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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: September ::
Re: Women's Roles
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1670  Friday, 1 September 2000.

[1]     From:   Tom Bishop <
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        Date:   Thursday, 31 Aug 2000 11:44:13 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1631 Re: Women's Roles

[2]     From:   David Kathman <
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        Date:   Friday 1 Sep 2000 01:49:02 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1631 Re: Women's Roles

From:           Tom Bishop <
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Date:           Thursday, 31 Aug 2000 11:44:13 -0500
Subject: 11.1631 Re: Women's Roles
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1631 Re: Women's Roles

There is of course the obvious passage in Hamlet, which certainly can be
read as suggesting that boys with unbroken voices were the standard
equipment in touring companies for playing the part of a lady who "shall
say her mind freely or the blank verse shall halt for it" (which doesn't
suggest a minor part). When the troupe appears, Hamlet greets this actor
by commenting on how much he has grown, and hoping that "your voice,
like a piece of uncurrent gold, be not cracked within the ring".  It's
an old chestnut, and no doubt can be argued around by those committed to
another view, but it's good prima facie evidence that boy actors were
expected to play principal parts in a company whose standard roles were
King, Knight, Lover, Humorous Man, Clown -- and Lady. And that their
usefulness (and profitability?) in those roles was compromised when
their physical development intruded.

From:           David Kathman <
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Date:           Friday 1 Sep 2000 01:49:02 -0600
Subject: 11.1631 Re: Women's Roles
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1631 Re: Women's Roles

James Forse wrote:

>Dear David,
>You and I corresponded over the boy/man issue privately some time ago,
>and you disagree with my interpretation of the sources.  That's fine;
>sources as slim as they are for Early Modern Theatre are arguable.  I
>refrained from leaping into the fray this Spring because, for reasons
>beyond me, the objections to my interpretations so quickly became
>emotional, silly, hysterical, and vicious.  But I believe you have
>misrepresented my book. You write: _The most extensive expression of
>this doubt that I'm aware of is a chapter in James Forse's 1993 book
>*Art Imitates Business*, in which Forse argues that such roles as
>Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth must have been played by adult sharers.
>However, he bases this conclusion not on any evidence to speak of, but
>on his notions of what would have made sense, especially economic sense,
>to an Elizabethan acting troupe...all the evidence we have shows that
>essentially all female roles, including the principal ones, were acted
>by teenage boys on the pre-Restoration English stage._
>Now it is true that a portion of my argument is based on economic
>factors, but _all the evidence we have_ does not show _that essentially
>all female roles...were acted by teenage boys._  I do cite evidence
>which exists, which suggests that men, or at least young men, played the
>important female roles.

I think one of the issues here is the interpretation of the word "boy",
as you note at the end of this post.  That issue arose as well in our
discussion here in 1994 (which I have been rereading as part of my
research), and we came to substantial agreement on many points.  If
someone were to interpret "boy actors" as meaning prepubescent boys, age
10-12, then they would be mistaken, and I would join you in trying to
set them straight.  You're absolutely right that the principal female
roles in the adult companies were not played by prepubescent boys.  But
they *were* played by teenage boys, ages 13 to 19, as much evidence
shows (some of which I will cite below).  Now, an 18 or 19 year old male
might very well be called a "young man", and in that sense you're more
or less right that "young men" played the principal female roles.  But
you're wrong to imply from this that *sharers*, or even hired men over
the age of 20 or so, played those roles.  There are a couple of bits of
evidence which seem to point to sharers playing very minor female roles
(with zero and five lines respectively), and while both of those bits of
evidence are somewhat questionable, I'm perfectly willing to admit that
adults, even sharers, may have sometimes played such supernumerary
female roles.  But all the evidence we have shows that the *principal*
female roles were played by teenage male apprentices.  So let me
rephrase my statement from above:  In every case where we can reliably
determine the age of an actor playing a significant female role on the
pre-Restoration English stage, that age is between 13 and 19.  In my
article I'm going through every single instance, but below I can only
give selected examples.

