As we alluded to in our last post—and that you undoubtedly know—there were no women actors during Shakespeare’s time, their parts usually played by young boys. We did a bit of digging to find out exactly why, but there doesn’t seem to be anything exact about it!
We found a great article from Stage Beauty about it: http://stagebeauty.net/th-women.html
The most widely accepted theory was the Church during this time vilified the traveling acting troupe, even blaming the Great Plague on them! As such, it was thought to be too “unseemly” for a woman to be allowed on stage.
Of course, not everyone thought this way—on mainland Europe things were changing more rapidly than in England. In fact, during Elizabeth I’s reign, women were established in Italian theatre with France quickly following suit.
It wasn’t until the reign of Charles I (1625-1649) where women in England were allowed to take the stage. That is to say, not English women—oh no! The very first was a Frenchwoman named Henrietta Maria who came to England with a French company. However, apparently the novelty of having a woman on stage was still too radical for England and the French troupe soon went back to France having been booed off many stages.
Then all of theatre took a huge backslide, when Oliver Cromwell rose to power during the English Civil War. Without the protection of the crown, the Puritans were allowed to dictate and not only were women banned from the stage, but the entire performance was banned and “theatre found itself cast into another dark age.”
With the downfall of Cromwell, theatre found itself back in favor with Charles II with a mixed reaction to women on the stage. It finally happened on December 8, 1660—the first Englishwoman took the stage. Margaret Hughes played Desdemona in The Moor of Venice, which was thought to be a success.
From that point, the gates opened and slowly women were welcomed to the stage until we finally arrived at the point where the idea of theatre without a woman playing in a woman’s role seemed implausible.
You can read the whole article here: http://stagebeauty.net/th-women.html
And to think now we are at the point (as we told you about in an earlier post) where the Donmar Warehouse produced a version of Henry IV with an all-female cast!
We find this so interesting—that theatre shows this ascent of women from the “dark days” of Shakespeare’s time to now when we are enthusiastically enjoying the glorious tide today.
Philip Langner and Marilyn Clark Langner