Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0884.  Thursday, 3 November 1994.
From:           Jean Peterson <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Tuesday, 1 Nov 1994 11:50:38 -0500
Subject:        Re: Boys and Women's Roles
Apparently, with the LISTSERV difficulties at the University of Toronto, some
mail has been lost.  The following posting from Jean Peterson was one of those.
Apologies to Jean.  If any of you suspect that a message you sent did not
arrive, please resubmit.  By the way, one way to reduce the traffic at UofT and
to assure safe arrival is to sent your postings directly to me at
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  --HMC
PS: Re: SHAKSPER's future: I've made my proposal to my President and I'm
awaiting his response.]
Re: James Forse and boys:
>Let's take a look at some other evidence: c.1600 the Reading town records note
>that a play was delayed because the Queen was shaving.  Davenant's Royal
>patent, 1660 states: *That whereas the women's parts in plays have] hitherto
>been acted by MEN (emphasis mine) 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 poetic prologue to a 1660 performance of Othello
>states: *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
>you call Desdemona enter Giant.*
OK, but Reading is the "provinces", not London--it's certainly possible that
the selection of trained actors was smaller and a burly adult took on a role
that in the wider talent pool of the metropolis would have been played by a
younger apprentice...
As for the Restoration references, I would be very careful about taking them as
undiluted "truth."  There's 18 years, a civil war, and a generation of
continental influence (which taught the the exiles to accept women actresses as
the sophisticated norm) to influence ideas of taste and appropriateness. Even
in the passage cited, the "new" english stage is being touted as "civilizing",
set in opposition to the presumedly barbarian, unsophisticated past.  The
rhetorical strategy is to present actresses as "natural" and men-in-women's
roles as unthinkably gawky and in-credible, a grotesquely incongruous holdover
from the crude old days of outdoor theaters, no scenery, and other
excrescences. And if my memory of the passage is correct, isn't there an
implication--probably more humorous than factual--that the "gawky giants" of 45
are the young men of the Renaissance stage all grown up?  But pretty-boy Edward
Kynaston took on women's roles in the 1660's; no gawky giant he, for Pepys
thought him, in a dress, the loveliest lady in the house (words to that
The best thing ever written on Cleopatra's "boy-my-greatness" line, IMHO, is
Phyllis Rackin's "Shakespeare's Boy Cleopatra, the Decorum of Nature, and the
Golden World of Poetry," (PMLA 87 1972) in which she posits that Cleo's
reference to the boy who plays her, far from being a gratutitous "slam," is the
structuring aesthetic strategy of the play.
"Well, boy my greatness!"
Jean Peterson
Bucknell University

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