The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.0982 Monday, 8 May 2000.
Date: Saturday, 06 May 2000 01:16:16 -0500
Subject: Eunuchs Onstage
Something Sean Lawrence said in SHAKSPER 10.1772 19 Oct. 99 (just
tripped over it unopened after all these months!), provokes me to get a
conversation going about boy actors in the L.Chamberlain's Men and
King's Men companies. Sh. wrote play after play for two women, one
short and dark and one tall and blonde. Nerissa is the little scrubbed
lawyer's clerk in M.V. (scrubbed=short as in scrub oak [variant on
shrub?] or the scrub football team in h.s.) and Portia taller and blonde
(sunny locks). Helena is a "painted maypole" in MND and Hermia is much
shorter as their quarrel makes clear. Hero is "Leonato's low brown
daughter", and so it goes. Should we include Juliet as the tall blonde
and the Nurse as the short dark boy?
Now these plays are all within a four or five-yr span, but Sh's leading
ladies in comedy at least are blonde I think as late as *AYL* and *TN*
(Viola the "eunuch" once again). How long could the company hope to
keep two boys playing paired ladies like this if their voices were going
to change normally, which would be later than in our time, but still
early- to mid- teens, one supposes. And how young could they enlist
them for such demanding roles as Sh. wrote for his women in comedies?
Of course the company might have succeeded in finding successive pairs
of tall blond and short dark boys younger than those who had grown out
of their roles, but the odds against that are fairly steep. Were these
two actors castrati? I sometimes posed this question to my Shakespeare
classes, but never got a satisfying answer.
I would be interested in thoughts on this variation on the "eunuch"
thread. I think it has not been discussed in my years in SHAKSPER.
Cheers for tall and short.