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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: May ::
Re: Eunuchs Onstage
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.0994  Tuesday, 9 May 2000.

[1]     From:   Melissa D. Aaron <
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        Date:   Monday, 08 May 2000 10:29:54 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.0982 Eunuchs Onstage

[2]     From:   Stuart Manger <
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        Date:   Monday, 8 May 2000 23:57:34 +0100
        Subj:   SHK 11.0982 Eunuchs Onstage


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Melissa D. Aaron <
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Date:           Monday, 08 May 2000 10:29:54 -0700
Subject: 11.0982 Eunuchs Onstage
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.0982 Eunuchs Onstage

>Something Sean Lawrence said in SHAKSPER 10.1772 19 Oct. 99 (just
>tripped over it unopened after all these months!), provokes me to get a
>conversation going about boy actors in the L.Chamberlain's Men and
>King's Men companies.  Sh. wrote play after play for two women, one
>short and dark and one tall and blonde.  Nerissa is the little scrubbed
>lawyer's clerk in M.V. (scrubbed=short as in scrub oak [variant on
>shrub?] or the scrub football team in h.s.) and Portia taller and blonde
>(sunny locks).  Helena is a "painted maypole" in MND and Hermia is much
>shorter as their quarrel makes clear.  Hero is "Leonato's low brown
>daughter", and so it goes.  Should we include Juliet as the tall blonde
>and the Nurse as the short dark boy?
>
>Now these plays are all within a four or five-yr span, but Sh's leading
>ladies in comedy at least are blonde I think as late as *AYL* and *TN*
>(Viola the "eunuch" once again).  How long could the company hope to
>keep two boys playing paired ladies like this if their voices were going
>to change normally, which would be later than in our time, but still
>early- to mid- teens, one supposes.  And how young could they enlist
>them for such demanding roles as Sh. wrote for his women in comedies?
>Of course the company might have succeeded in finding successive pairs
>of tall blond and short dark boys younger than those who had grown out
>of their roles, but the odds against that are fairly steep.  Were these
>two actors castrati?  I sometimes posed this question to my Shakespeare
>classes, but never got a satisfying answer.

Couple of quick responses--

1)  I think it most unlikely that any of these roles were played by
castrati.

2) The tall and short issue has been noticed before by a number of
people, and it could well be explained by the maturing of the young
actors.  Usually the tall girl gets the most lines (Rosalind, Portia,
Helena, etc.) and those are also the characters who dress as boys, i.e.
*look* most like pubescent males.  The short girl might (I stress
*might*) be the younger actor who then has fewer lines to learn.  Where
you have several women in a comedy, one might notice the decrease in
size-in *Twelfth Night,*  Viola (the largest role), is played by the
tallest boy actor, Olivia is somewhat smaller, and Maria, the third
female role, is the shortest in both senses of the term-note the
multiple jokes about her size.

3) I don't think hair color is germane, since the boy actors would be
wearing wigs anyway.

4)  I've often suspected that the Nurse was played by a fully-grown male
actor, something like a pantomime dame, but have absolutely no evidence
for this.

C. Walter Hodges' recent book *Enter The Whole Army* has some very
interesting speculation on the comedies which were heavy on women's
roles being study pieces for the young apprentices.  I thought this was
a compelling idea.  It's a great book overall, too.

Melissa D. Aaron

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stuart Manger <
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 >
Date:           Monday, 8 May 2000 23:57:34 +0100
Subject: Eunuchs Onstage
Comment:        SHK 11.0982 Eunuchs Onstage

There was a very good thread about this topic about 18 months ago.
Suggest you read the excellent Stephen Orgel on this subject not only in
back postings for this discussion group, but in his books on Masque and
the Jacobean Theatre.

The age at which 'boys' stopped acting 'girls / women' is blurred, and I
think you are correct in assuming that voices broke much later than now.
It has been suggested, has it not, that it was not uncommon for 'boys'
to continue to play female leads until 17 / 18, though 12-15 seems to be
a more normal age range. Whether their voices had broken by then is more
difficult cf Hamlet and maybe more than tart references on boys and
their cracking coinage etc.

Accounts of boy-singers (Pavey et al) of the day would suggest that boys
could expect to / were possibly forced to go on singing treble later
than mid-teens, such that one supposes that boy performers in either
discipline were common enough.

Maybe interesting stuff too worth pursuing about boys as indentured
apprentices in the acting companies, and the relevant legal ages/ terms
of apprenticeship of 'graduating' from such indentures. cf Andrew Gurr
et al.
 

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