The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1024 Friday, 12 May 2000.
Date: Thursday, 11 May 2000 14:53:18 +0100
Subject: Eunuchs Onstage
Is it known for certain that the actors playing women on the renaissance
stage were boys?
Modern productions have used adult men to play female roles very
convincingly, and with great success. The experience of many of us who
know trans-vestites and trans-sexuals is that the virtually undetectable
portrayal of femininity by adult men is not uncommon.
Certainly Cleopatra fears that "some squeaking Cleopatra [will] boy
[her] greatness", but this line is inconclusive. The rivals of the adult
players were the all boy companies, which Shakespeare satirises in other
places. Could not this line be another slur by Shakespeare on those
companies, rather than a proof that women's roles were always played by
boys. On a boy's lips this line would be particularly strange, for it
would seriously damage the theatrical illusion.
I admit that Shakespeare does sometimes allow his actors to challenge
this illusion, but most notably in a comic situation eg, in Twelfth
Night, Fabian's "If this were played upon a stage, now, I could condemn
it as an improbable fiction." as the gulling of Malvolio progresses.
More commonly Shakespeare supports the illusion; Corin in As You Like
It, and Feste in Twelfth Night, both voice suspicions of their heroines'
male disguises, which serves to enhance the female characterisation of
Rosalind and Viola, as played by male actors.
I am sure that (given equipment able to shave a beard) good adult male
actors capable of performing female roles convincingly could have been
found in Shakespeare's time, just as they can in ours.
I accept that there were boys' companies in Elizabethan London, where
all the roles were played by boys.
But I remain unconvinced that the female parts were always, or indeed
normally, played by boys in the adult companies of players. Probably
younger men (mid to late teens, perhaps) would have portrayed the
heroines at their most nubile age (mid to late teens, perhaps). The fact
that young actors are needed to play young women (because it is
admittedly hard for an actor to play a younger character), does not seem
to imply that boys were necessarily used to play women.
Is there any evidence out there to settle my doubts?