“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.