Why are there no children in Shakespeare's plays?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with jones100 that there were probably laws prohibiting the use of children in Elizabethan plays. (It would be interesting to survey the plays of other Elizabethan playwrights to see if there were any children in them.) I can think of only two children in Shakespeare, both of whom appear in Macbeth. One is Fleance, the son of Banquo, who is almost murdered along with his dad. The text doesn't specify how old this boy might be, but I visualize him as being about ten or so. In one place Banquo speaks to him as he would to a child. Banquo says, "There's husbandry in heaven. Their candles [the stars] are all out." I don't believe Fleance has any dialogue to speak, which suggests that they were using a pretty young boy.

However, the other child who appears in Macbeth has a lot to say. This is the son of Macduff who carries on a long conversation with his mother in Act 4, Scene 1, and then has words with the man who has come to murder him, calling the man a "shag-eared villain." From this boy's dialogue, and from the way his mother talks to him, one would suppose he was only around eight or ten.

It occurs to me that in Hamlet there is a long discussion about a troop of children who are playing adult roles and going on tour with considerable success. This dialogue occurs in Act 2, Scene 2. "...there is, sir, an eyrie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyrannically clapped for't. These are now the fashion, and so berattle the common stages--so they call them--that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills and dare scarce come thither." And so on.

There are a lot of children in modern movies, but are there many young children used in modern stage plays?

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is an interesting premise, but I am not sure if I can embrace it fully. For example, the central focus of Romeo and Juliet is the children Romeo and Juliet.  The presence of children is of vital importance in this drama.  In King Lear, it is children and their relationship to one another and their fathers that provides the central impetus to the drama.  The elder daughter Katharina and the younger daughter Bianca are really important to the plot of The Taming of the Shrew. In these dramas, the role of children is vital to each. Even in Othello, Desdemona being Brabantio's child is important to the drama.  Children are used as a way to advance the plot, develop characterizations, and enhance the thematic qualities of each work.  I am not entirely certain that I would agree with the idea of there being no children in Shakespeare's plays.  I think that he was skilled enough to understand that there are contexts where children are needed to enhance his dramas and situations where children were not as important.  In this, Shakespeare demonstrates himself to being a complex writer and thinker.

William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In reply to above question: I wouldn't know. I can't remember seeing a stage performance of Macbeth. Chances are that the scene in which Macduff's son is murdered is left out of a lot of stage performances as well as film versions of the play, since it is not really necessary. Macduff is informed of the atrocity later on. It occurs to me that in Shakespeare's production of the play the boy who played Fleance was probably the same boy who played Macduff's son. I doubt that Shakespeare would have hired two different boys for such short parts, and I think it was fairly common to use the same actors in different minor roles in the same plays. Shakespeare may have only written in the scene with Macduff's little boy because he wanted to get more use from the same child actor.

jones100 | Student

thank you for your response, but its children under teenage years that seem to be absent i belive in his plays.my thoughts  leads me to think that children were i supposed like women of the time forbiden to perform on stage, so possibly difficut or impossible for him to write for any thoughts on this. 

hall4250 | Student

Shakespeare's plays are full of children. Just a few off the top of my head are:

Robin, William Page, and the 'Fairies' in The Merry Wives of Winsor.

Young Lucius inTitus Andronicus.

Son of Macduff inMacbeth.

The Changeling Child inA Midsummer Night's Dream.

Arthur in King John. 

jones100 | Student

Is the son of Mac duff in Macbeth played by a child in stage performances?