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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: May ::
Re: Female Roles
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0447  Monday, 11 May 1998.

[1]     From:   Patricia Cooke <
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        Date:   Sunday, 10 May 1998 10:14:41 +1200
        Subj:   Re: Female Roles

[2]     From:   Stephanie Hughes <
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        Date:   Friday, 08 May 1998 10:05:05 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0440  Re: Female Roles

[3]     From:   Sean Kevin Lawrence <
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        Date:   Friday, 08 May 1998 10:05:10 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0440  Re: Female Roles

[4]     From:   David J. Kathman <
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        Date:   Friday, 8 May 1998 20:10:01 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0440  Re: Female Roles

[5]     From:   David Evett <
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        Date:   Friday, 08 May 1998 15:51:25 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0440  Re: Female Roles

[6]     From:   Adrian Kiernander <
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        Date:   Saturday, 09 May 1998 12:09:21 +1000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0440  Re: Female Roles

[7]     From:   Patricia Cooke <
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        Date:   Sunday, 10 May 1998 10:14:41 +1200
        Subj:   Re: Female Roles


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Taft <
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Date:           Friday, 08 May 1998 09:56:05 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Female Roles

Dear Pervez Rizvi,

Professor Forse writes, "What did Shakespeare's contemporaries say about
the use of boys in women's roles?  They said surprisingly little.
Shakespeare did script a remark by Cleopatra that someday a "squeaking"
boy may act her part, but that may say more about Shakespeare's attitude
toward boys' companies, and the *vocal qualities* of boy-actors, than it
does the use of boy-actors on a regular basis" (p.89)

As for Forse's overall argument, he contends that it would have made
"good business sense" for the sharers to play "plum" roles and that
there is evidence that this may have been so. He cites John Honeyman,
John Thompson, Robert Pallant, Richard Sharpe, and William Trigge as
examples of men who apparently continued to play female roles for many
years. He also points out that statistically it can be shown that many
female parts appear to have been written for the same actor or actors in
the company, just as we argue today that certain roles were written
specifically for Will Kempe and Richard Burbage. He then ends by
speculating that Nicholas Tooley, Alexander Cooke, and William
Shakespeare may have "specialized" in female roles.

This summary does scant justice to Forse's argument, but I hope it at
least indicates that his view should be taken seriously.

--Ed Taft

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stephanie Hughes <
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Date:           Friday, 08 May 1998 10:05:05 -0700
Subject: 9.0440  Re: Female Roles
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0440  Re: Female Roles

> But in the phrase 'boy actor', what ages are we talking about here? I am
> just teaching Duchess of Malfi, and we have been speculating about
> exactly the problem of boys playing so erotic, tangled, defiantly
> feminine a woman as the Duchess.----- I can't think some of these
> fantastic roles were entrusted to
> 'apprentice actors'? I mean, would Shak / Webster et al write for
> 'apprentices' some of the most sensational roles in theatrical history?

Stuart,

I have a quote somewhere (possible several) I think from a book on
Middleton, that gives the strong impression that there were adult actors
that specialized in female roles throughout their careers. My guess is
that they were what we would now regard as female impersonators. (If
this is important for someone, I'll look for the quote. If memory
serves, the actor in question was named.)

My guess, based on what would seem to be the timeless realities of the
theater, is that in the adult theater the roles of children and ingenues
(like Ophelia) were supplied by talented boys from the children's
troupes, while leading roles such as Cleopatra and Mistress Quickly were
played by male actors who specialized in women. (BTW, though such female
impersonators may have been gay, this is not necessarily the case. Even
today there are female impersonators whose sexual bias is "normal". )

Stephanie Hughes

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Kevin Lawrence <
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Date:           Friday, 08 May 1998 10:05:10 -0700
Subject: 9.0440  Re: Female Roles
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0440  Re: Female Roles

> At least one of the actors who played female roles must have spoken
> Welsh. The obvious candidate is William Hughes.

I'm wondering how many Welsh-speakers would be in the audience and
whether they would be catered to?  I just ask because a school friend
(years ago) claimed to speak Chinese.  We were all pretty sure he was
speaking gibberish and pulling our legs, but not being sinophones we
couldn't really call him on it.

Keep in mind that the stage directions are something like "Lady speaks
in Welsh".  All s/he has to do is make a sound that can then be
translated in the dialogue.  This might, of course, ruin the experience
for Welsh-speakers, but I'm not sure how large a contingent they would
be.  I know that my father was very distracted watching the Canadian
film _Blackrobe_ by the fact that the "Hurons" actually spoke Cree,
which he understands!  But Creeophones aren't a significant enough
demographic for the film-makers to avoid this.

That said, I rather like the idea of Welsh on the London stage.
Polylingualism adds to polymorphism, and nicely places in context all
the various English accents floating around the stage.

Cheers,
Sean.