>So I think I need to quote from length from my work to illustrate that

[Note to readers:  the following five paragraphs are taken from chapter
3 of James' book *Art Imitates Business*.  I don't have time to reply to
every single point in this lengthy excerpt, but I'll try to hit the

>_Nonetheless, the "proof" of my "pudding," so to speak, must rest in the
>"reading" of contemporary sources.  Restoration sources wrote of boys
>"brought up at Blackfriars" who played women's parts, but even these are
>vague about what age those boys were when they began to play, and
>continued to play female roles.

Here you're talking about James Wright's *Historia Histrionica*,
published in 1699.  It's true that Wright does not specify the ages of
the pre-Restoration boy actors he writes about, but in many cases
contemporary records allow us to get a pretty good idea of their ages.

Wright writes that "Hart and Clun were bred up boys at the Black-friers,
and acted women's parts; Hart was Robinson's boy, or apprentice; he
acted the Duchess in the Tragedy of the Cardinal, which was the first
part that gave him reputation." James Shirley's *The Cardinal* was
licensed for performance by the King's Men on 25 November 1641, which
gives us a pretty short window before the closing of the theaters the
following year.  We can't be sure of Charles Hart's exact age, but a
person of that name was christened at St. Giles Cripplegate, London, on
11 December 1625, and the name was not particularly common.  If this was
the actor, he would have been just short of 16 years old when *The
Cardinal* was licensed.  I wouldn't consider this very good evidence all
by itself, but it fits in so well with other more solid evidence that
it's worth mentioning.

Wright writes that "Burt was a boy first under Shank at the
Black-friers, then under Beeston at the Cock-pit."  Nicholas Burt's time
as a boy under Shank must have been before Shank's death in 1636, which
roughly coincided with the closing of the theaters because of plague;
his time as a boy under Beeston must have begun in late 1637, when the
theaters reopened and Beeston started up a company at the Cockpit.  Now,
Nicholas Burt is not a very common name, and a "Nicholas Bert" was
baptized in Norwich on 27 May 1621.  If this is the actor, he was about
15 when Shank died, and 16 when the theaters reopened.  Again, this is
not quite certain enough to count as strong evidence by itself, but it
fits in well with the stronger evidence I mention below.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  There is much better evidence, from
before the Restoration, which shows teenage boys playing the principal
female roles in plays.

>John Honeyman, called "Gentleman" in an
>epitaph written after his death (an appellation never given to a boy by
>Elizabethans), played female roles for a span of seven years;

First of all, Honeyman was 23 years old when he died, and thus perfectly
entitled to be called "gentleman"; but he was between 13 and 16 when he
played female roles for the King's Men.  Second of all, he did not play
female roles for a span of seven years, but only for about three years;
probably by age 17, and certainly by age 18, he was playing male roles.
Honeyman was christened at St. Botolph's, Bishopsgate, on 7 February
1613, and his first known acting role was that of Domitilla, cousin
german to Caesar, in Massinger's *The Roman Actor*.  This play was
licensed for performance on 11 October 1626, when Honeyman was 13 years
old, and was printed three years later.  He played Sophia, wife of
Mathias, in Massinger's *The Picture* (licensed 8 June 1629, when
Honeyman was 16), and Clarinda in Carlell's *The Deserving Favorite*,
printed the same year.  But in the manuscript of Clavell's *The Soddered
Citizen* (generally dated around 1630), Honeyman is listed as playing
the servant, Sly; and in the manuscript of Massinger's *Believe as You
List* (licensed on 6 May 1631, when Honeyman was 18), he is listed as
playing the First Merchant.  He played "a young Factor" in a revival of
Fletcher's *The Wild Goose Chase*, probably in 1632.  Those are the last
roles known for him, and he died in 1636, probably of the plague then

>Thompson seems to have played female roles for as many as 17 years;

