.  The few references we have to women doing any acting at all
in Elizabethan England refer mostly to private and somewhat underground plays;
see Chambers' *Elizabethan Stage*, v. 1, p.371.  Women did act openly elsewhere
in Europe, and English travelers, according to all the evidence, found this
astonishing: Thomas Coryat, in a popular travel book of 1611, wrote that in
Venice, "I saw women act, a thing that I never saw before, though I have heard
that it hath sometimes been used in London."
 
2) There was a very long tradition of boy actors in England by Shakespeare's
time, playing all kinds of roles; there were several very popular boys'
companies where boys played *all* the roles, men's and women's, and in the
adult companies boys were apprenticed to the men of the company and trained to
play women until they reached puberty. (You can find several hundred pages of
evidence for this in H. N. Hildebrand's *The Child Actors* and Chambers' *The
Elizabethan Stage*.)  There are many surviving testimonials to the skill of
these boy actors, not only to their acting skill but to their skill as female
impersonators (and yes, even their sex appeal), and there were also those who
found this cross-dressing scandalous ("To see our youths attired in the habit
of women, who knows not what their intents be?" in Heywood's *Apology for
Actors*).
 
A good summary of the whole issue can be found in Chapter 5 of G. E. Bentley's
*The Profession of Player in Shakespeare's Time*, which I recommend to anyone
who doubts that boys did a very good job in women's roles.  If I may quote
Bentley:
 
"The convention of the Shakespearean theater most difficult for moderns to
accept is that of the boy players...Since comparatively few moderns have ever
seen professionally *trained* juvenile actors performing any roles except those
corresponding to their own age and sex, many are baffled by the imaginative
feat of an adolescent boy enthralling a sophisticated audience with his
performance of Rosalind, Lady Macbeth, Webster's Duchess, or Ford's Annabella.
Yet those subjects of early Stuart kings who had opportunities to see both boys
and women in female roles were not impressed by the superiority of the
actresses..." [quotes Coryat 1611 as above, who goes on to say with some
surprise that the actresses he saw were as good as a boy actor]
 
To the extent that Elizabethan scholars question the use of boys for *all*
women's roles, they argue that *men* occasionally played these roles; I don't
know of any scholar who has seriously proposed that a woman played Lady Macbeth
or Cleopatra in Shakespeare's day, because there is simply no evidence that
this was done, and there is reams of evidence that boys played such roles and
did an excellent job.  To call the idea of boys playing women on the
Elizabethan stage a "theory" for which there is "very little evidence" betrays
a distressing lack of historical knowledge.
 
Dave Kathman
University of Chicago

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