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Home :: Archive :: 1994 :: October ::
Re: Boys and Women's Roles
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0850. Wednesday, 26 October 1994.
(1)     From:   James Forse <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 25 Oct 1994 15:17:39 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   *boys* again
(2)     From:   Steven Gagen <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 26 Oct 1994 10:36:42 +1100
        Subj:   State of Nutrition of Boy Actors
From:           James Forse <
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Date:           Tuesday, 25 Oct 1994 15:17:39 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        *boys* again
Let's take a look at some other evidence: c.1600 the Reading town records note
that a play was delayed because the Queen was shaving.  Davenant's Royal
patent, 1660 states: *That whereas the women's parts in plays have] hitherto
been acted by MEN (emphasis mine) in the habits of women, of which some have
taken offence, we permit and give leave for the time to come, that all women's
parts be acted by women.*  The poetic prologue to a 1660 performance of Othello
states: *But to the point: In this reforming age/ We have intents to civilize
the stage./Our women are defective, and so siz'd/You'd think they were some of
the guard disguis'd:/ For, to speak truth, men act, that are between/Forty and
fifty, wenches of fifteen;/With bone so large and nerve so incompliant,/When
you call Desdemona enter Giant.*  None of these suggest *boys* or even
mature-retarded young men as the norm for portrayal of women.  Shakespeare's
Cleopatra complains *Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness...* Yet in
context this may well be a slam at Samuel Daniel's *Tragedy of Cleopatra*
played by the Queen's Revels Boys.  The company was under some form of
oversight by Daniel, and a revised version of his Cleopatra play was printed in
1607.  I think the remark by Shakespeare's Cleopatra is meant for competitive
contrast rather than a slam at the very actor portraying the role at the Globe.
 Coryat's comment on women on Venetian stages does not, as miscited, read boys,
it reads: *as ever I saw any masculine Actor.*  With the possible exception of
Jonson's reference to Dick Robinson (and we can't pinpoint his age too well),
most of the praise of boy actors portraying women is in the context of boys in
the boys companies' productions.  And those comments can just as well be
interpreted as reflecting the *novelty* of the phenomenon rather than a passing
comment on general practice in the adult companies.  My disagreement with
Bentley's et al. evidence is with its application.  Evidence from plot books
tends to place actors designated *boys* or apprentices in minor roles: devils,
pygmies, female and male children, smallish female engenue roles. One certainly
can project that evidence to suggest that Merry Wives' Anne Page, *Shrew's*
page-boy as Lady, and roles of that ilk were taken by young trainees in the
adult companies, but I see little evidence linking them to the major female
roles, nor clear imperatives that because they did play these minor female
roles that it necessarily follows that they also played the major ones.
Bentley's evidence of young males being apprenticed as actors needs to be
viewed in chronological framework.  Those he cites from 1606 and 1609 as being
apprenticed specifically as actor-trainees are attached to children's
companies.  Most of his evidence specifically linking apprenticeship to acting
in reference to adult companies dates from the last years of the reign of James
I and from the reign of Charles I.  By that time we're into a 2nd, 3rd, 4th
generation of professional theatre in London; the organization is becoming far
more established: company managers, for instance, are being recognized as heads
of theatrical troupes.  Wright's *Historia* basically refers to the same era.
I don't discount those accounts, but I question what I perceive as ascribing
practice of a mature instution to its childhood.  Further, by that era indoor
theatre, which because of its intimacy would give the audience a closer look,
had become the standard.  On the stage of the amphitheatres (even though
audiences were fairly close to the platform), the size of the actor would be
about all that would stand out. As I've argued before, topped with a wig, face
painted white, dressed in farthingales, who could notice whether the actor
portraying a women was a bit long-in-the-tooth? And tenor voices of a softer
lilt are not the exclusive province of adolescents.  I'm sure none of the above
will serve to answer all the objections reinterpreting accepted tradition
brings forth.  But let me suggest that it does matter when we call males aging
most likely from 17 to 24 years of age, *boys.*  The very fact that they are,
to quote Professor Kathman, "older than the prototypical *boy* envisioned by
some 20th century critic" creates a false image of what was happening on the
stage because it perpetuates the image of *the prototypical boy* in the minds
of most, and conjures up visions of Freddy Bartholomew or McCully Curkin
playing Lady Macbeth.  So if you are not willing to entertain the possibility
that partners who specialized in female roles may have portrayed the major
women's parts in Elizabethan drama, still, I would urge you to abandon the term
*boys* in favor of a phrase closer to the actual situation--perhaps *young men*
or *high-school/college age men* or something of that ilk.
J. Forse: History: Bowling Green State University
From:           Steven Gagen <
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Date:           Wednesday, 26 Oct 1994 10:36:42 +1100
Subject:        State of Nutrition of Boy Actors
Christopher Fassler suggests that "14-21-year-olds in early modern England,
especially apprentices, were unlikely to have been as physically mature as
males of the same age are in developed countries."
His "understanding" about "the comparatively nutritious diet enjoyed by most
people today" is incorrect, and a common modern fallacy.
While it is true that the diet of mid to late 19th century England *among the
working classes* was undoubtedly inferior to that of today, the diet of the
common people of England in Shakespeare's day was, in general, balanced and
nutritious, even if it did not include many of the fruits and vegetables which
were introduced later from the New World.  Contemporary accounts by foreign
travellers point to the comparatively high standard of living of the common
people in England compared with the rest of Europe, and the quality of their
It must be remembered that the England of that time was almost entirely
agrarian, and the population was much lower than today. Even the poorest
peasant would not have gone without adequate meat and drink, given the fact
that he had ubundant means of growing his own food.
Steve Gagen
Department of Agriculture,
East Melbourne, Victoria

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