The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.1772 Wednesday, 20 October 1999.
Date: Tuesday, 19 Oct 1999 10:56:16 -0700
Subject: 10.1753 Re: Eunuchs and Castrati
Comment: Re: SHK 10.1753 Re: Eunuchs and Castrati
Dana Shilling's note got me wondering whether the term 'eunuch' was as
restricted in meaning in the 16th century as it is now. I'm thinking
that perhaps it might also refer to a boy soprano, who would, after all,
be able to sing, but who wouldn't be expected to be permanently
impotent. Ages of puberty being what they were, this category would
probably include the boy actor playing Viola.
Of course, I don't have any evidence on which to extend the meaning of
the word, though the OED cites a note in the Tyndale New Testament to
the effect that "Noble men were called Eunuches, although they were not
gelded," so the term wasn't strictly limited. In addition, the word
"castrato" doesn't turn up in English until 1763, so 16th century
persons might have needed a word to describe the musician. Whether they
used the word 'eunuch' to describe male sopranos who hadn't been
castrated, I can't really say.