Women & Shakespeare

Women & Shakespeare

Eileen Moeller | Great River Shakespeare Festival

In celebration of Women’s History Month (the month of March), GRSF will be publishing a series of blog posts about women, Shakespeare, and theater. While women were not allowed to appear on stage in England during the time Shakespeare was writing and acting, that was not the case in other parts of the world – and it did not prevent Shakespeare from writing complex female characters (though there are far fewer female roles of note in his canon than male roles). The lack of female actors during Shakespeare’s time also hasn’t stopped female-identified designers, scholars, directors, and actors from studying, performing, and loving his work. And, since this is the first year in GRSF’s history where both of our mainstage Shakespeare plays will be directed by women, what better time than the present to take a look at women and the work of Shakespeare.

By Unknown, Flemish school – Own work PRA, 2007-09, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2741148

In 16th- and early 17th century England, where Shakespeare’s company had to enlist teen and tween boys to play women’s roles, women were already performing in Italian commedia dell’arte troupes to wide acclaim. The first documented commedia actresses to be mentioned by name were Lucrezia Di Siena,  Vincenza Armani and Barbara Flaminia . Italian religious leaders attempted to bar women from the stage (like their English counterparts, they felt female actors were corrupt and differed very little from sex workers). However, the troupes were not phased and women continued to appear onstage.

Meanwhile, it took the more puritanical country of England a bit longer to get with the program. Yet not more than fifty years after Shakespeare’s death (1616), Margaret Hughes became the first woman to appear on an English stage in 1660. Her breakout role was as Desdemona in Othello at the age of just 15.

Lely margret hughes.jpg

Despite King Charles II insisting at the time that female roles be play by women (he was concerned all-male casts would foment homosexuality among the actors), troupes continued to be predominantly male well into the 18th century.

The stages of the earlier 17th-century commercial theatres were all-male preserves: women were part of the play-going audience and worked in the theatre buildings but they did not act on the commercial stages.[3] So when Hamlet was first staged in 1600–01 and Julius Caesar in 1599, female roles were taken by a small cohort of highly trained boys. The small number of female roles in each play (usually no more than three or four roles that could be described as more than walk-on parts), have shaped and constrained opportunities for actresses on the modern stage.

Clare McManus, Shakespeare & Gender: The Woman’s Part

Over the next few weeks, in honor of Women’s History Month, we will be consulting with company members about how they approach Shakespeare’s work as female artists, we’ll look at the history of actresses crossing gender, take a look at actresses who have played Hamlet, and more! Stay tuned for a new post each week – and if you have questions for our female-identified company members about their relationship with Shakespeare, leave a comment below.