No, John Thompson can only be shown to have played female roles for
eight years, though that's still longer than any other boy actor.  He
was listed as playing the Cardinal's Mistress in the 1623 quarto of
Webster's *Duchess of Malfi*, but we don't know whether this was in the
original 1613 performance or the revival of 1619-23.  But Thompson did
play female roles for the King's Men throughout most of the 1620s, the
last known being Panopia, the King's Sister, in Arthur Wilson's *The
Swisser* (1631).  Unfortunately, we don't know when Thompson was born,
but he had a child baptized in 1632, so he must have been in his late
teens by then at the very least.  He was sworn a Groom of the Chamber on
15 April 1633, along with John Honeyman, but he died on 13 December
1634.  In the Sharer Papers of 1635, Thompson is referred to as a "boy"
for whom John Shank paid 40 pounds to bring into the company.

>Richard Sharpe, and William Trigge, played female roles over spans of
>four or five years.

Actually, the only female role known for Sharpe is the Duchess in
Webster's *Duchess of Malfi*, from the 1623 quarto; and as with
Thompson, we cannot know whether he peformed in the original, or just in
the revival (which must have been between 1619 and 1623).  >From 1626
until his death in early 1632, Sharpe played male roles, mostly young
gallants.  Unfortunately, we don't know exactly when he was born.

William Trigg actually played female roles for about six years, from
1626 to 1632, and we know that he was roughly 14 to 20 years old during
those years.  In August 1631, Trigg testified in a petition to the Lord
Mayor's Court that he had been apprenticed to John Heminges of the
King's Men on 20 December 1626 for a term of 12 years, to learn "la arte
d'une Stageplayer".  Trigg gave his age as 19 or 20 in 1631, meaning he
was 14 or 15 when he was apprenticed to Heminges.  He appears in various
King's Men cast lists from late 1626 to 1632 playing female roles, and
while he continued with the company after that (and with Beeston's
company at the Cockpit in 1639), his later roles are not known.

>They may have begun their acting careers in female
>parts as "boys," but they were still playing those roles when hey had
>reached at least the age of 18, and maybe still were doing so at 28 or

You're right that many of them were still playing female roles at the
age of 18 (as I've been saying all along), but there is no evidence that
any of them continued until 28 or 30.  Indeed, as I note above, in
several instances there is evidence of a transition to male roles in the
late teens/early 20s.  Here's one more example:  Ezekiel Fenn was
baptized on 9 April 1620.  In 1635, at the age of 15, he played
Sophonisba, the lead female role, in Thomas Nabbes' *Hannibal and
Scipio*.  In 1639, Henry Glapthorne published a poem entitled "For
Ezekiel Fen at his first Acting a Mans Part".  Fenn was 19 at the time.

>Evidence suggests that many apprentices except, of course,
>choirboys) were hardly "little eyases," and perhaps already young men,
>when they began apprenticeships.  Most Englishmen entered apprenticeship
>between the ages of 17 and their early 20s....

Whoa, nelly.  Some Englishmen were apprenticed that late, but the
early-to-mid teens were a much more common age.  The most common age for
the apprenticeship of boy actors seems to have been 14-15.  I've already
noted William Trigg, and I could give other examples.  Arthur Savill was
apprenticed to Andrew Cane of Prince Charles' Men on 5 August 1631, at
the age of 14 (baptized 27 February 1617), and later that same year he
played the gentlewoman Quartilla, one of the five principal female roles
in Shakerley Marmion's *Holland's Leaguer*.  John Wright had been
apprenticed to Cane in 1629, and many years later, in 1654, he testified
that he had been apprenticed to Cane at the age of 15 and acted
throughout his apprenticeship.  In that same production of *Holland's
Leaguer*, Wright played Millicent, daughter
of Agurtes.

>English laws stipulated
>apprentice status lasted until the age of 24.

True, but the laws were regularly violated.  John Heminges became a
freeman at age 21, for example.

>Philip Henlsowe himself
>was at least a 19-year-old, and more likely a 29-year-old, apprentice
>when he married his master's widow.

