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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: August ::
Re: Women's Roles
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1612  Wednesday, 30 August 2000.

From:           David Kathman <
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Date:           Tuesday, 29 Aug 2000 23:37:51 -0600
Subject: 11.1607 Re: Stratford Festival
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1607 Re: Stratford Festival

HR Greenberg wrote:

>I have just seen the ELIZABETH REX at Stratford, and -- not being a
>Shakespearean scholar -- wondered if a central issue in the play had
>been discussed in academia at any length. Key character without
>revealing much more is an adult female impersonator a la the female
>impersonators of Kabuki drama. Assumption being that an adolescent boy
>wouldn't have the reach, maturity, et cetera, to take on one of
>Shakespeare's strong, older women -- Lady Macbeth, Tamora, Titania, so
>forth. If there's been any significant scholarship on this subject, I
>would greatly appreciate references.

We've discussed this subject on this list several times, most recently
in May of this year.  Others have expressed similar doubts about the
ability of a teenage boy apprentice to act the great female roles of
Shakespeare, Webster, and so on.  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.  Alas, any historian can tell you that people
in the past did not always act according to our 21st-century notions of
"common sense".  As I have argued here several times already, 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.  There are a couple of apparent instances of sharers
acting very minor female roles (one with five lines, one with no lines
at all), but even these are dubious for various reasons.  The
apprentices whose ages we can determine were between 13 and 19 when they
performed female roles, with the larger roles tending to go to older
boys in their late teens.  These boys transitioned to male roles around
the ages of 17-19.  I have not found any definite instance of a boy
actor older than 19, but some of the more effeminate ones might have
lasted into their early 20s.

There's quite a bit of evidence about the ability of these "boy" actors,
but probably the best testimony comes from the Restoration.  When the
theaters first reopened, boys still acted female parts, and for a while
boys and women apparently coexisted on the stage.  The most famous of
these boys was Edward Kynaston, who was born on April 20, 1643, and thus
17 years old when the theaters reopened.  Samuel Pepys saw Kynaston play
the Duke's Sister in *The Loyal Subject* at the Cockpit on August 18,
1660, and wrote in his diary that Kynaston (age 17) "made the loveliest
lady that ever I saw in my life, only her voice not very good." John
Downes, bookkeeper for Sir William Davenant's Restoration company for
many years, wrote the following about Kynaston:

"Mr. Kynaston acted Arthiope, in the Unfortunate Lovers; the Princess in
the Mad Lover; Aglaura; Ismenia, in the Maid in the Mill; and several
other women's parts; he being then very young made a complete female
stage beauty, performing his parts so well, especially Arthiope and
Aglaura, being parts greatly moving compassion and pity; that it has
since been disputable among the judicious, whether any woman that
succeeded him so sensibly touched the audience as he."

I'm currently writing all this up for publication, but for a good brief
summary of the evidence, see G. E. Bentley, *The Profession of Player in
Shakespeare's Time* (1984), pp. 113-146.

Dave Kathman

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