The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1053 Tuesday, 16 May 2000.
From: David Kathman <
Date: Monday, 15 May 2000 22:52:03 -0600
Subject: 11.1034 Re: Eunuchs Onstage
Comment: Re: SHK 11.1034 Re: Eunuchs Onstage
I've been too busy to chime in on the discussion of the ages of the
actors who played female roles in Shakespeare's time, but now I must
break my silence. This subject has come up for extended discussion on
this list twice before, in 1994 and in 1998, and I participated in both
discussions. I argued then, as I will argue below, that the only
*documentary* evidence we have indicates that female roles on the
Jacobean and Caroline stage were played by male actors between roughly
the ages of 14 and 18, or teenage boys, in modern parlance. Many people
today seem to have difficulty believing this, and suggest that more
experienced adult men must have played at least some of these roles.
However, such suggestions are based on wishful thinking, and are not
supported by the documentary evidence.
Gabriel Egan wrote:
>Peter Hillyar-Russ asks
>> Is it known for certain that the actors playing women
>> on the renaissance stage were boys?
>The cast list attached to the quarto of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi
>list names Robert Pallant, who was at least 30, in the female role of
Actually, this is generally taken to refer to Robert Pallant the
Younger, baptized 28 September 1605, the son of the elder Robert
Pallant. Let me briefly go over the evidence:
1) The quarto of The Duchess of Malfi was published in 1623, and it
contains the first cast list known for a printed play in English. The
company is the King's Men. Some of the roles have two actors listed,
indicating the original production and a revival. The original
production must have been between 1612 (when some of Webster's sources
were published) and December 1614 (when William Ostler, listed as
playing Antonio in the first production, died). The revival must have
been after March 1619 (when Richard Burbage, the first production's
Ferdinand, died, and John Taylor, the second production's Ferdinand,
joined the company) but before 1623, the date of the quarto's
2) "R. Pallant" is listed in the cast list alongside a bracket
encompassing the roles of The Doctor, Cariola, and Court Officers.
Pallant obviously could not have played multiple court officers at once,
and he could not have played any of the court officers and Cariola,
since they appear in the same scene together. Modern editors have
changed the brackets so that they encompass only The Doctor and Cariola,
but given the sloppiness involved, we can't be sure that Pallant played
both of these roles, or if he did, that he played both of them at once.
3) There was an actor named Robert Pallant who was a member of Strange's
Men in the early 1590s, Worcester's Men in 1602, Queen Anne's Men from
1603 to 1613, Lady Elizabeth's in 1614, Prince Charles' in 1616, and
Queen Anne's again in 1619 (when he marched in her funeral procession in
May). He is not known to have ever been associated with the King's
Men. This man was a longtime resident of St. Saviour Southwark, where
he had a son Robert (baptized 28 September 1605) and several other
children, and where he was buried on 4 September 1619.
4) On 27 December 1624, "Roberte Pallant" was eleventh in a list of 21
men "all imployed by the Kinges Maiesties servantes in theire quality of
Playinge as Musitions and other necessary attendantes". This obviously
could not be the actor who had died five years earler, but I think we
may confidently take it to be his son, who would have been 19 years old
at the time.
5) Given the documented connection with the King's Men, I think we may
also be fairly confident in taking the "R. Pallant" of the Duchess of
Malfi cast list to be the younger Pallant. He would have been 7 to 9
years old during the first production, and 14 to 18 years old during the
revival. He would have been rather young during the first production,
but I think it's not unreasonable to believe that for some of the minor
parts where only one name is listed, this name refers only to the more
recent revival, perhaps because the compiler wasn't sure who had
originally played the minor roles a decade before. An age of 14 to 18
would have been right in line with the other evidence we have for the
actors who played female roles (see below).
>and the manuscript of Sir John van Olden Barnavelt names
>Nicholas Tooley, who was probably nearing 40, for Barnavelt's wife.
Actually, the manuscript refers only to "Nick", and this is much more
likely to be either Nicholas Burt or Nicholas Underhill, both of whom
acted for the King's Men in the 1620s and 1630s. Bentley in *The
Jacobean and Caroline Stage* suggests that Underhill is more likely, but
it could also have been some other "Nick". There is no reason to
believe that it was Nicholas Tooley, who was 37 years old at the time.
As I mentioned above, I participated in a discussion on this topic two
years ago, in which I presented quite a bit of evidenceto show that
female roles in the adult companies were acted by male teenage actors,
and that the boys of the children's companies were somewhat younger.
I've been meaning to write all this up for publication, but for now I'll
just have to paste in my old posts in their rather fragmentary form,
with some minor snippage. Those who are interested in the sources for
what I say below, and for further biographical information about English
theater people before 1642, should consult my Biographical Index of
Elizabethan Theater, available on the web at
From: David J. Kathman <
Date: Wednesday, 6 May 1998 19:12:28 +0100
Subject: 9.0430 Some Questions
Comment: Re: SHK 9.0430 Some Questions
Abigail Quart wrote:
>Does anyone know where I can go for info on which players in
>Shakespeare's company played the female roles? And which roles they
>played, if known?