No, he was 24.  He married Agnes Woodward in February 1579, and Susan
Cerasano found an entry in Simon Forman's diary from February 1597 in
which Henslowe gives his age as 42.

>Almost none of the boy-actors seem
>to have crossed over to the adult companies.  In three cases for which
>documentation shows that cross-over, Nathan Field, William Ostler, and
>John Underwood, none seem to have moved into female roles.  Field, for
>instance, assumed Burbage's roles after Burbage's death.

Well, several other boy actors who played female roles as teens did
continue on playing male roles after they became older; John Honeyman is
one example, and William Trigg may be another.  But I'm not sure how
this is supposed to help your argument; it just shows that once these
actors were no longer apprentices, they no longer played female roles.

>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 towards Boys' Companies,
>and the vocal qualities of boy-actors, than it does his use of boy
>actors on a regular basis.  No internal, textual evidence suggests he
>shaped roles to boy-actors.  Thomas Heywood's _Apology for Actors_
>replied to criticism about _youths_ wearing feminine garb on stage,  but
>youths is a relative term which does not necessarily imply boys.

Well, again, it depends on how you define "boys".  The "boy" actors were
teenagers (in our modern parlance), and would certainly have been
considered "youths" by Jacobean standards.

>records concerning boys acting with the adult companies indicate minor
>parts such as page-boys, fairies, devils, and children.

This may be true of actual prepubescent *children* who acted, though
since you don't give any specific examples it's hard to tell.  But the
teenage "boy" actor apprentices did not play such roles.
They played women, including the leading female roles.

>A few
>references exist concerning the Children's Companies which remark upon
>the charming novelty of boys who were expert at portraying young women
>and old men, but that may just be the point, the novelty of it all.
>When the Boys' Companies tried plays, like Spanish Tragedy, that were
>staples of the adult company, their efforts appear to have been laughed
>off the stage.

The all-boy companies are a fascinating topic of study in themselves,
and some very interesting stuff has been written about them recently.
But the boys in these companies were younger than the apprentices in the
adult companies, generally around 10-13 from the evidence I've been able
to gather.  That would make a significant difference.

>There exist no correspondingly complimentary remarks about the boy (or
>boys) _of unusual range_ who portrayed Shakespeare's Portia (Merchant of
>Venice), or Rosaline (As You Like It), or Thomas Kyd's Bel Imperia
>(Spanish Tragedy), or any other of the substantial female roles in the
>repertories of the adult companies.

But what about the spectator who witnessed a performance of Othello in
1610 and remarked on how moving the performance of Desdemona was?  You
even mention that later.  And in my last post on this thread I posted
some high praise for the acting of Edward Kynaston in female roles at
the Restoration.

>Spectators commenting on the adult
>companies did not mention boys.  They wrote about actors dressed as men
>and women dancing at the conclusion of performances; they wrote about
>the lavish costumes and the lavish decoration of the theatre buildings;
>they wrote about the plots of plays they had attended; they praised the
>performances of the Elizabethan super-stars Edward Alleyn, Richard
>Tarlton, Will Kempe, and Richard Burbage.  They did not comment on the
>actors who played Buckingham to Burbage's Richard III, Claudius to his
>Hamlet, or Iago to his Othello.  Obviously there appeared nothing to
>them out of the ordinary there.  They also did not comment on who played
>Margaret to Burbage's Richard, Gertrude to his Hamlet, or Desdemona to
>his Othello (except for one reference to how effective an actor had been
>in portraying Desdemona's death scene), and therefore I think we can
>assume that, unlike the novelty of the Children's Companies in which
>boys charmingly portrayed women, there appeared nothing out of the
>ordinary there either.
>Puritan pamphlets attacking the immorality of the theater abound.  These
>roar and thunder at the practice of crossdressing, at males dancing
>with, and kissing, males, at such practices enticing people to sodomy,
>but they almost never specify that boys are cross-dressing, dancing and
>kissing.  It is the "immorality," "unnaturalness" and _ungodliness_ of
>men pretending to be women that the Puritan authors most often attack.

