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Home :: Archive :: 1994 :: October ::
Re: Boy Actors in Women's Roles
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0829. Friday, 21 October 1994.
 
From:           David Joseph Kathman <
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Date:           Wednesday, 19 Oct 94 18:16:20 CDT
Subject:        Boy Oh Boy
 
I'm sure James Forse will be responding to Bill Godshalk's request for
clarification of his comments on boy actors, but since he has also expressed
his views on the subject in print, I hope he won't mind if I jump the gun and
respond both to what he's said on this list and what I think he'll say in the
future.  I just reread the relevant chapter of Mr. Forse's book *Art Imitates
Business*, entitled "Why Boys for (Wo)men's Roles?", in which he argues that it
was not boy actors but adult male sharers in the company who played the primary
women's roles in Elizabethan theater.  (He goes on to suggest that Shakespeare
himself was the primary player of women's roles in his own troupe, a suggestion
that runs into loads of problems, but I won't get into that here.)  I have to
say, with all due respect, that I'm not impressed with his arguements.  A few
points:
 
1) First of all, Forse spends much of his energy attacking the same straw man
Declan Donnellan attacked in the NYT, namely the idea that *preadolescent* boys
played all the women's roles on the Elizabethan stage.  Well, nobody's saying
that.  The "boys" in question ranged in age from preteens to their early
twenties, based on what evidence we have. The word "boy" (or alternately "lad"
or "youth"), in the context of Elizabethan theatre, simply means "apprentice";
the fact that some of the "boys" thus referred to are older than the
prototypical "boy" envisioned by some 20th century critic is neither here nor
there.  Surely we can all think of circumstances where someone in his late
teens or early 20s could be referred to as a "boy" by someone significantly
older.
 
2) Contrary to Forse's assertion, there is *plenty* of evidence that the "boys"
apprenticed to actors were trained as *actors*, not simply as manservants.  I
refer interested parties once again to Chapter 5, "Apprentices", in G. E.
Bentley's *The Profession of Player in Shakespeare's Time*; this chapter deals
exclusively with boy actors in the adult companies as opposed to the children's
companies.  Just a couple of examples:  William Trigg, aged 19 or 20, states in
a petition to the Mayor's Court from 1631 that on 20 December 1626, he
apprenticed himself to John Heminges (of Shakespeare's company) to learn "la
'arte d'une Stageplayer".  (Trigg would have been 14 or 15 at the time.)
Seventeen year old Edward Damport stated on 2 May 1633 that he "has gone with
this company up and down the country playing stage plays these two years last
past.  His father promised his master, Edward Whiting, that he should serve him
seven years."  There are other instances where boy actors in the adult
companies were explicitly called "apprentices".
 
3) There is also plenty of evidence that the "boys" or "apprentices" in
question played women's roles; what little evidence there is for non-
apprentices playing women's roles in the adult companies is very sketchy. James
Wright's *Historia Histrionica* has a good deal of detailed information about
pre-Resoration actors, including apprentices and the specific female roles they
played.  Forse disparages this work because it was written after the
Restoration; I'm perfectly willing to concede that not every single fact in
Wright's book is accurate, but to completely throw it out as evidence on that
basis is not good scholarship.  Wright is very explicit and detailed about
apprentice boys playing women's roles, and he does not, as far as I know, talk
about adult sharers playing these roles. Setting aside Wright, pre-Restoration
sources are legion:  Thomas Heywood in *Apology for Actors* (1608) responds to
those who criticize "youths" who take the stage dressed as women; Ben Jonson's
*The Devil Is an Ass* contains a scene in which two characters talk about
"witty boy(s)" and "lads" being trained to act women's parts, and they go on to
praise "Dick Robinson", a real boy actor in the King's Men, for going to a
dinner party dressed as a lawyer's wife and causing an uproar with his bawdy
talk. (They go on to say that Robinson "dresses himself the best! Beyond /
Forty o' your very Ladies!").  Stage directions in surviving "Plots" of
Elizabethan plays often refer to "boys", either by their own name or the name
of their master (e.g. "E. Dutton his boye").
 
I've written more than I planned, but I just wanted to present an opposing
view.  Forse's book is an interesting read with a lot of iconoclastic ideas in
it, and I'm all for iconoclastic ideas in principle, but if you're going to
propose an idea so at odds with the mass of scholarship, you need a lot more
evidence than he presents to convince me.
 
Dave Kathman
University of Chicago

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