SHAKESPEARE’S BOY ACTORS AND FORBIDDEN DISCOURSE, continued:
In this thesis I have argued for a radical separation between the representation of the female character in the comedies as they were performed in the Elizabethan theatre and our modern versions of the same thing. The dichotomy lies not simply in the fact that no women then rose to the stage.
In Part One I have suggested that deeply-seated cultural differences between their authors, their actors and their audiences define, almost in themselves, a completely different mutual undertaking from our performance and our reception of the same parts. The processes of theatrical representation and audience-reception are only parts of these defining elements. The social and political positions of women and men on a notional power-scale in Shakespeare’s time thus loom behind the female figure who emerged in her highly variant forms in the drama of then. Simply, a kind of cultural forgetfulness now means that a great deal of what was obvious to the first crowd in The Globe will now fly over the heads of the crowd on Thames’s modern bank. Their laughter, in their much more dangerous world, had an edge to it that ours has not.
In Part Two, in my readings of the plays themselves, I have claimed that there was a cultural awareness of divine-androgyny to provide the image and even the stage presence of an ethereal female where stimuli in the sometimes fluid, unstable texts of those days, prompted such visions. I have also claimed, conversely, that there were moments when the same actor who produced the ethereal androgyne, could then reveal the happily prurient boy who aped the girl whom he represented, and who winked at the groundlings when Shakespeare suggested that he should, and who caused much laughter.
There is absolutely no doubt that Shakespeare’s women were limned with a brilliant light because Shakespeare wanted them to be seen in that way. Despite the cultural expectations of his audiences, he worked within the unavoidable tensions that constrained him to acknowledge the patriarchal ascendancy of men over women and yet managed also to transcend any perceived limitations in his young male actors in their representations of those women. Yet any boy who had gained acceptance in Shakespeare’s company to the point of being entrusted with a major female role, simply must have been an actor supremely sensitive to his master’s ethos of the importance of the woman whom he represented. She it was who loomed in front of, rather than above, the very young male person in those cross-dressed parts that so happily he would play.
Ultimately, why do I say that this discourse is forbidden? Simply because there are so many people in our present society who would fight, tooth and nail, to prevent a repeat of boy actors in those comedic roles upon which I have focused. Note that I do not say that a modern boy would not be able to revive the quicksilver Maria. What is certain is, that the modern boy would not be allowed to do so. For that matter, the modern boy would not be permitted to take part in many of the female roles in Shakespeare and other playwrights of that period. This is simply because it would expose them to the bawdry—and if the plays were to be faithfully executed—even the bawdy gestures of the original actors of four hundred years ago would be see as corrupting the minds of those young actors and his young audiences, in this age.
The Puritans have indeed returned.