Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Boy actors and sex II

Was a girl who pleased a man to save herself any different than one who did it for coins? Did I play the whore to Nat? So did the 'ingles' I spoke so scornfully of: pretty boy whom men desire.

Chapter VI, The Secret Player

How much would a boy actor be pressured sexually? And by whom? Sander, knowing that in her boy's garb she will be desired by both men and women, determines to be admired from a distance. This she can manage among Lord North's Men, the traveling company she joins who perform at manors and fairs through the countryside. One of the actors, Francis, gives her a few sidewise looks, but she passes half her tankard to him at meals and thus befriends him. Their little troupe is like a family. But she does have to flee North's Men with nothing but the clothes on her back when the actor she replaced returns and claims that she is a girl.

In London, she becomes an apprentice. Historically Alexander Cooke apprenticed to John Heminges, but in this story, when she arrives in London Heminges' wife Rebecca (widow of William Knell, a player who was killed in a brawl not long before) is having a difficult pregnancy. Sander joins the household of Tom Pope, another actor with Lord Strange's Men, Shakespeare's company in 1592, along with her old friend Jack Wilson who arrived earlier. Pope protects his apprentices much as Nicholas Wilson, manager of North's Men, did on the road.

The period between these two official employments, Sander is at risk. She reaches London and finds work with Dick Frith, blacksmith. The smith's apprentice Nat who attempts to seduce her is accountable to Frith his master, but what happens at night in the farrier's shed where the boys sleep is relatively private. At any rate, Sander chooses not to report Nat: she is in the smith's house on sufferance, having yet to make her way onto the stage. It's Sander's vulnerability that landed her in Frith's smithy in the first place, a haven after rowdies tried to attack her.

The extent of sexual danger to any boy actor varied, but he had some choice in the matter. Within the company structure he was as safe as he wished to be.

In the world outside the acting company, as Sander is living at the smithy, one had to look out for himself. She makes a sordid bargain with Nat, hence her reference to 'playing the whore' with him. If she satisfies him by touch, he'll leave her private person alone. At least for a while . . . .

Elizabethan England enacted strict laws against sodomy, and other 'perverted' behaviors were much condemned, as the writings of John Rainoldes illustrate. In his Th' Overthrow of Stage Players quoted by Lisa Jardine, Rainoldes makes allusion not only to sodomy but to 'homosexuality with and without flagellation, dress-swapping, male marriage, and sex between father and son (Still Harping on Daughters, 1983, 15-16). His hysteria, prompted simply by the existence of boy players, rather reminds one of extremist anti-gay rhetoric today and seems to reflect a similar pathology.

However, as Bruce Smith and Alan Bray have pointed out separately, the apparent virulent homophobia of Elizabethan law (death for sodomy, which could be so broadly defined as to include witchcraft, heresy, and treason) is not comprehensive proof of the social attitude towards homoeroticism in that era. Plays and poems are not the only countering examples.

There are also the realities of life, of all-male boarding schools, prentices sleeping several to the bed--and the fact that 'homosexual' as a defining term originated only in the late-nineteenth century. In Shakespeare's day, ideas of sexuality were fluid; one might participate in homosexual acts without being identified by them. Only when for example a marriage was barren because of the husband's inclinations elsewhere or for some offense such as rape were the laws were invoked. Court records recount amazingly few prosecutions.