Boy actors and sex
"My master warned us: a boy who plays ingle will lose his place in the troupe. We can’t have our playhouse a brothel!"
Nat laughed. "Ingle! Brothel! Don't you just have the fancy words." His tone turned wheedling. "Come back to bed, Sander. I'm a lad, not a man. Nothing to do with your actors. Come sleep beside me." He leant on one arm, watching me.
Chapter V, The Secret Player
This is Alexander Cooke, defending his virtue against Nat, the blacksmith's apprentice, which he manages to do, barely--except it is her virtue she is protecting in this story. And whether Sander is accurately stating the case for boy actors is subject for debate. A chief argument of the anti-theatre polemicists in Shakespeare's day was the sexual ambiguity of boys playing women on stage. In her first chapter of Still Harping on Daughters, 'Female Roles and Elizabethan Eroticism' Lisa Jardine outlines the case. The boys' effeminacy and dependence 'create a composite boy/woman romance figure who is provocatively sensual' (Jardine, 1983, 27).
Kate Collins puts herself at risk in becoming Alexander Cooke. Like Rosalind in As You Like It, she regards playing the boy a safer alternative. Rosalind takes the name of Ganymede, Jove's boy beloved, suggesting the new sort of danger she could find herself in. And indeed when she meets her true love Orlando in the forest, they play out that sexual ambiguity. When Shakespeare's female characters take on male disguise, their lovers do not recognize them. So it is with Orlando--and yet he is attracted to this boy Ganymede, who says he'll cure him of his mad love for Rosalind. They go so far as to be 'married' by Rosalind's cousin Celia, and the moment that Orlando leans to kiss Ganymede is a charged one.
More so on the Elizabethan stage, where Ganymede is a boy playing a girl disguised as a boy. And one degree more than that, of course with Sander Cooke, a girl playing a boy who plays a girl that disguises herself as a boy. This delightful complexity was one of the initial inspirations for my novel.
As Orlando wants to kiss Ganymede, so perhaps the men in the audience were similarly attracted. Boy actors could be most provocatively sensual.
Or so went the anti-theatre arguments, citing Deuteronomy 22.5 that men in women's raiment are an abomination to the lord. Jardine cites one such critic, John Rainoldes, who in 1592 declined an invitation to three Latin plays at Oxford because they included stage cross-dressing. According to Rainoldes, such 'wanton female boys' incite every sort of lust and perversion. (Jardine, 14-15).
Why were such boys called ingles? This slang term for boys who were the object of male lust lasted until the eighteenth century, but its origin or allusion are obscure. The similarity to 'angel' is the best guess, angels being of indeterminate sexuality; 'angelina' was a slang term for a catamite.