Why Didn’t Women Perform on the Stage in Shakespeare’s Time?
The spread of Christianity did not improve the social condition of women, and theatre was condemned by notable Church Fathers such as Augustine and Tertullian, the latter of which did not even mention the presence of women performers, stating that “what then must be his (God’s) judgment on the pantomime, who is trained up to play the woman!” (Milling, p. 19-20) The subsequent stagnation and rejuvenation of the art from the monastic confines resulted in non-cycle dramas with secular themes (Milling, p.68). The rising popularity, however, did not ameliorate the unenviable position of women and their lack of introduction onto the stage.
Social and Legal Considerations
Building on existing historical prejudices for women in general and in theatre specifically during the time of Shakespeare, the resulting exclusion of women can be analyzed through two complementary components: legal restrictions and societal norms. The concept that legal restrictions were the main focal point of discrimination is popular in academic circles, but a specific act was never introduced that barred women from being actors (Schiermeister, p.23). However, while direct de jure claims are untenable, several other statutes were employed which de facto created barriers of entry that were insurmountable. These are: the royal proclamation from 1551 which requires licensing of all professional acting companies (Milling, p.xix), the sumptuary laws, which date back to the 14th century, but particularly the statute issued by Elizabeth I in 1574 (Shapiro, p.16), and the various morality laws that were prevalent in Europe at the time, including England (Shapiro, p.19).
These laws gave the monarch the option to legally restrict women from acting. However, this in itself may not have been sufficient to tantamount to removal of women from acting, but the supplementary societal norms created an effective deterrent to entry. Sexually immoral practices were associated with using disguises as a means to avoid the magistrates, and gradually, the prostitutes and indeed all forms of behavior considered immoral, were considered part and parcel with the theatre (Shapiro, p.38).
The absence of direct legal stipulations which banned women from acting did not inhibit the translation of the societal moral fiber into an effective force to prevent women from acting in England. Only after the upheavals of the Civil war and the Restoration a fertile ground was made for the Margaret Hughes, the first English female actor, in 1660 (Downs, p.350).
Callaghan, Dympna. Shakespeare Without Women. Routledge, December 18, 1999, p. 16.
Downs, William Missouri, Wright and Erik Ramsey. The Art of Theatre: Then and Now. Cengage Learning; 3 edition, January 1, 2012, p. 350-351.
Milling, Jane and Peter Thomson. “The Cambridge History of British Theatre (Volume 1)”. From Roman to Renaissance in drama and theatre, written by John C. Coldewey, Cambridge University Press, December 13, 2004, p. 19, 20, 38, 45, 48, 68, xix.
Schiermeister, Jessica. “‘Youth in Petticoats’: The Early Modern Boy Actor, the All-Male Stage, and Female Performance.” Master of Letters Thesis, Mary Baldwin College, 2013, p. 23.
Shapiro, Michael. Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines and Female Pages. University of Michigan Press, July 12, 1996, p. 16, 19, 38.
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