Why were women not allowed to act in Shakespeare’s plays?

Editor’s note: Elizabeth Steinway, professor of literature and composition at Colorado State University, authored this article for The Conversation in March 2022. The State of Colorado is a contributing institution to The Conversation, an independent collaboration between publishers and scholars that provides informed analysis and commentary on current events to the general public. See the full list of contributing professors and their articles here.

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Why were women not allowed to act in Shakespeare’s plays? – Anastasia, Herdon, Virginia, 15

The role of Desdemona, the devoted and loving wife murdered by her husband in “Othello”, was not performed by a woman until 1660, some six decades after Shakespeare wrote the play. Indeed, when Shakespeare was writing for the modern stage, young men and boys performed all the female parts.

Many English spectators saw the first time women entered the public arena as a pivotal moment, including civil servant and columnist Samuel Pepys. It wasn’t until a month after the first female actress played Desdemona that Pepys recorded “the first time ever [he] I saw women come on stage.

King Charles then issued a royal proclamation to make it official: “Wee doe…allow and authorize all women to play their part in either of the said two companies for the time to come. maye be played by women.”

A disconcerting situation

I’ve thought a lot about why men cast female roles because I’m researching how pregnancy was portrayed on the modern English stage at the start of this period of all-male castings. The restriction has long intrigued scholars, primarily because no clear legal status prohibited it, and women acted professionally in other countries during this time.

In addition, women could perform in other venues, such as Masques, where dance, music and pageants were enjoyed by aristocrats in England during the 16th and 17th centuries, and country house entertainments – short plays which were staged for the queen and performed in country estates. .

It is possible that women were allowed to perform in these settings because they were more private and associated with high class status. There was, however, something inappropriate about women acting professionally in the public arena.

These restrictions placed on women may be linked to some of the negative views on acting in general, summed up in Puritan writer William Prynne’s statement that “popular plays are sinful, heathen, obscene, impious and the most pernicious corruptions”. According to many anti-theatricalists, plays were “sinful” because they promoted fun and encouraged people to watch an “ungodly spectacle” rather than work or go to church. For women in particular, it was generally considered indecent to participate in and earn money from such public performances.

Others commented on the difference between English theater and continental European theater, where women performed professionally. Writer Thomas Nashe wrote, “Our players aren’t like the overseas players, some kind of squirter-bradie comedians.”

Even though many writers condemned the practice of men wearing women’s clothing on stage, they still found it preferable for women to become public spectacles on the professional stage.

Although women were not on stage during Shakespeare’s lifetime, they were involved in theatrical productions in other ways. For example, they made and altered costumes, collected entrance fees, sold food and other goods used in the theater, and even owned game rooms.

Now women can play men

Actress disguised as a man a long time ago
Actress Sarah Bernhardt plays Hamlet.
Bettmann via Getty Images

Since Charles’ declaration that female roles “may be played by women”, women have played an increasingly diverse role in Shakespearean theatre, including playing leading male roles.

In 1899, Sarah Bernhardt plays the role of Hamlet. More recently, Jessika D. Williams starred in “Othello.”

These gender reversals serve as a reminder that much has changed since men and boys played all female roles, and much more will continue to change as society grapples with issues of gender, sexuality, and gender. identity and performance.

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