My old friend Mike Teare-Williams kindly gives us his second guest blog today, the first being his review last June of Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, crimes and the schooling of a ruling class, by Alex Renton. Now he is not quite reviewing, exactly, but giving us a flavour of his own MA thesis on boy actors playing female roles in Shakespeare’s plays in the days when they were brand new – hot off the bard’s dripping quill, as it were – and some of the comedies were as torrid as my lurid imagery suggests, full of bawdy gags and seductive acting by barely teenage boys with still unbroken voices: got up in drag they would “come on” to the adult actors in the male parts. Mike’s thesis on these improbable (to the modern mind) provocations has recently been added to Edmund Marlowe’s splendid website Greek Love Through the Ages. So, over to Mike.



Shakespeare, sigh — how boring — so many people say?  Long-winded and obscure?  Of course, English has changed over four hundred years and much of what is said upon the stage now flies straight over our heads.  Yet there is one aspect of Shakespeare’s drama that should be forever young and of primary interest to the people of now — to those especially who love young people.  In the playwright’s day, no women were allowed upon the stage, so Shakespeare’s brilliant heroines were played by boys, since only men and boys could then legally perform.

Historical and textual evidence is overwhelming that these boys had unbroken voices and were very young, in order not only to look feminine, but to sound feminine as well.  A case in point of the gulf between modern performances and the original tradition was played out the other day in my seeing a play-bill for a local performance of Romeo and Juliet.  A rather beautiful colourful photograph of the eponymous lovers appeared as an early adult woman and a fully-grown man.  This was not a surprise.  But this is Shakespeare radically re-written.  One could almost say, it is a travesty of the original drama.  In its original form, Romeo was a stripling youth.  Juliet, according to the text itself, in Act 1 Scene iii, in the words of her mother: “She’s not fourteen” and her Nurse: “On Lammas Eve at night she shall be fourteen”. Which makes the idea of even a late teen girl as Juliet absurd.  Much more to the point, this girl was played by a boy and was the subject of the most pointed sexual references and outright bawdry through several of the scenes that follow.

When you also consider that a thirteen-year-old, in the nexus between the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, was probably not as physically mature as a thirteen-year-old of now, you may question how such a young and small person could carry such a dramatic role.  We are left with the unavoidable conclusion that the boy of then was actually a much tougher and more mature individual, mentally, than his modern counterpart.  He might have been small, but he must have been a very considerable actor to have been given this role and his relative maturity would not have been in doubt.  Death was everywhere in the streets of London, with dismembered body-parts displayed in prominent places…  Our gentle child would have fought tooth and nail for his place to watch one of the frequent executions.  The bloodier, the better.

Now, established culture has it that to drop the f-word in a child’s presence is to deeply harm that child.  The words ‘attack’, ‘assault’, ‘abuse‘, ‘molest’ and ‘victim’ are used to describe situations and the passive resultants of those situations where no violence is, or ever was, present.  Fathers now no longer go near bathrooms where their own children bathe.  Men are deserting the teaching profession in droves.  Children now are treated like mindless nothings.  Tabula rasa – without intelligence, discernment, curiosity or even the capacity for love.  In all of these things they are deeply denigrated; made less than they truly are?

Very much at odds with these modern views: in the year 2000, I completed an MA thesis at the University of Western Australia.  It was entitled “Representing the Female Character in Three Comedies of William Shakespeare: As You Like It, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.  A horribly long title for a horribly long and complex thesis.  The basis of the whole work was that no female actors were allowed to take the female parts in the drama of those days.

But why was the thesis so long and complex?  The simple truth is that I was under attack from the police and the justice-system and I was fighting to maintain my place as a graduate-student at my university for the entire time that I was researching my work.  Therefore, I had not only to lay out my own strong ideas about the boy actors who took the parts of the women in these plays, but I had constantly to reference and to justify my own beliefs with the evidence of other established scholars.  Surprisingly, essential aid came to me in the really excellent scholarship of a number of radical feminist authors.  Tirelessly – some might say exhaustively – I gave reference to their research, knowing that no-one with half a brain would dare to argue with them!

