When did women start playing the female characters in Shakespeare’s plays?  

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Although women sometimes appeared in morality plays of the middle ages or in court masques, they were forbidden by law to perform on stage in commercial plays such as those staged by William Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre. The theater at the time was sometimes considered immoral and for women to perform would have been scandalous. Therefore, the women's parts in Shakespeare's plays were portrayed by boys and men. From 1642 to 1660 the theaters in London were closed during the Puritan reign of Oliver Cromwell. It wasn't until the restoration of King Charles II that theaters reopened and women were finally given permission to perform on stage. The first known female performance came at Thomas Killigrew's Vere Street Theatre in 1660 as a woman, possibly an actress named Anne Marshall, played Desdemona in Othello. One of the most popular actresses of the time was Nell Gwynn, also a mistress of the king. Maybe the most famous Shakespearean actress was Sarah Siddons who was well known for her tragic portrayals of characters such as Lady Macbeth in the 18th century. Siddons also experimented with women portraying male characters as she played Hamlet while on tour.      

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