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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: May ::
Re: Female Roles
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0459  Tuesday, 12 May 1998.

[1]     From:   Ed Taft <
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        Date:   Monday, 11 May 1998 13:56:14 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Female Roles

[2]     From:   David J. Kathman <
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        Date:   Monday, 11 May 1998 20:12:31 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0447  Re: Female Roles


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Taft <
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Date:           Monday, 11 May 1998 13:56:14 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Female Roles

Dear David Evett,

Your point that expert young actors exist (and existed 400 years ago) is
uncontested.  As an example of how right you are, consider the fact that
*Bussy D'Ambois,* George Chapman's impossibly difficult (and also
brilliant) play was acted by the Children of the Queen's Revels! But you
miss two key points: (1) Would sharers have let "apprentise" actors play
key female roles? Probably not. (2) Is there evidence that men actors
played and specialized in female roles? Yes, there is.  Put it in
commonsense terms: Leonardo DiCaprio probably could play Cleopatra very
well, but would Janet Suzman let him if she were a sharer and he was
not? Of course not!

--Ed Taft

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David J. Kathman <
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Date:           Monday, 11 May 1998 20:12:31 +0100
Subject: 9.0447  Re: Female Roles
Comment:         Re: SHK 9.0447  Re: Female Roles

Ed Taft writes:

>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)

But I would point out, as I pointed out back in 1994, that the
documentary evidence we do have is all consistent with boys playing
female roles, and none of it supports the idea that sharers played these
roles.  One sticking point, as I recall, was just what is meant by
"boy".  For the adult companies, boy actors, at least those who seem to
have played prominent roles, were generally aged 14-17 or so.  Call them
teenagers rather than boys, if you prefer.

>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.

This is not quite accurate, except in the case of Thompson.  Much of the
"evidence" for the roles played by these actors derives from the
speculations of T.W. Baldwin in *The Organization and Personnell of
Shakespeare's Company*.  But Baldwin's speculation is unsupported by
evidence and is generally discredited today; the actual documentary
evidence supports the conclusion that the actors who played female roles
in the adult companies ranged from around 10 to 17 years of age,
concentrated around 14-16 years old, sometimes extending into the late
teens.

John Honeyman first shows up playing a female role at the age of 13 for
the King's Men in Massinger's *The Roman Actor* (1626), and three years
later he played Sophia, wife of Mathias, in Massinger's *The Picture*,
and Clarinda in Carlell's *The Deserving Favorite*.  But the next year,
at age 17, he was playing Sly the Servant in Clavell's *The Soddered
Citizen*; the following year at age 18 he was playing the First Merchant
in Massinger's *Believe as You List*; and the year after that he played
"a young Factor" in *The Wild Goose Chase*.  All male roles.  It appears
that Honeyman stopped playing female roles around age 17.

John Thompson did play female roles for the King's Men for about a
decade, from c.1621-1631.  We don't know how old he was, but he did have
two daughters in 1632 (obviously with different mothers, since they were
born 2 1/2 months apart), and in 1633 he was sworn a Groom of the
Chamber, which probably meant he was no longer going to play female
roles.  Presumably he was at least in his late teens at the time, more
probably around 21.  So he might have played female roles into his late
teens.

Robert Pallant Jr. played the Doctor and Cariola in *The Duchess of
Malfi*, according to the 1623 Quarto.  But G.E. Bentley in *The Jacobean
and Caroline Stage* suggests plausibly that Pallant played Cariola (a
female role) in the first run of 1614, when he was 9, and the Doctor in
the second run of 1619-23, when he was between 14 and 18.  Even if he
doubled Cariola and the Doctor in both runs, or only in the second run,
Pallant was still a teenager at the time.  No other roles are known for
him.

As I noted before, we do know that Richard Sharpe played the Duchess in
*The Duchess of Malfi*, but we don't know how old he was, and we don't
know for sure whether he played it in the first run (1614), the second
run (c.1619-23), or both.

William Trigg's age is unknown.  He played female roles for the King's
Men from 1626 to 1632, but after that the roles he played are unknown.
A span of six years is quite reasonable if he played from, say, age 11
to age 17, or from 12 to 18.  He married in 1642 and joined the Royalist
army.

>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.

I don't remember how he shows this "statistically", but it sounds like
pure speculation to me.

>He then ends by
>speculating that Nicholas Tooley, Alexander Cooke, and William
>Shakespeare may have "specialized" in female roles.

I know of no evidence supporting the idea that any of these men played
women's roles.

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

Forse's view does deserve to be heard, but I don't find it very
persuasive, for reasons I've given above and in my previous post in this
thread, and in my postings to SHAKSPER four years ago.

Dave Kathman

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