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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: January ::
Re: Distinctions
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0210  Sunday, 27 January 2002

[1]     From:   Holger Schott <
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        Date:   Friday, 25 Jan 2002 12:58:43 -0500
        Subj:   RE: SHK 13.0186 Re: Distinctions

[2]     From:   Melissa D. Aaron <
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        Date:   Friday, 25 Jan 2002 20:14:07 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0186 Re: Distinctions


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Holger Schott <
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Date:           Friday, 25 Jan 2002 12:58:43 -0500
Subject: 13.0186 Re: Distinctions
Comment:        RE: SHK 13.0186 Re: Distinctions

For example, women were appearing in the commedia dell' arte productions
weren't they? (And had been for some time.) They appeared in Moliere's
plays in France just a few decades after Shakespeare's day. They had
parts in courts masques. I don't want to be persnickety, but can we thus
assume that nobody in England even thought of using women on stage?
(Leaving aside the fantasy elements of *Shakespeare in Love*.)

As far as I know, all other European stages had female actors in the
16th and 17th century. Travelers would report on them with a mixture of
bemusement and wonder - Bruce Smith prints some of their reports in his
recent edition of _Twelfth Night_ (which is highly recommended - the
selection of supporting materials is superb). There is some evidence
that foreign troupes performed in England occasionally, but again, the
presence of females on the stage seemed to cause amusement; it did not
lead to some sudden realization that it was somehow less natural to have
boys play the women (in fact, if anything, the opposite seems to be true
- there are reports complaining about the over-naturalism of the
continental female actresses, which rendered their stage-femininity
unbelievable...).  Possibly the best recent book on the question is
Stephen Orgel's _Impersonations_ (CUP 1996).

Best,
Holger

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Melissa D. Aaron <
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Date:           Friday, 25 Jan 2002 20:14:07 +0000
Subject: 13.0186 Re: Distinctions
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0186 Re: Distinctions

Don Bloom writes that

>Gabriel Egan writes,
>
>> No-one in Shakespeare's company would have dreamt of casting a women
>> actor in a female role, either.
>
>Does Gabriel have a source for this? Or is he just stating more
>positively than I would what is often taken for granted?
>
>For example, women were appearing in the commedia dell' arte productions
>weren't they? (And had been for some time.) They appeared in Moliere's
>plays in France just a few decades after Shakespeare's day. They had
>parts in courts masques. I don't want to be persnickety, but can we thus
>assume that nobody in England even thought of using women on stage?
>(Leaving aside the fantasy elements of *Shakespeare in Love*.)
>
>I fear I'm a little hazy on my early modern theatre history and will
>have to drag home some books on this and re-educate myself. Do those
>with more (and more current) knowledge of this area have some
>suggestions?

I think the confusion may partly stem from the fact that what Gabriel
said was, "No one in *Shakespeare's company* " etc. etc., implying at
least to my mind a specific theatrical company during a particular time
period (ending about, say 1614, when there was a lot of turnover.).
It's those few decades that make all the difference: a French observer
stated, I believe in the 1620s, that fifty years ago there had been no
actresses and now they couldn't possibly do without them.  We have one
letter describing Italian actresses in Venice and stating that the
letter writer had heard of this being used at London, but goes on to add
he's never seen it personally.  There are some very famous Italian
actresses appearing in the 1570s and 80s, but that's largely at the
French court.  There are royal women acting as early as the 1540s and
50s. . . but that's also the French court.  Sophie Tominson has pointed
out that the word "actress" comes into the English language in 1626,
when Henrietta Maria and her ladies perform a pastoral, *L'Artenice.*
Before that, women *danced* in masques but did not speak in them, roles
such as the Witches in Masque of Queens being taken by professional
actors (in fact, Shakespeare's company, the King's Men.) Suzanne
Gossett's article "'Man-Maid, Begone!'" (not the complete title)
discusses the interesting effect created in 1632 with *Tempe Restored*,
as probably the first professional actress/performer in a court masque
(Madame Coniack) directly addresses the boy playing Pallas and makes a
reference to his "real" sex.

So, the issue isn't that no one thought of using women on stage at all,
it's that from the 1590s to 1610s, professional theatre companies in
London do not seem to have employed women to play female roles and don't
seem to have expected to do it.  Which is not to say that there were no
women players in the provinces, or in private theatricals, or as
mountebanks and tumblers, or foreign actresses (or women sharers and
theatrical employees, for that matter, as Susan Cerasano has pointed
out).    This is a bit subtler and more complex than the former myth of
the all-male stage which suddenly changes in 1660.

Apologies to anyone whose research I haven't mentioned yet (Pam Brown
and Bella Mirabella and Natasha Korda and Theresa Kemp and Julie
Campbell immediately leap to mind, but there are lots of others.)  This
is a very exciting branch of studies and the knowledge (as well as the
analysis) is quickly growing more complex and more complete.

Melissa D. Aaron
California State Polytechnic University at Pomona
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