William Shakespeare never wrote for an actress during his lifetime. This has been dramatized in the film Shakespeare in Love, where a great (fictional) scandal happens when a woman acts on the English stage. But as you can imagine, the story of women performing in Tudors times is a bit more complicated.
Shakespeare’s company would have had “boy actors”, who would have portrayed most of the female characters, like Juliet or Cleopatra. These actors would have been teenagers or young men, and by nature of their ages would have had less acting experience than some of the adult men like Richard Burbage who would have portrayed the adult male characters. Can you think of how this might have affected how Shakespeare wrote these female characters? Some of the older female characters that provided comic relief would have been played by adult men. For example, the role of the Nurse may have been played by a comedic actor, since many jokes are made at her expense.
Even though women did not act on the public English stage during Shakespeare’s lifetime, this doesn’t mean that they didn’t perform. Women often performed in Court in Masques. King James’ consort, Queen Anne, organized performances in court where her favorite ladies in waiting would have appeared in costume to recreate historical or mythological scenes. These performances would have had elaborate sets and special effects. But the women would not speak- acting was a profession and if the women spoke they would be acting. These were royal and aristocratic women, so they couldn’t be seen doing a lowly job like acting!
Women also performed in public space in other ways. Many women would perform in troupes of aerialists, tumblers and jugglers. These groups would perform on the streets, but there is evidence that they also performed in the theater. Remember, as a London theatergoer, you weren’t only expecting to see a play. You would expect that there would be other entertainments before the play, during the intermission, and afterwards. Records from another theater in London at the time mention young girls dancing on the ropes on the stage. We also know that by the 1630s, there was a group of acrobats and tumblers called the Peadles, who played around London and in court for King James, and even tour Germany. This group was headed by a woman named Sisley Peadle. Audiences in Shakespeare’s time would not have been shocked to see women performing, they just expected to see them in certain roles.
After the Restoration, theaters opened again after being shuttered during the Commonwealth period. By then, it was accepted that women could act in plays on the English public stage. They portrayed both the female characters, and in some cases, performed in male roles like Hamlet as well. Shakespeare himself did not live to see women perform in his plays, but luckily we still have his plays!
Shakespeare's Theater, The Folger Shakespeare Library
Shakespeare Unlimited Podcast: Women Performers in Shakespeare's Time