But such anti-theatrical tracts *do* often specify that it is "boys" who
are cross-dressing.  William Prynne's *Histrio-Mastix* (1633), one of
the most famous (and certainly the longest) Puritan attack on the stage,
wrote the following:

"If any now object, that it is far better, far more commendable for boys
the act in women's attire, then to bring women-actors on the stage to
personate female parts, a practice much in use in former times among the
Greeks and Romans, who had their Mima, theire Scenicae mulieres, or
women-actors (who were all notorious impudent, prostituted strumpets),
especially in their Floralian interludes, as they have now their female
players in Italy, and other foreign parts, and as they had such
French-women actors, in a play not long since personated in Blackfriars
Playhouse, to which there was great resort.

"I answer first, that the very ground of this objection is false, unless
the objectors can manifest it to be a greater abomination, a more
detestable damning sin, for a woman to act a female's part on the stage,
than for a boy to put on a woman's apparel, person and behaviour, to act
a feminine part; which the Scripture expressly forbids, as an
abomination to the Lord our God..."

This is part of the passage that got Prynne in the most trouble,
resulting in his ears being cut off, because he seemed to be implying
that the Queen (who had acted in masques at Court) was a strumpet.  He
specifically mentions "boys" dressed in women's apparel.

Stephen Gosson's *Plays Confuted in Five Actions* (1582), one of the
more influential Elizabethan anti-theatrical tracts, also specifically
mentions boys.  Gosson wrote:

"The proof is evident, the consequent is necessary, that in state plays
for a boy to put on he attire, the gesture, the passions of a woman; for
a mean person to take upon him the title of a prince with counterfeit
port, and train, is by outward signs to shew themselves otherwise then
they are, and so within the compass of a lie, which by Aristotle's
judgement is naught of itself and to be fled..."

>The position of his name in the cast list given by Ben Jonson when he
>published Sejanus (1603) and Volpone (1605) suggests that Shakespeare's
>partner Alexander Cooke may have played the roles of Agrippina and
>Fine-madam Would-be.

Hmmm.  That's some pretty shaky reasoning.

>The cast list of Sir John van Olden Barnavelt
>(1619) clearly states that Nicholas Tooley, for a time perhaps with the
>Admiral's men, but after 1605 with the King's, at the age of 44 (hardly
>a boy), played the role of Barnavelt's wife.

No, this is false, and I discussed this at length with Gabriel Egan in
May.  There is no "cast list" for the MS of Sir John van Olden
Barnavelt; there are notes added by the prompter, some of which indicate
the actors who played specific roles.  One of these notes indicates that
"Nick" played Barnavelt's wife, but no last name is given (as was
typical for apprentices in theatrical documents like this), and there is
no reason to believe that this was Nicholas Tooley.  A much more likely
candidate is Nicholas Underhill.  And Nicholas Tooley was not 44 in
1619; he was born in late 1582 or early 1583, as Mary Edmond recently
established, so he would have been 36 or 37 in 1619.

>Some scholars believe that
>the "Nick" and "Sander," named in the 1590 cast list of Seven Deadly
>Sins as playing women's roles probably are these same two men. Tooley,
>then fifteen, might possibly fit the description of boy, but Cooke, at
>two three years older, certainly cannot.

First of all, it's pure speculation that the "Nick" and "Sander" of the
*Seven Deadly Sins* plot are Tooley and Cooke, and I wouldn't want to
use such speculation as evidence for anything.  Second of all, Tooley
was actually under 10 years old at the time (though if he *had* been 15,
he would have fit right in with the ages of other "boy" actors that I've
noted).  Third of all, I have no idea where you got the idea that
Alexander Cooke was 17 or 18 in 1590.  I know of no evidence for when he
was born; he first shows up in actor lists for the King's Men in 1603,
and he was apprenticed to John Heminges in 1608, as Susan Brock recently
discovered.  Fourth of all, whoever "Nick" and "Sander" were in the
*Seven Deadly Sins* plot, they were not sharers (who are indicated in
the document by "Mr."), nor were they hired men (who are simply given by
their last name).  On the basis of other similar document, they would
appear to have been apprentices, and they played female roles in the

