The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0407 Monday, 8 March 1999.
Date: Monday, 8 Mar 1999 11:16:28 +0200
Subject: Re: Female Actors
In "The Introduction of Actresses in England: Delay or Defensiveness"
(Enacting Gender on the English Renaissance Stage, eds. Viviana
Comensoli & Anne Russell, Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 1999), Michael
Shapiro also says that there were no legal restrictions against female
actresses in England as far as he knows.
The situation in Europe was quite complex: even in Italy, where women
had been acting in commedia dell'arte productions since the 1560s, there
were specific localities which forbade female actors. Shapiro argues, I
think correctly, that we need to look beyond cultural attitudes towards
gender for an explanation of the absence of female actors on
professional stages (Shapiro and others have noted that women did indeed
act elsewhere, for example in court masques and in local productions).
For one, attitudes towards women seem not to have been that different in
locations where female actors were introduced earlier, as in Italy or
Spain. Shapiro emphasizes the importance of economic factors,
specifically the ways that actors were trained and the rigors of
touring, in understanding the absence of female actors on English
On a related note, I wanted to mention a lovely children's cartoon which
I saw here in Finland about a month ago; I believe it was the British
series "The Busy World of Richard Scarry," but since it was in Finnish
and I missed the beginning I can't be sure of this. In any case, the
characters (all animals) were enacting a scene from Shakespearean
theater (this was an educational cartoon). A young female was the
stagehand, and she was training another stagehand, but he was not very
clever. Then, the young actor who was supposed to play Hamlet got sick,
and Mr. Shakespeare came, wanting to find out if the
male-stagehand-in-training could perform the role, but he was
incapable. But then our young girl, Ophelia I think she was called,
heroically donned Hamlet's costume and performed to resounding applause,
even though she knew she shouldn't perform on stage. It was lovely, and
Mr. Shakespeare was very pleased, as was my two-year-old daughter.
Department of English
University of Helsinki