Very little is know about this, because there are so few cast lists.
Richard Sharpe played the Duchess for the King's Men in Webster's
*Duchess of Malfi*, probably in both the original production of 1614 and
in the revival c.1620. This indicates that he most likely played the
leading ladies around this time, though by the mid-1620s he was playing
male romantic leads. He died in 1632. A "Richard Birch" played Fine
Madame Would-Bee in a King's Men revival of Jonson's *Volpone*
c.1616-19, and Doll Common in a revival of *The Alchemist* around the
same time. This "Richard Birch" was probably George Birch, who is known
to have acted with the King's Men from 1619 to 1625, but it may possibly
be a hitherto unknown actor. Those are the only female roles I know of
that can be assigned to specific actors in Shakespeare's company, though
several other actors are known to have played unspecified female roles.
From: David J. Kathman <
Date: Friday, 8 May 1998 20:10:01 +0100
Subject: 9.0440 Re: Female Roles
Comment: Re: SHK 9.0440 Re: Female Roles
Pervez Rizvi wrote:
>Ed Taft writes:
>>But for a very powerful argument that
>>sharers played these roles, see James Forse, *Art Imitates Business*,
>>(1995? Bowling Green Press), in which Jim points out that they are often
>>such important roles that more senior members of Shakespeare's troupe
>>might have taken them.
>Not having read Forse's book, I don't know what evidence he offers for
>his view (can you summarise it for us?). But: there are few roles more
>important than Cleopatra and Shakespeare gave her the line "I shall see
>some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness in the posture of a whore."
>When Hamlet greets the Players on their arrival in Elsinore, he says:
>"What, my young lady and mistress! By'r lady, your ladyship is nearer to
>heaven than when I saw you last, by the altitude of a chopine. Pray God,
>your voice, like a piece of uncurrent gold, be not cracked within the
>ring." How else can we read these lines except to infer that Cleopatra
>and other leading female characters were played by boys whose voices had
>not yet broken?
We had a discussion of this issue on this very list back in 1994, and
James Forse and I were two of the main participants. You can probably
find the discussions by using SHAKSPER's search functions. I said then
that I didn't find Forse's arguments very persuasive; they're based
mainly on a subjective impression that these roles are too important to
be entrusted to boys, but all the documentary evidence indicates that
these boys were indeed 10-17 years of age (see below).
Stuart Manger wrote:
>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
We don't know when he was born, just that he died in 1632. In general,
we don't know much about the ages of the boy actors with the adult
companies, but there are a few we do know about, from which we can
cautiously extrapolate. Arthur Savill was 14 years old when he played
Quartilla in Shakerley Marmion's *Holland's Leaguer* for Prince Charles'
Men in December 1631. Four months earlier, Savill had been apprenticed
as a goldsmith to Andrew Cane, a sharer with Prince Charles' Men and a
member of the Goldsmith's Company. During the 1630s, Cane was active as
both an actor and a goldsmith, and Savill apparently learned both trades
during his eight-year apprenticeship.
John Rice was about 14 when he is first mentioned as a member of the
King's Men in 1607, at which time he was apparently apprenticed to John
Heminges. I think there are a few other boy actors for the adult
companies for whom we have ages, but 14 to 16 seems to be more or less
the norm. Dick Robinson was about 16 at the time of our first notice of
him as a member of the King's Men. Hugh Clark first shows up with Queen
Henrietta's Men at about age 16 in 1626.
>How old did they go? Evidence in Hamlet - the little eyasses?
We know the ages of several members of the boy companies, and they tend
to cluster around 10-13 years old. Thomas Ravenscroft, later to become
a well-known composer, may have been as young as six when he was a
member of Paul's Boys in 1598, but there's some dispute about his
birthdate. Henry Burnett was 12 when he was a Paul's chorister in 1607,
the year after Paul's Boys stopped performing plays; he may or may not
have acted with them. John Chappell was around 10 or 11 when he acted
in a couple of Jonson's plays with the Children of the Chapel in
1600-1. John Tomkins was 12 when he was a member of Paul's Boys in
>The boy Hamlet had known in the city now much taller and with a wobbly
>adolescent voice in the company that comes to Elsinore? The boy actors
>that Jonson writes so movingly about?
Salathiel "Salomon" Pavy, the boy actor with the Children of the Chapel
for whom Jonson wrote a eulogy, was 13 when he died in 1603. Pavy was
apparently one of the most prominent actors among the Chapel Children
(see Reavley Gair, *The Children of Paul's* (1982), p.64).
