Recent Research on Boy Actors

Boy Actors

Julian DeZotti as Margaret (left) and Derek Genova as Princess Elinor (right) in Friar Bacon.

In his article "How Old Were Shakespeare’s Boy Actors?"1, David Kathman examines evidence from all surviving cast lists and cross-referenced them with information from baptismal records and the records of the London livery companies to establish that: "until the early 1660s, female roles on the English stage (including the most demanding, complex parts) were played by adolescent boys, no younger than twelve and no older than twenty-one or twenty-two, with a median of around sixteen or seventeen.” 1

The actors playing female roles were referred to as boys in contemporary sources, but also as youths and young men (221). It would appear that the term boy was closely associated with apprenticeship. Once an individual had completed their apprenticeship they would be made a freeman of their livery company, which marked their transition into adulthood. At this point, usually around the age of twenty-four, a young man might consider marriage. A young man of twenty, therefore, may have biologically entered manhood but socially he remained a boy or at best a youth.

Kathman indirectly refers to young men in their twenties as "adolescent boys." This is an understandable inclination. First, he is trying to counter arguments made elsewhere that the more complex female roles would have been played by adult actors 2, and second because there is some evidence to suggest that puberty may have been delayed due to lower nutrition. But the latest age Kathman presents for the onset of puberty from contemporary sources is eighteen (222), and since we know women’s roles were played by actors older than eighteen it is reasonable to presume that female roles were played by post-pubescent young men. I am not arguing against Kathman here but merely clarifying a point. Indeed, Kathman presents evidence that apprentice actors in their late teens played the roles of young men and women in the same play.

There was therefore a degree of flexibility in the casting of the young apprentices in an Elizabethan company. One can imagine circumstances that would influence such casting. An actor that developed a basso-profundo voice and a grizzly beard at fifteen might progress more quickly to male roles; alternatively, an actor whose build remained slight, beard scanty and voice high, might continue to play female roles into his twenties.

1 Andrew Gurr questions Kathman's conclusion on the grounds that the average age for apprenticeship was seventeen, citing Steve Rappaport's work on Elizabethan guild structures. There is certainly a discrepancy between Rappaport's assessment of the average age for the commencement of apprenticeship and Kathman's evidence, but Kathman provides concrete evidence of actors apprenticed at the age of twelve and Gurr does not counter this evidence with any specific evidence of his own. The discrepancy remains to be resolved but it is possible that theatre actors were allowed special privilege in this matter within their guilds, given their need for young boys to play women's roles. See Andrew Gurr, 'The Work of Elizabethan Plotters, and 2 The Seven Deadly Sins' Early Theatre 10.1 (2007), 82-3, and Steve Rappaport, Worlds Within Worlds: Structures of Life in Sixteenth Century London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 295-324.