>Finally, lines in the poetic
>prologue to a performance of some form of Othello, Sir William
>Davenant's royal patent to organize an acting company (both dating from
>1660), and a chance remark in the town records of Reading, dating from
>the turn of the sixteenth century,  seem to belie that it was general
>practice to use boys for major female roles.  The poetic epilogue was
>given to soften the impact of the first time a woman appeared on the
>English stage.  It states, in part:
>                But to the point:--In this reforming age
>                We have intents to civilize the stage.
>                Our women are defective, and so siz'd
>                You'd think they were some of the guard disguis'd:
>                For, to speak truth, men act, that are between
>                Forty and fifty, wenches of fifteen;
>                With bone so large and nerve so incompliant,
>                When your call Desdemona, enter Giant.--

The 1660 Othello prologue is the best evidence that in at least some
cases, adult men played minor female roles before the Restoration,
although we can't be sure who wrote the prologue and how much they
actually knew firsthand about pre-Restoration practices.  As I said
before, there are a couple of records from c.1630 which *seem* to
indicate adult sharers playing very minor female roles, though they're
not without problems.  But the contemporary evidence shows pretty
overwhelmingly that the primary female roles were played by teenage

>Davenant certainly knew the usual practices of pre-Restoration theatre.
>He became Governor of the company at the Cockpit in 1640, and continued
>in that capacity until the closing of the theatres in 1642.  He himself
>obtained the clause in his patent which specifies "That, whereas the
>women's parts in plays have hitherto been acted by men in the habits of
>women, of which some have taken offence, we permit and give leave for
>the time to come, that all women's parts be acted by women."

I think "men" here can be taken to mean simply "males", since it's the
sex of the performers that's at issue.  And the older teenagers who
acted women's parts could certainly be called "young men", as I noted

>Reading document relates that an actor apologized to a select audience
>composed of the mayor and aldermen for a delay in beginning the
>performance because, "the Queen was shaving."_

I haven't been able to track down this anecdote to judge its
reliability, because I haven't had time to look up the book you took it
from (C. Bridenhaugh's *Vexed and Troubled Englishmen 1590-1642*).  The
reason I'm cautious is that Colley Cibber told the same story about
Edward Kynaston, the Restoration boy actor, in a performance before King
Charles II.  In any case, a queen shaving is perfectly consistent with
the evidence showing that teenage boys acted female parts, because
teenage boys have been known to shave.

[end of quote from book]

>This piece of evidence is not in my book, because I only recently
>happened upon it, but it too suggests that it was not "boys" who took
>important parts.  Discussing playing interludes Roger Edgeworth wrote
>that usually chosen are "well-favoured young men to play a virgins part
>or a woers part, or suche like . . . ." From Roger Edgeworth (Chancellor
>of Wells Cathedral), Sermons very fruitfull, godly, and learned. London:
>R. Caly, 1557, fol 213v.

"Young men" would apply perfectly well to teenage boys, especially those
in their late teens.

>Even your interpretation suggests that most of the actors were not
>pre-pubescent choir boys, but teenagers or young (effeminate--your word)
>men.  So I believe whether or not one wants to accept my interpretation,
>it is time to drop the appellation _boys._  It perpetuates a misleading
>notion of 10, 11, and 12 year old boy sopranos as Lady Macbeth.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I totally agree.  If someone
believes that 10, 11, or 12 year old boy sopranos played Lady Macbeth in
Shakespeare's day, I will do what I can to disabuse them of that
notion.  But I would also argue with someone who tried to deny that it
was actually teenage boys who played such roles, because that's what the
evidence says happened.  Arguing that adult sharers played the major
female roles before the Restoration requires ignoring a whole lot of
evidence, only some of which I've presented here.

Dave Kathman

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