Needless to say, the journey to the eventual granting of my Master of Arts degree was part adventure, part nightmare; but it was a point of pride with me that I spent six months of my four and a half years of striving, while resident in prison.  So, it should also be pointed out that I was bravely supported throughout my huge endeavour; firstly, by my thesis-supervisor and secondly by the Academic Council of the University of Western Australia.  Brave people indeed, given the subject matter.

Throughout the eighteen years since, I have been taxing my brain on ways to turn this monstrous prolixity into a readable book.  Without any success!  So, what I have done is to prune as many of the tiresome repetitions as I could find and clear up anomalies along the way.  Then, I coined a new and much more honest title.  This being Shakespeare’s Boy Actors and Forbidden Discourse.

The reference to boy actors rather than the girls they represented is deliberate in establishing that Shakespeare in particular, and many other authors of his time, simply made the best of the situation of having to use boys as comedic girls and even sometimes as tragic heroines.  In the case of the former, they based most of the double-meaning jokes on the fact that the girl seen by audiences on the stage was actually a boy and everyone knew it.  Often – as in As You Like It and Twelfth Night – a girl character is required to dress up as a boy for part of the action.  So, in reality, you have a boy playing a girl who then plays a boy, who then reverts to playing a girl, but who then finally morphs into real boy again as the lights go down!

This androgyny in double-reversal, allows for some very pointed crudity.  Yet, at times, a more ethereal androgyne was proposed, characterised by sexual uncertainty of a Neoplatonic sort (see Chapter 2 for what I mean).  Touches of this philosophical aspect exist in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it is mainly the schism between the reality of a boy in the first Elizabeth’s reign and a boy of the second Elizabeth’s reign that I meant to highlight. Back then, a boy grew up quickly or he did not grow up at all.  Children who survived infancy and could walk and talk were set to work or were sent to school.  They were protected neither from the knowledge of sex – many of them grew up in one room with their parents – nor from experiencing it.  The point must finally be made that even the most ignorant person in Shakespeare’s age knew that these brilliant young actors were boys.

Most of us now will need Eric Partridge’s Shakespeare’s Bawdy: A Literary & Psychological Essay and a Comprehensive Glossary (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986 [1947]) simply to have any hope of understanding the crudeness of the bawdry that the characters fire off at bewildering speed throughout the texts that I study, among many others.  What was transparent in the lexis to Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences of four centuries ago is almost completely obscure to us now?

Hence my thesis, which is a decoding of the obscurities and, more to the point, an explanation of the second part of my title. That is to say: Forbidden Discourse.  Why is this discourse now forbidden?  Because it seeks to say that the boy of four centuries ago may not realistically be compared with the boy of now. Then, no boy with an unbroken voice – be he born high or low – was thought to have been harmed or ruined or abused by his taking part in comedic bawdry of the kind that was required by Shakespeare’s very young actors of then.  Though it is historically true that some of the boys went on acting female parts into young manhood; the major part of the evidence is overwhelming that the boy actors of the golden age of Shakespeare were truly boys, in both voice and appearance. Yet an essential part of the forbiddenness of this discourse is that, if you were to try and stage a performance of, particularly, As You Like It or Twelfth Night now – using boys with unbroken voices – the theatre would be closed, and the director would be arrested on the first night.  Yet this is only true if the audience were to understand the jokes!  Me, I think that there would be enough blue-noses in those audiences to close the performance down, were it to be done really well.

Tom O’Carroll asked me to write a guest-blog on my thesis and while this sounds most uncomfortably like blowing my own horn: blow it I will.  Simply because I am committed to the idea that most people in the modern world have no idea about the original tradition of Shakespearian drama.

I must record that, paradoxically, it was the outraged protests of the growing Puritan movement in that age which provided some of the best evidence for the separation of the modern boy from his Renaissance counterpart.  Tracts by such writers as William Prynne, Stephen Gosson and Phillip Stubbes inveighed in extreme terms against not only the action upon the stage, but the perceived immorality that occurred after the performances.  Stage-door Johnnies are not a new invention it would seem and the boys were evidently very popular for themselves, as well as their abilities as actors.  Deuteronomy 22:5 was clarion for the Puritans:

The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment,  for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.