>And where does diet as well as
>age come into this? Presumably, we know nothing about the ages of the
>sharers? How old did you have to be? Old enough to put up sufficient
Sharers mostly tended to be at least in their 20s.
>I can't think some of these fantastic roles were entrusted to
>'apprentice actors'? I mean, would Shak / Webster et al write for
>'apprentices' some of the most sensational roles in theatrical history?
If that's the way it was done, that's the way they did it. There are
several contemporary accounts of how convincing the boy actors were at
Joanne Walen wrote:
>Abigail Quart posed the question of who in Shakespeare's company might
>have played the women's roles. Tangential to that, I'm curious if there
>is any documentation on who might have been the first female (not young
>boy) to play a woman's role in Shakespeare's plays in England?
That would have been after the Restoration, because no women were
allowed on the English stage before the Civil War. Mary Frith, aka
"Moll Cutpurse", aka "The Roaring Girl", got in trouble with the law
when she appeared on the stage of the Fortune in the spring of 1611
dressed in men's clothing, apparently as a promotion for Dekker and
Middleton's play about her, *The Roaring Girl*.
From: David J. Kathman <
Date: Monday, 11 May 1998 20:12:31 +0100
Subject: 9.0447 Re: Female Roles
Comment: Re: SHK 9.0447 Re: Female Roles
Ed Taft writes:
>Professor Forse writes, "What did Shakespeare's contemporaries say about
>the use of boys in women's roles? They said surprisingly little.
>Shakespeare did script a remark by Cleopatra that someday a "squeaking"
>boy may act her part, but that may say more about Shakespeare's attitude
>toward boys' companies, and the *vocal qualities* of boy-actors, than it
>does the use of boy-actors on a regular basis" (p.89)
But I would point out, as I pointed out back in 1994, that the
documentary evidence we do have is all consistent with boys playing
female roles, and none of it supports the idea that sharers played these
roles. One sticking point, as I recall, was just what is meant by
"boy". For the adult companies, boy actors, at least those who seem to
have played prominent roles, were generally aged 14-17 or so. Call them
teenagers rather than boys, if you prefer.
>As for Forse's overall argument, he contends that it would have made
>"good business sense" for the sharers to play "plum" roles and that
>there is evidence that this may have been so. He cites John Honeyman,
>John Thompson, Robert Pallant, Richard Sharpe, and William Trigge as
>examples of men who apparently continued to play female roles for many
This is not quite accurate, except in the case of Thompson. Much of the
"evidence" for the roles played by these actors derives from the
speculations of T.W. Baldwin in *The Organization and Personnell of
Shakespeare's Company*. But Baldwin's speculation is unsupported by
evidence and is generally discredited today; the actual documentary
evidence supports the conclusion that the actors who played female roles
in the adult companies ranged from around 10 to 17 years of age,
concentrated around 14-16 years old, sometimes extending into the late
John Honeyman first shows up playing a female role at the age of 13 for
the King's Men in Massinger's *The Roman Actor* (1626), and three years
later he played Sophia, wife of Mathias, in Massinger's *The Picture*,
and Clarinda in Carlell's *The Deserving Favorite*. But the next year,
at age 17, he was playing Sly the Servant in Clavell's *The Soddered
Citizen*; the following year at age 18 he was playing the First Merchant
in Massinger's *Believe as You List*; and the year after that he played
"a young Factor" in *The Wild Goose Chase*. All male roles. It appears
that Honeyman stopped playing female roles around age 17.
John Thompson did play female roles for the King's Men for about a
decade, from c.1621-1631. We don't know how old he was, but he did have
two daughters in 1632 (obviously with different mothers, since they were
born 2 1/2 months apart), and in 1633 he was sworn a Groom of the
Chamber, which probably meant he was no longer going to play female
roles. Presumably he was at least in his late teens at the time, more
probably around 21. So he might have played female roles into his late
Robert Pallant Jr. played the Doctor and Cariola in *The Duchess of
Malfi*, according to the 1623 Quarto. But G.E. Bentley in *The Jacobean
and Caroline Stage* suggests plausibly that Pallant played Cariola (a
female role) in the first run of 1614, when he was 9, and the Doctor in
the second run of 1619-23, when he was between 14 and 18. Even if he
doubled Cariola and the Doctor in both runs, or only in the second run,
Pallant was still a teenager at the time. No other roles are known for
As I noted before, we do know that Richard Sharpe played the Duchess in
*The Duchess of Malfi*, but we don't know how old he was, and we don't
know for sure whether he played it in the first run (1614), the second
run (c.1619-23), or both.
William Trigg's age is unknown. He played female roles for the King's
Men from 1626 to 1632, but after that the roles he played are unknown.
A span of six years is quite reasonable if he played from, say, age 11
to age 17, or from 12 to 18. He married in 1642 and joined the Royalist