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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: March ::
Re: Older Female Characters and Early Modern Acting
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0204.  Thursday, 14 March 1996.

(1)     From:   Wes Folkerth <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 13 Mar 1996 12:19:27 +0000
        Subj:   Re: older women roles

(2)     From:   Helen Ostovich <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 13 Mar 1996 13:00:46 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0203 Female Characters and Male Actors

(3)     From:   <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 13 Mar 1996 14:12:24 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0203

(4)     From:   Scott Crozier <
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        Date:   Thursday, 14 Mar 1996 10:04:08 +1000
        Subj:   Re: older female roles

(5)     From:   Don Foster <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 13 Mar 1996 18:59:05 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   men playing women's parts

(6)     From:   John Ramsay <
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        Date:   Thursday, 14 Mar 1996 00:53:56 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0203


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Wes Folkerth <
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Date:           Wednesday, 13 Mar 1996 12:19:27 +0000
Subject:        Re: older women roles

Hi all,

I have also wondered about Bradley Berens's question about the possibility of
older male actors playing some of the feminine roles.  The thought of Volumnia
or the Nurse with a beard makes me think more of the circus than the early
modern theatre, but I also wonder about the voices.

That is, do these two characters require the "small pipe" or "maiden's organ"
that the younger female characters require?  How about Paulina as well?  If
not, then perhaps it is not so farfetched to posit that older cast members
could have played these roles.

Wes Folkerth
McGill University

(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Helen Ostovich <
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Date:           Wednesday, 13 Mar 1996 13:00:46 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 7.0203 Female Characters and Male Actors
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0203 Female Characters and Male Actors

I too would like to see that woodcut, but I've long harboured the theory that
men played certain roles like the Nurse or Volumnia, or even Cleopatra.  After
seeing an all-male production of _Molly Wood_ in Toronto last year, a play
about Toronto's first gay "out"ing, I feel fully supported in my confidence
that adult male actors are convincingly able to portray women.  The men in that
production were all ages from 20s to 40s, and all of them played doubled parts.
Some members of the audience simply were not able to tell that some "women" on
stage were really men.

Helen Ostovich
Department of English / Editor, _REED Newsletter_
McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada  L8S 4L9

(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           <
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Date:           Wednesday, 13 Mar 1996 14:12:24 -0500
Subject: 7.0203
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0203

>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?

With some of the plays, we know who played what parts. That gives us *some*
indications. I made a quick scan of my First Folio fascimile edition, as I
thought there might be a list of the players there, but found no indications
for A&C.

However, giving us a clue, there is always Cleopatra's own quip.

                                Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I'the posture of a whore.

Act V Scene ii (145?)

(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Scott Crozier <
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Date:           Thursday, 14 Mar 1996 10:04:08 +1000
Subject:        Re: older female roles

I cannot see why older actors would not have played older female roles. Not
only the nurse in R&J but also maybe the evil queen in Cym. Just because it was
against the law, does it necessarily mean that women did not appear on stage.
Aphra Behn proved that she could write and spy quite adequately!

Regards,
Scott Crozier

(5)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Don Foster <
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Date:           Wednesday, 13 Mar 1996 18:59:05 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        men playing women's parts

Re: Brad Berens' question about adult actors playing older women:

Shakespeare often makes metadramatic jokes at otherwise serious moments (e.g.
*Hamlet* 1.5.15: "Come on, you hear this fellow in the cellarage, / Conset to
swear).  One such instance is *Macbeth* 1.3.46:  "You should be women, / And
yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so." Perhaps the
witch-actors were indeed *bearded*? (or at least, like Flute of *MND*, were
boys old enough to have a beard coming in?)

On a more speculative note:  There is an cryptic jest in *Twelfth Night* as
Malvolio contemplates a marriage to the Countess Olivia:  "There is example
for't: the Lady of the Strachey married the Yeoman of the Wardrobe."  There was
no such office as "Yeoman of the Wardrobe," nor had any branch of the Strachey
family yet been elevated to the peerage. The jest has never been adequately
explained. Charles J. Sisson some years ago discovered that the wardrobe-keeper
at the Blackfriars Theater was one David Yeoman or Yeomans (b. 1573).  Sisson
found no records of Yeoman's earlier employment, nor any record of a literal
Yeoman-Strachey wedding, nor any Strachey woman who would have fit the bill.
But I think that the evident punning on Yeoman having married our Lady of the
Strachey may be another metadramatic joke, a reference to a stage-wedding:
William Strachey by 1604 (and perhaps earlier) was heavily involved in the
theater as one of six partners in the Children of the Queen's Revels--and he
was always hard up for cash, and perhaps eager to perform.  One wishes to
imagine a play--say, *The Puritaine*--in which Yeoman wooed and married William
Strachey as an older widow.  The only problem is that Strachey was already in
his late twenties by the time that *Twelfth Night* was performed.  But if
adults sometimes played women's parts, perhaps Strachey's age would not have
been seen as a huge obstacle. Or perhaps it was his age that occasioned the
jest in *TNt.* Such speculations do not, of course, constitute evidence either
way--but Brad has certainly raised an interesting question, one that might shed
light on early casting.

Don Foster

(6)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Ramsay <
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Date:           Thursday, 14 Mar 1996 00:53:56 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 7.0203
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0203

Re: Male actors in female roles

The late Robertson Davies did a thesis at Oxford in the 1930's entitled
'Shakespeare's Boy Actors'. It and others on the topic are probably still
available.

Davies went on to begin his own writing career with plays performed by all male
casts when he was a teacher at Upper Canada College, a boys' school in Toronto.

So it can be done.

John Ramsay
Welland, Ontario, Canada

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