Cross-dressing in any form; indeed any pretension of a man, woman or child to appear to be something that he or she was not, was a grievous sin to the Puritans.  One such was Phillip Stubbes who fulminated dramatically in his The Anatomie of Abuses, F.J. Furnivall, ed. (London: New Shakespeare Society, 1877-1879 [London: Richard Jones, 1583]), pp. 144-145.

what smouching & slabbering one of another, what filthie groping and vncleane handling is not practised euery wher in these dauncings? … But, say they, it induceth looue—so I say also—but what looue?  Truely, lustful looue, a venerous looue, such as proceedeth from the stinking pump and lothsome sink of carnall affection and fleshly appetite, and not such as distilleth from the bowels of the hart ingenerat by the spirit of God.

Purple prose indeed, but the fact is that these performances were hugely popular, despite this invective.  Or perhaps even, because of it?  The texts themselves were written with the several different levels of understanding in the audiences in mind.  The cruder humour was for those who stood among the groundlings and there were many Classical allusions to flatter the educated in the sixpenny seats.  Who had the most fun though?  Probably those boy actors themselves!

But the 1640s were approaching and the total – though thankfully temporary – victory of the puritans who were to close all of the theatres.  Then, after years of sub-fusc misery, the Reformation saw the return of the monarchy. Charles II issued a royal patent in 1662 to one William d’Avenant, allowing him to use real women in women’s parts.

The age of the boy actor was then over. Indeed, the age of Shakespeare as he wrote it, was then over. What we see now is Shakespeare transposed. Re-written. Modified.

As I mentioned earlier, the boy of then was almost certainly smaller than the boy of now.  I believe Shakespeare used this to delight in reversing the usual power relationships.  Take the role of Portia, in The Merchant of Venice.  This boy-girl trounces the powerful male figures who must physically have towered over the small, but brilliant figure upon the stage – and it is he who appears triumphant in the end.  The author himself appears as a man fighting for a place for brilliant young women in a world where men would normally dominate?  Yet, in everyone’s full knowledge, Portia is actually a boy; as was the quicksilver Maria in Twelfth Night and the tragic Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.  While the role of Portia is deadly serious, Maria is a tiny grinning devil as she bounces about the stage, bullying the adult actors and causing huge amounts of laughter. A contrasting juxtaposition in terms of physical size and actual power was the name of the game.  I have a theory that this echoed the tiny, though very real person, the woman, who paradoxically held such awesome power upon the throne for most of Shakespeare’s life.  Praise for role-reversals would certainly not have been missed by that highly intelligent sovereign!

Barbed humour, sometimes couched in double, or even treble meanings, dominated the comedies, in particular.  And when you consider the possible gestures that would have been added to the words, it is possible to imagine the riotous belly-laughs among the groundlings in the original Globe Theatre.

When all is said and done, Shakespeare wrote immensely powerful roles for women, which is why the drama still works so very well now. Androgyny in the original double-shifted parts is now merely single-shifted, but Shakespeare still lives and is well-loved by many people and rightly so.

Finally, I had the great good fortune to make the acquaintance of Edmund Marlowe when I wrote to him to praise his wonderful book, Alexander’s Choice.  We exchanged occasional emails thereafter and then I discovered his equally wonderful website at and later he suggested that I should send him my thesis for publication on the site.

After scratching around for months, I sent it off and what I call The Monstrous Prolixity now sits on his magnificent site: Greek Love Through the Ages.  It is hard to describe the sheer range of both serious and even humorous knowledge of boy-love that is contained within Edmund’s shining demesne.  Richly illustrated, it is full of articles, titles, references, pointers to so many of the people of the past and present, many of whom I have never heard.  It is like a kindly light that shines on a very dark and depressing night.

Yet Edmund, in his last message to me, said that he is not yet satisfied with his site!  I’ll let you be the judge, but for me, I am honoured to have a place in what I see as his Golden Compendium of Boy Knowledge.