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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: August ::
Re: Women's Roles
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1631  Thursday, 31 August 2000.

[1]     From:   Tom Bishop <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 30 Aug 2000 15:02:13 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1612 Re: Women's Roles

[2]     From:   James Forse <
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        Date:   Thursday, 31 Aug 2000 03:29:30 GMT
        Subj:   Who played women's roles


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tom Bishop <
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Date:           Wednesday, 30 Aug 2000 15:02:13 -0500
Subject: 11.1612 Re: Women's Roles
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1612 Re: Women's Roles

An unpublished play by Aubrey Wertheim, a Cleveland playwright I admire,
treats the subject of the changeover from boy to women actors after the
Restoration.  The script has been workshopped around a few places, but
hasn't had a full production yet. I think it deserves one.
Unfortunately, I can't remember the title offhand. Any interested
directors or dramaturgs could contact me off list and I can give you his
address. There is, I believe, at least one other play about the same
thing out there.

Tom

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           James Forse <
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Date:           Thursday, 31 Aug 2000 03:29:30 GMT
Subject:        Who played women's roles

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.

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

_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.  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; John
Thompson seems to have played female roles for as many as 17 years;
Richard Sharpe, and William Trigge, played female roles over spans of
four or five years.  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
30.  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....English laws stipulated
apprentice status lasted until the age of 24.  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.  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.

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

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.  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.

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.  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.  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.  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.--

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."  The
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."_

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.

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.

Sincerely,
James H. Forse
Professor of History and Theatre
Bowling Green State University
 

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