Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0203. Wednesday, 13 March 1996.
Date: Wednesday, 13 Mar 1996 06:49:16 -0800
Subject: Older Female Characters and Early Modern Acting
Over dinner with an actor friend last night we found ourselves wondering about
how likely it was that a boy actor played such characters as Juliet's Nurse,
the Countess of Rossillion or Volumnia for the King's men.
On one hand, no adolescent either of us know could play those roles to our
admittedly "waning moments of the twentieth century" biased satisfaction. An
older actor, though, might well prove a fabulous, say, Nurse-- the way I've
seen some older actors effectively play Lady Bracknell in EARNEST. My actor
friend thought he remembered seeing an Elizabethan woodcut of a man with a
beard in a skirt, with a caption suggesting that older actors played female
characters as well as the boys. I've never seen this woodcut. The three
female characters we discussed are all sexually somewhat neutral, as opposed to
Cleopatra who is emphatically sexy and therefore probably not played by a man
(there's also that reference in the text to the boy actor playing Cleo) or
On the other hand, there's this little problem of NO EVIDENCE. When I got home
I took a quick tour through some books and found nothing with the very
distantly possible exception of the 1658 title page of THE WITCH OF EDMONTON,
which has Mother Sawyer pictured as an old woman (it's in R. A. Foakes
ILLUSTRATIONS book). Furthermore, this idea might be doing a serious
disservice to adolescents, particularly Elizabethan ones who didn't go to high
school and were full time employees of the company.
There's been a lot of work on cross-dressing lately, but as far as I've been
able to tell most of it focuses on younger female characters (Rosalind, for
example) as a locus for "erotic politics." The older female characters seem
not to be much discussed, although it's entirely likely that I've missed
So, I leave it to you. Does anybody out there have a firm idea about what kind
of actor played these older female characters? Does anyone else know about
this mystical woodcut?