Boys Playing Women

Public theatres did not have high cultural capital in early modern England. The city authorities characterized them as dens of iniquity and they were in fact located adjacent to London’s brothels. A woman appearing on the stage would ruin her reputation and lend strength to the city father’s arguments that theatre’s lascivious shows incite the good citizens of London to sin. Casting male actors in the female roles was a way of dealing with the moral objections of powerful elements of English society.

The objections to theatre did not stop, of course, and there was an on-going battle waged against the theatre by radical puritans. The practice of using males to play women’s roles actors, although intended to assuage moralistic concerns, became an object in that attack:

The Law of God very straightly forbids men to put on womens garments, garments are set downe for signes distinctive between sexe and sexe, to take unto us those garments that are manifest signes of another sexe, is to falsifie, forge, and adulterate, contrarie to the expresse rule of the worde of God. (Stephen Gosson, Playes Confuted in Five Actions (1582), E3v)

More intriguingly, perhaps, some travel writers who had seen women act on the continent found them less credible as female characters than the boy actors they were used to. Thus George Sandys thought that “the parts of women” he saw “acted by women” in Messina were “too naturally passionated,” or too life-like to make for credible representation. His contemporary George Coryate had to profess amazement that women he saw act in Venice performed their roles “with as good a grace, action, gesture, and whatsoever convenient for a player” as any “masculine actor.” While his judgement, unlike Sandys’s, was positive, both share a common principle: that the best kind of representation of feminity on stage can be delivered by a (young) man. This is particularly clear in Henry Jackson’s description of an Oxford perfomance of Othello in 1610. Jackson makes no distinction between the boy who played Desdemona and the female character he portrayed: “Desdemona,” he writes, “although she always acted the matter very well, in her death moved us still more greatly; when lying in bed she implored the pity of those watching with her countenance alone.” Not only has the boy underneath the woman’s clothes disappeared here, the actor’s own gender has been obscured as well: it is Desdemona who is doing the acting.

Unlike Jackson, some of our own audience members reported that the presence of an all-male company on stage made them more aware of the particular way in which women were represented in the plays. My own perspective was more in line with this response. The performances of the women's roles, while at times subtle and complex, always remained the product of men and reflected a male perspective on women. That said, as noted above, the skill of our “boy” actors transported many in our audience beyond a binary perception of gender. The audience members responded in a variety of ways and as you watch videos of our “boys” action you may discover your own insights into the convention as it works in our world and as we imagine it might have in Elizabethan England.