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  • Print publication year: 2002
  • Online publication date: May 2006

9 - Women and Shakespearean performance


The Elizabethan and Jacobean stage

I shall see

Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness

I’th’posture of a whore.

(Antony, 5.2.218–20)

Cleopatra, Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Rosalind, Viola and Olivia, and all the rest of the approximately 140 named female roles in Shakespeare, were written as roles for boys or young men. We do not know what the considerable number of women in the audience felt about their exclusion from the stage, either as actors or as writers. On the one hand, they were 'represented' by a male writer's concept and a male performer's body; on the other hand, the many speeches throughout Shakespeare's plays that refer to this fact create a unique bond of sophisticated complicity between actor and audience. It would, after all, have been a 'squeaking boy' who first uttered these words on the stage of the Globe, as his performance moved towards the climax of Cleopatra's great threnody. Shakespeare seems to have written in the confidence that the young actor would perform the role with far greater expertise than his character's derogatory comment suggests.

The age of puberty for males in the early seventeenth century was probably later than it is today; and the adolescent boy can often seem androgynous, his voice not fully broken, his body slim and childish.