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David J. Kathman <
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Date:           Friday, 8 May 1998 20:10:01 +0100
Subject: 9.0440  Re: Female Roles
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0440  Re: Female Roles

Pervez Rizvi wrote:

>Ed Taft writes:

>>But for a very powerful argument that
>>sharers played these roles, see James Forse, *Art Imitates Business*,
>>(1995? Bowling Green Press), in which Jim points out that they are often
>>such important roles that more senior members of Shakespeare's troupe
>>might have taken them.
>
>Not having read Forse's book, I don't know what evidence he offers for
>his view (can you summarise it for us?). But: there are few roles more
>important than Cleopatra and Shakespeare gave her the line "I shall see
>some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness in the posture of a whore."
>When Hamlet greets the Players on their arrival in Elsinore, he says:
>"What, my young lady and mistress! By'r lady, your ladyship is nearer to
>heaven than when I saw you last, by the altitude of a chopine. Pray God,
>your voice, like a piece of uncurrent gold, be not cracked within the
>ring."  How else can we read these lines except to infer that Cleopatra
>and other leading female characters were played by boys whose voices had
>not yet broken?

We had a discussion of this issue on this very list back in 1994, and
James Forse and I were two of the main participants.  You can probably
find the discussions by using SHAKSPER's search functions.  I said then
that I didn't find Forse's arguments very persuasive; they're based
mainly on a subjective impression that these roles are too important to
be entrusted to boys, but all the documentary evidence indicates that
these boys were indeed 10-17 years of age (see below).

William Williams wrote:

>I don't think anyone has mentioned this but it might be worth having a
>look at Mark Eccles' series of "biographical dictionary" articles about
>known Elizabethan actors.  They appeared over a number of  issues in
>1991++? in Notes & Queries.

That series appeared in 4 parts from 1991-93, and it's packed with
valuable information, as are all of Eccles' biographical writings.  It
has nothing about Edmund Shakespeare, but a couple of articles published
within the last 20 years do have new information about Edmund:  Wayne
Phelps, "Edmund Shakespeare at St. Leonard's, Shoreditch", SQ 29 (1978),
422; and Donald S. Lawless, "The Funeral and Burial of Shakespeare's
Brother Edmund (1580-1607)", N&Q, April 1981, 121.

The reason I know this is that over the last year I've been compiling an
index of all published biographical information about everyone
associated with English theater between 1558 and 1642, in preparation
for a Biographical Dictionary of Elizabethan Theater that William Ingram
and I are planning to collaborate on.  The index alone is well over 400K
and 130 printed pages in size so far; not absolutely complete, but more
complete than anything I'm aware of.  If anybody is interested in
learning more, e-mail me.

Stuart Manger wrote:

>But in the phrase 'boy actor', what ages are we talking about here? I am
>just teaching Duchess of Malfi, and we have been speculating about
>exactly the problem of boys playing so erotic, tangled, defiantly
>feminine a woman as the Duchess. How old was Richard Sharpe when he
>played?

We don't know when he was born, just that he died in 1632.  In general,
we don't know much about the ages of the boy actors with the adult
companies, but there are a few we do know about, from which we can
cautiously extrapolate.  Arthur Savill was 14 years old when he played
Quartilla in Shakerley Marmion's *Holland's Leaguer* for Prince Charles'
Men in December 1631.  Four months earlier, Savill had been apprenticed
as a goldsmith to Andrew Cane, a sharer with Prince Charles' Men and a
member of the Goldsmith's Company.  During the 1630s, Cane was active as
both an actor and a goldsmith, and Savill apparently learned both trades
during his eight-year apprenticeship.

John Rice was about 14 when he is first mentioned as a member of the
King's Men in 1607, at which time he was apparently apprenticed to John
Heminges.  I think there are a few other boy actors for the adult
companies for whom we have ages, but 14 to 16 seems to be more or less
the norm.  Dick Robinson was about 16 at the time of our first notice of
him as a member of the King's Men.  Hugh Clark first shows up with Queen
Henrietta's Men at about age 16 in 1626.

>How old did they go? Evidence in Hamlet - the little eyasses?

We know the ages of several members of the boy companies, and they tend
to cluster around 10-13 years old.  Thomas Ravenscroft, later to become
a well-known composer, may have been as young as six when he was a
member of Paul's Boys in 1598, but there's some dispute about his
birthdate.  Henry Burnett was 12 when he was a Paul's chorister in 1607,
the year after Paul's Boys stopped performing plays; he may or may not
have acted with them.  John Chappell was around 10 or 11 when he acted
in a couple of Jonson's plays with the Children of the Chapel in
1600-1.  John Tomkins was 12 when he was a member of Paul's Boys in
1598.

>The boy Hamlet had known in the city now much taller and with a wobbly
>adolescent voice in the company that comes to Elsinore? The boy actors
>that Jonson writes so movingly about?

Salathiel "Salomon" Pavy, the boy actor with the Children of the Chapel
for whom Jonson wrote a eulogy, was 13 when he died in 1603.  Pavy was
apparently one of the most prominent actors among the Chapel Children
(see Reavley Gair, *The Children of Paul's* (1982), p.64).

