Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Boy Actor in England

“Oh, Jack, How do you do it?”
“Actors’ magic, my friend.”
“‘Tis the magic I wish to possess!”
“Poor Kate. Girls may not, you know.”
A sick anger choked me: if ‘t wasn’t ‘must,’ it was ‘may not.’
Jack rattled on. “Acting is too dangerous a life for a woman, traveling about, meeting all sorts, wearing costumes, pretending and lying. You saw us lie, Kate. See? I’m only Jack, no tragic maid.”
Chapter I, 'The Secret Player'

In his book 'Impersonations', (CUP, 1996) Stephen Orgel raises the question of why in Elizabethan England, alone of European countries, only boys were permitted to play women's roles onstage.

It's not as if sexual complications were thereby eliminated: quite the opposite. It was said that women actors in France, Spain and Italy were little better than whores--but even if true, so what? They played onstage, they conducted their private lives as they chose. There was no lack of women of loose morals in London either.

Preachers inveighed against the theatre in Shakespeare's day for its pretense and lying (lowly actors playing noblemen and kings) but chiefly for its sexual immorality. Not only could theatre-goers procure illicit sex with the shady ladies of Bankside near or even in the theatres, they argued, but boy actors playing women's roles caused all sorts of sexual disruption. Boys became objects of lust to both women and men.

During the rule of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans, the preachers prevailed: London theatres were shuttered from 1648 until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Boy actors were only one reason; the entire theatrical enterprise was regarded as morally corrupt. Even in Shakespeare's day, public theatres were relegated to the suburbs outside London proper: to the north in Shoreditch or south of London Bridge.

Little is known about the reality of the boy players. Nor do we know the answer, beyond Virginia Woolf's speculations about Shakespeare's sister: what if a female had theatrical aspirations? If she were Italian and part of an Italian traveling troupe, perhaps she could play music at country faires: the line between music and theatre isn't clearly drawn. But if she were English-born, among the many doors closed to her was the canvas door of the players wagon.

We don't know what risk a woman actor would have endured, as we don't actually known whether boys on stage were sexual objects. Did they indeed provoke the lusts of women and of men? We merely have the horrified preachers to go by, and our own imaginations. The few theatre-goers who wrote their reactions spoke of Desdemona and other heroines as 'she', no hint that a boy played the role. Lisa Jardine in 'Still Harping on Daughters' argues that boys and women shared a state of dependency which was erotic. But boy actors were 'dependent' only in their status as apprentices (which, in theatre, was rather different from other apprentices): they performed in front of thousands of people as Katerina the Shrew or Juliet or Cleopatra, a profoundly independent and virtuoso action.
We know the names of just a handful of players who began their careers as boys, among them Alexander Cooke. Sander, as he was known, went on to become a sharer in Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, later, under King James, the King's Men, and there is a scattering of references to him. Sander Cooke, thus, was my taking-off point into a fictional exploration of the status of boy actors on Shakespeare's stage.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Welcome to Sex and Gender in Shakespeare's Theatre. I'll be posting here twice a week: news, reviews, and links on Tuesdays and my own little essays on Fridays, at least once that I'm back in town. This summer's schedule will be looser.
I look forward to your responses!

My novel 'The Secret Player' opens in 1591, with William Shakespeare first mentioned in Chapter IV and appearing as a character in Chapter VIII.

There are those who cannot believe the son of a Stratford-upon-Avon glovemaker could have written Shakespeare's plays--the current candidate of choice is Edward de Vere, the sixteenth Earl of Oxford. Robert Emmerich's film 'Anonymous,' now in production, takes this point of view. This is the so-called authorship controversy: 'Contested Will,' as James Shapiro has entitled his book on the topic.

My Shakespeare is not the lace-collared gentleman currently favored: he more resembles the image here, the so-called 'Chandos' portrait. Sharp brown eyes, an ear ring, thinning hair--and not a scrap of lace. His name is William Shakespeare, and he wrote the plays attributed to him. That portrait most likely was not painted from life, but never mind. Our delight is in his plays, not their authorship. You won't find that debate in my novel: its mystery lies elsewhere.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Genesis of Alexander Cooke

"You know wayward women are harshly punished."
"I shall not be wayward! I shall be--Alexander. Johnny says he's the grandest conqueror the world has ever seen."
Chapter II, The Secret Player

As Bill Bryson says in his book Shakespeare, The World as Stage, we know very little about the boys who played women in Shakespeare's plays. They had to have been terrific actors, given the demands of the female roles, from Juliet who takes the initiative with Romeo to those powerful queens Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra, with plenty of spunky gals in between, some of whom disguise themselves as boys.

In The Secret Player, I suggest that one of those boys, listed in the 1623 First Folio as 'one of the principal actors in these plays', was, in truth, a girl. Edmond Malone hypothesized in the 18th century that Cooke originated Shakespeare's principal female roles. I drafted the book long before 'Shakespeare in Love' came out; obviously Norman and Stoppard played with a similar idea in their screenplay.
Cooke's story assumes that the plays of William Shakespeare were written by the man himself, not the Earl of Oxford, Mary Sidney Herbert, a posthumous Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon nor Queen Elizabeth. The mystery lies with the boy players. We have a handful of names and some records as to who went on to become hired men (Alexander Cooke among them, eventually a share-holder in Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men). But we know very little about them; their lives intrigued me, particularly if one was born female.

Two other sorts of questions caught my imagination at the start. How did Shakespeare create such a rare collection of female characters, utterly unlike those in the plays of his contemporaries? He must have had friendships with unusual women other than his wife Anne Hathaway, who was apparently illiterate and, according to the lore, spent their marriage minding the home fires in Stratford Upon Avon, or any random mistress he might have had in London.

Secondly: what were the possibilities for a spirited girl in that era who couldn't bear falling into the expected feminine role? A village girl in particular, neither high-born nor wealthy.
And so Kate Collins was born, the girl who eventually becomes Alexander Cooke, actor. As with every project, this initial idea led me on unexpected paths relating to gender, sex, and the theatre of the times. Many of these became part of the story and of my subsequent writing projects, but also the basis of ongoing reflections and research which I shall offer here from time to time.

For example: what was the extent of literacy and education for girls in Elizabethan England? What women besides the Queen exceeded the limitations placed upon them? How much choice did a girl have in a husband? What were the laws relating to marriage? How common was pre-marital or extra-marital sex and under what circumstances? What was the sexual situation for boy stage players? What connection did women have to the theatre?
And a big one in the case of Alexander Cooke: might a girl who passed as a boy ever find the love of a man she dreams of--as a woman? What sorts of sexual complications will she run into on the way?