For Thursday: Hackett, Chapter 8, “Playing With Gender” (pp.164-188)

From the Film Stage Beauty: Ned Kynaston, one of the last male actors to specialize in female roles

Answer TWO of the following:

Q1: Hackett writes that “when a French troupe including actresses attempted to perform in London in 1629 they were ‘hissed, hooted, and pippin-pelted from teh stage’” (177). If women were allowed to act in private performances, and it wasn’t technically against the law for women to act, why would the public not accept it? What was the perceived danger of women acting on-stage for an audience (an audience, that Hackett reminds us, had many women in it)?

Q2: What does Hackett mean by the statement: “the presentation of a female character dressed as a boy can set up a distinction between a public and a private self, an outer male self which is merely a performance and an inner female self which is implied to be in some sense ‘true’” (175)? What might this help us understand about Renaissance ideas in England about gender roles and sexuality itself?

Q3: According to Hackett, how did many playwrights (and notably Shakespeare) play on the visual appearance of a boy playing a woman? How did it create another level of drama in the play itself—and how did people seem to react to this paradoxical casting (especially if an 11 year-old boy was playing a pregnant housewife)?

Q4: Why do you think many of the first female dramatists—women such as Mary Sidney, Lady Jane Lumley, and Lady Elizabeth Cary—never tried to write directly for the stage, but instead contented themselves with ‘closet dramas’? How might the subjects and characters of their plays reveal the conflict of being a woman and a writer? Also, what makes them stand apart from their male counterparts? 


  1. Elyse Marquardt

    Q1) Women were not supposed to expose themselves for the delectation of an audience. If they were at home putting on a private performance for their household, that was different. It was a much more intimate setting, where there was no danger of strangers with lewd intentions laying eyes upon the women. But if they were onstage, it was equivalent with prostitution. Since the occupation of acting was at the same level of prostitution anyway, it was wicked and dangerous and lascivious for women to put themselves in that position.

    Q2) In Shakespeare’s time (and also today) men AND women played the roles expected of them by society. And in terms of social liberty, women were much more restricted than men were. Therefore, their identities had to be much more inward and mysterious to the outside world, because expressing themselves would have been deemed drastically inappropriate. In popular literature and in popular pastimes, men’s activities were more acceptable, so that was what was seen on the surface. But it was the women at home who led the secret lives and had the complex personalities that nobody knew about. Their true personhood was hidden.

    Elyse Marquardt

  2. 1. I'm fairly certain it has religious ties. Mostly concerning the 'pure-white virgin lady and scarlet woman' that appears every so often in various forms of literature. That, somehow, for whatever reason, women were particularly vulnerable to corruption in any form. To protect them, surely they must be kept out of most circles of life that men travel freely. And certainly, they should not be trusted to make critical decisions concerning their lives. Why, they'd run wild within a matter of minutes, surely! There was also the issue with having 'good women' be brought down in reputation to that of prostitutes, or even worse, /actresses/. So, essentially, it all boils down to social-religious issues.

    2. Elizabethans had the idea that gender was set, but certain layers were fluid. Enough so that wearing the other sex's clothes could somehow 'taint' your original gender. There was even a level of fascination with this gender-play, a certain humor to witnessing in-jokes about the true identity and gender of actors playing female roles. It was novel to have someone play with society roles and, quite clearly, they ate it up.

  3. Q1/ Women on stage was looked at as in bad taste and corrupting to the moral fabric. The audience we probably hold that view and see women on stage is the same as watching a prostitute working a barroom. William Prynne was one of the people that viewed not only women actors as "notorious impudent, prostituted strumpets" but cross-dressing boy actors as leading to sodomy, which was a sin against god. Though he had his ears cropped off for his work, the idea was not far from what people thought of not just female actors, but actors in general.

    Q3/ Shakespeare, according to the chapter, liked to play on the role of boys dressed as women who were dressed as boys, and even to the paradoxical boy playing woman who is dressed like a boy who is also pretending to be a woman. He did so in Merchant of Venice with Portia playing a man, who of course is a boy actor playing a female role. People did not have the same reaction that we have to boy actors playing female roles, as women were not allowed on stage or at least not wanted by audiences. Audiences would probably find it funny to see this insane level of gender confusion played out for the sake of comedy, as they were not doubt aware that boys were playing female parts.

  4. 1. While seeing women in a more scandalous manner was a huge issues, perhaps even more important than this was the fact that if a woman were to play a woman on stage it would be giving her power. Not only power over the audience watching her, but also her fellow actors. This type of power was unheard of and scandalous in its own way. At this time it was okay for women to act in private, as long as they were acting womanly, however, in public it was shamed because it was giving them authority and a place in the public eye, which was reserved for men.

    2. Everyone is playing a role, and in fact, everyone is on stage while in the public eye. It is for this reason many of us fall into social norms, "having to be lady like" or "manly" and when you don't you are teased or harassed by those who do. Throughout history this has been one of the largest issues for women to overcome as they must fight to be lady like in the public eye while still maintaining themselves in the private eye. While men were under less pressure to preform, they too are and were forced to follow these standards and had to make new rules or reason that things such as a man acting as a woman was okay because they weren't actually a woman.

  5. Q1: Hackett says that there actually was not a law forbidding women to be on stage, but that it was “simply a social convention that appeared to have been universally accepted and upheld.” Meaning the general public (including female playgoers) were not comfortable with the idea of a woman stepping in and doing something they were used to being strictly male-dominated. It was considered dangerous because women were not supposed to make a spectacle of themselves, and playing smaller more private shows meant they were not subjected to near as many people. Women were definitely not considered to be man’s “equal” and they would not be seen as such until many, many years later.

    Q2: Gender was not adaptable in those times, and that was the general consensus, but when boys were made to play women, dressed up as a boy, this added many layers to the character, which very well could have been confusing, as well as entertaining and ironic for the playgoers. When gender was displayed as flexibly as it was on stage, this exposed viewers to something they probably never had much experience with, such as maybe transgender/homosexual exposure.

  6. Q2) I think this plays well with the idea that your knowledge, your accomplishments, your opportunities boded more fluently on your identity than your emotions or your spirituality. Your true self wasn't often exposed, and people were often encouraged to wear clothing that we would consider a costume in today's fashion. Therefore having a man dressed up as a woman was accepted due to the fact that what he was dressed as or acting as wasn't really his true self, but a mere interpretation of his knowledge of that characterization. Sexuality and identity were not seen as synonymous as they are in our day.

    Q4) The very fact that these women were willing to write anyway, despite the stereotype and the shame that went along with it, says a lot about they may stand out from their male counterparts. Additionally, men and women generally bring different worldviews to the table.

    Shelby Pletcher


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