>And where does diet as well as
>age come into this? Presumably, we know nothing about the ages of the
>sharers? How old did you have to be? Old enough to put up sufficient
>money?

Sharers mostly tended to be at least in their 20s.

>I can't think some of these fantastic roles were entrusted to
>'apprentice actors'? I mean, would Shak / Webster et al write for
>'apprentices' some of the most sensational roles in theatrical history?

If that's the way it was done, that's the way they did it.  There are
several contemporary accounts of how convincing the boy actors were at
playing women.

Joanne Walen wrote:

>Abigail Quart posed the question of who in Shakespeare's company might
>have played the women's roles. Tangential to that, I'm curious if there
>is any documentation on who might have been the first female (not young
>boy) to play a woman's role in Shakespeare's plays in England?

That would have been after the Restoration, because no women were
allowed on the English stage before the Civil War.  Mary Frith, aka
"Moll Cutpurse", aka "The Roaring Girl", got in trouble with the law
when she appeared on the stage of the Fortune in the spring of 1611
dressed in men's clothing, apparently as a promotion for Dekker and
Middleton's play about her, *The Roaring Girl*.

Dave Kathman

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[5]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Evett <
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Date:           Friday, 08 May 1998 15:51:25 -0400
Subject: 9.0440  Re: Female Roles
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0440  Re: Female Roles

Stuart Manger and others who find it improbable that a talented 14- or
15- year old apprentice with 4 or 5 years of full-time professional
experience could handle roles like Cleopatra effectively, even
stunningly, have either not had an opportunity to see a good young actor
at work or have refused to believe the evidence of their senses.  My son
Ben, now the equivalent of a sharer at the American Repertory Theater in
Boston, never got the opportunity to do big roles in Shakespeare as a
kid (though he was a terrific young Macduff at the Cleveland Play
House), but he blew grown-ups off the stage as Dionysus in *The Bacchae*
(far more effectively androgynous than anybody else I've ever seen in
that part) and as a marvelously cheeky kid-brother Tony Lumpkin before
he turned 16.  And I'm sure many on this list have seen first-class
performances by teen-agers in school or experimental productions.

Dave Evett

[6]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Adrian Kiernander <
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Date:           Saturday, 09 May 1998 12:09:21 +1000
Subject: 9.0440  Re: Female Roles
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0440  Re: Female Roles

A couple of comments on the boys-as-apprentice-actors thread.

Stephen Orgel points out in _Impersonations_ (pp.64-9) that the boys
were not, technically at least, apprentice actors at all, because "only
members of guilds could have apprentices, and there was no actors'
guild." However several of the actors were also members of other guilds,
so the boys were technically apprentice grocers, goldsmiths, drapers,
etc. Orgel argues that this might explain why Ben Jonson renewed his
membership of the bricklayers' guild in 1599--continued membership was
not hedging his bets in case of failure on the stage, but instead was a
device which enabled him to have apprentices who could take female
roles.

This may have been just a convenient legal loophole and the boys may
indeed have been de-facto apprentice actors, but on completion of their
apprenticeships they would still have been entitled to membership of the
guilds of their masters, i.e. grocers, goldsmiths... Perhaps the boys
regularly went on to become actors of male roles when they grew older,
but according to Orgel there are only seven recorded instances of adult
actors who began their careers playing women's roles during the reigns
of Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I.

In response to Stuart Manger: when this thread came round a few years
back I suggested that one way of determining the ages of the boys was to
read the descriptions of what the female characters look like when they
are disguised. To take just two examples, the male actor playing Viola,
when dressed in male clothing as the character Cesario, is described by
Malvolio as looking, "Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for
a boy...  'Tis with him in standing water between boy and man... One
would think his mother's milk were scarce out of him"; and when Julia in
_2 Gents_ is thinking about her disguise, she wants to dress like a
"well-reputed page", and says that her appearance "may become a youth of
greater time than I shall show to be."  All such descriptions in the
plays that I am aware of point to the same general age range.

Admittedly these roles may be in a different category from the more
mature female roles, and this method says nothing about the actual
chronological age at which most boys fitted such descriptions in the
Renaissance.

Adrian Kiernander


[7]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Patricia Cooke <
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Date:           Sunday, 10 May 1998 10:14:41 +1200
Subject:        Re: Female Roles

I'm glad Terence Hawkes mentioned William Hughes because I've just read
Oscar Wilde's story "The Portrait of Mr W.H." and  find it an attractive
theory.  Am I being more naive than usual?  For those who haven't read
it Wilde proposes an actor called Willie Hughes with whom WS was in love
and to whom he addresses the sonnets, thus Mr W.H.  Was he having a joke
with us?

Pat

Patricia Cooke, Secretary & Editor
Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand Inc
97 Elizabeth Street Wellington 6001 New Zealand PH/FAX 64 4 3856743
 

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