Women and the Elizabethan stage

At the IMAGER conference late November mentioned in an earlier post, I also mentioned the misleading assumption that there were no women on the Elizabethan stage. It is a point I stress in class and at conferences with audiences unfamiliar with the realities of Elizabethan drama. It provides endless fodder.

Much has been said about the fact that the stage was dominated by men: playwrights were male, most characters were male, and, more importantly, all actors were male, with female parts performed by boys. Women on the stage were considered ‘monsters’:

In 1629 a French troupe with actresses appeared at the Blackfriars but was “hissed, hotted, and pippin-pelted from the stage” wrote one observer — although, as Stephen Orgel points out, the same players went on to the Red Bull and Fortune, and Prynne decried “the great resort” of Londoners to see “French women, or monsters rayther” (7; also Walker, 389). In Elizabeth’s reign, Italian female acrobats drew crowds in London, prompting Thomas Norton to complain about “that unnecessarie and scarslie honeste resorts to plaies … and especiallie the assemblies to the unchaste, shamelesse and unnaturall tomblinges of the Italion Woemen” (Lea, 354).1

However, despite two decades’ worth of studies emphasizing the manner in which early modern drama ‘reinforced patriarchy’ or highlighted ‘male anxiety’, English stages were not actually all-male, all the time. Women appeared on stage far more frequently than was first thought, albeit not on the professional stage of London theaters until the mid-17th century. In the opening page of their collection on Women Players in EnglandBrown and Parolin recall that:

Queens, aristocrats and gentlewomen danced, sang, and recited in masques, plays, and court and manor entertainments; non-elite women in village, town and city took roles in parish drama and festive pageantry; Italian prima donnas and French actresses came to England to perform for both courtiers and commoners; and poorer women worked as itinerant entertainers, ballad singers and moutebanks.2

Love Freed from Ignorance and Folly, masque by Ben Jonson (1611) performed by the Riot Company
Love Freed from Ignorance and Folly, masque by Ben Jonson (1611) performed by the Riot Company in 2011

To be honest, I’m glad I came upon this book recently, as it has forced me to reevaluate the significance of the absence of women players on the professional London stage… which means I should also take a good look into the patronage system of these companies, particularly when James ascends the throne and the Lord Chamberlain’s men (a.k.a. Shakespeare’s company) become the King’s Men. Although Elizabeth was reputedly fond of plays, she had never bestowed such honor to players — although I’d have to double check. And one cannot argue that it was impossible for queens to favor players: James’ wife, Queen Anne, followed her husband’s suit and became the patron of a company, Queen Anne’s Men (a.k.a. the Queen’s Men), which included among its members Thomas Heywood… the author of the 2-part series on Elizabeth, If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody (1605-6).

A few questions occur to me:

  • Did Elizabeth balk at bestowing her favors to players simply because it would’ve been deemed inappropriate at the time? Elizabethan drama developed during her reign; it was a novelty and nobody could have reasonably expected her to be an official patron. Also, it was bitterly criticized by an increasingly vocal Puritan opposition. Imagine the sitting British monarch embracing hip-hop competitions today under a Tory government (picture an ad of Elizabeth II promoting, for eg., ‘The Royal Hip-Hop Company’)!
  • Did Queen Anne’s patronage follow or encourage her participation in court masques?
  • How did contemporaries react to these changes, i.e. artistocratic women on stage, foreign actresses onstage, etc.? (That’s the topic for another post, and a lot has already been discussed in Brown and Parolin.)
  • Was Heywood naturally interested in Elizabeth’s story because it was a good story, or because there was an audience for hagiographic work of this kind a couple of years after the death of the Virgin Queen? or were his two If You Know Not Me plays the result of unwritten directives from his new patron, perhaps as a taste of what he could do when it would be Anne’s turn to pass away? It seems playwrights became the new ‘authorized’ biographers in the 17th century, a task once reserved to chroniclers… In France, a few decades after the Jacobean period, Racine became one of King Louis XIV’s official historiographers.

I have to reread some of these masques… and find some footage too, to give me a sense of what it could’ve been like to witness one. Perhaps I should look at the opening festivities for the London Olympics for a lavish, symbolic ceremony! How does one perceive the role of the female participants in masques given that the goddesses played by the female aristocrats actually remained silent during the performance? The words were uttered by professional players and the masques were written by male authors.

  1. Pamela Allen Brown and Peter Parolin, Women Players in England, 1500-1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2008, p. 2. []
  2. Ibid., p.1. The book contains an up-to-date bibliography on the topic. []

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