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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: May ::
Re: Female Roles
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0465  Wednesday, 13 May 1998.

[1]     From:   David J. Kathman <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 12 May 1998 19:29:36 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0459  Re: Female Roles

[2]     From:   Thomas Larque <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 13 May 1998 00:07:21 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0459  Re: Female Roles

[3]     From:   Ed Taft <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 13 May 1998 10:36:55 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Female Roles


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David J. Kathman <
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Date:           Tuesday, 12 May 1998 19:29:36 +0100
Subject: 9.0459  Re: Female Roles
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0459  Re: Female Roles

Ed Taft wrote:

>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!

Yes, but Leonardo DiCaprio and Janet Suzman are living in the late 20th
century, not the late 16th century.  You can't just take our modern
attitudes and export them back to Shakespeare's day without some
evidence that they held back then.  There is no evidence of any sharers
playing female roles in Shakespeare's day; there is, however, evidence
of numerous teenage boys between age 10 and 18 playing female roles and
specializing in such roles.  As I recall, there are a few references to
such things as "the queen shaving", but these are all consistent with
teenage boys going through puberty.

Dave Kathman

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[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Larque <
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Date:           Wednesday, 13 May 1998 00:07:21 +0100
Subject: 9.0459  Re: Female Roles
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0459  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. How old was Richard Sharpe when he
> played? How old did they go?

Since I don't have the source of this one to hand, and am writing from
memory, I can't vouch for its accuracy, but I do remember reading a
passage from one of the Puritanical attacks on the sinfulness of theatre
(perhaps in Phillip Stubbe's Anatomy of Abuses?) which cast a light on
the age of the boy actors in adult companies.

As I remember the writer denounced the use of boys in female parts as a
thing which provoked "unnatural lusts" in their audiences, and then
complained that some of the boys were not even young enough to be
feminine in appearance.  The phrase that sticks in my mind was something
about men kissing "big bearded boys".

I wondered, reading this, whether this might be a result of acting
companies holding actors famed for female parts in these roles until the
last possible moment - when their breaking voices, and sprouting faces
were finally so far advanced that they *had* to be moved into adult
(male) roles.

This might also explain Flute's distress in MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM -
"Nay, faith, let not me play a woman : I have a beard coming" (1.2.44).
Both of these sources suggest that the female parts were expected to be
played by young beardless boys, and that  - while there were occasional
deviations - women played by "big bearded boys" were an exception to the
rule, and something that actors and audiences commented upon.

It has been suggested that MND's Pyramus and Thisbe is a joking
reference back to Shakespeare's own ROMEO AND JULIET - which is often
considered to have been performed just a little before MND.  If it was,
then I wonder whether there might be a more personal  reference to an
actor from the older play in this line.

In HAMLET, Polonius refers back to a time when he played Julius Caesar
and was "killed in the Capitol" - something which has been interpreted
as an actorly joke, referring back to the time that the *actor*
portraying Polonius had played Caesar in Shakespeare's earlier play.

Could it be that the reference in MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM was also a
joking reference to an actor's previous role? Perhaps the voice of the
boy actor who played Juliet had now broken, and his beard had grown to
such an extent that he could no longer - or would soon be unable to -
convincingly play female parts?  If so, then perhaps writing Flute for
him was a way of delaying his final transfer to adult male roles.
Giving him a chance to play an adult male with "a beard coming", but at
the same time allowing him one last chance to play the female romantic
heroines for which he had previously been known (and admired?).  Given
the comical nature of the Mechanicals performance, it would not have
mattered whether he could no longer pretend to be a woman, since a "big
bearded" Thisbe would be quite funny.

Thomas Larque.

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Taft <
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Date:           Wednesday, 13 May 1998 10:36:55 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Female Roles

Dear David Kathman,

I appreciate your erudition on the subject of female roles, but I must
say that I suspect that you protest too much.  Quoting Jim Forse, as I
have done, seems to have pushed your buttons. I say this because you
obviously have not read Forse's article. The statistical evidence that
you claim is pure specualtion does in fact exist in his essay. GO LOOK
AT IT before labeling it as pure speculation.  And look up the meaning
of the word *speculate,* too. The evidence that certain members of
Shakespeare's company might have played female roles derives from
Forse's article but is clearly meant to be speculative and based on the
argument he sets forth in his essay. He doesn't claim truth for his
suggestion, just possibility.  He is trying to open up an old question
because the old answers don't seem to fit. I agree with his effort and
think that, at least in part, he may be right.  Enough said.

--Ed Taft
 

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