Updated: Jul 20, 2018
Boys were expected to perform young women’s roles and older men to enact older women. Why this single-gender casting? There are two main reasons: it was considered unseemly and even lewd for women to perform on stage and the craft of acting was a guild in its own right, and only men and boys (masters and apprentices) belonged to guilds. It was NOT actually illegal for women to act, it just wasn’t done in London. Interestingly, many women acted outside of London, in the provinces; they were usually European women who came from countries, like Spain, where it was okay to be a female onstage! Why was it unseemly in London? 400 years ago, English women’s lives were highly restricted, most girls weren’t taught to read, and they were certainly not allowed to appear in public alone or without the head covered, it would’ve been shocking and highly inappropriate for a woman to appear on a public stage, in a garish costume, spouting verse with other theatre professionals since acting itself was considered a shady profession, one filled with low-lives. Being seen on stage might imply that a woman is loose, maybe even a prostitute. There’s a long-held MYTH that women could be arrested and hung for acting on a public stage, but the latest research shows that there was no such law and no woman was ever hanged for the “offense." Jessica Shiermeister, PhD, concluded after extensive research that since apprentices lived with their masters and learned on the job, learning to act was only available to boys. There was no law on the books showing that it was illegal for women to appear onstage. Perhaps they didn’t think it would ever happen? Shakespeare must’ve had supreme confidence in his boy actors since he wrote some of his best women’s roles for them: Juliet, Viola, Rosalind and Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth to name a few. Another fun fact… boys seemed to go through puberty later than today because some boy actors were in their late teens and early 20s still playing young women.