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Why couldn't Shakespeare cast real women in his plays' female roles?

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According to Jonathan Bate, co-editor of William Shakespeare:  Complete Works, actresses began to take on the female roles in Shakespeare's plays in 1660s, but prior to this time, they were prohibited from performing on stage and traveling with actors for reasons pertaining to moral conduct.  Interestingly, in 1629 a visiting company of French players gave performances at Blackfriars employing actresses. However, the women were hissed and "pippin=pelted" from the stage.

In his Age of Shakespeare, Frank Kermode contends that

...the religious and dynastic conflicts of William Shakespeare's time are critical to understanding not only his history plays but also the political/religious milieu in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries lived and worked.

Points to consider regarding the question of why there initially were no female actors in Shakespeare's plays:

  • It is important to remember that in Shakespeare's time London was influenced by Puritan figures who associated playhouses with seditious and unchaste environs.  Moreover, these moralists associated attendance at plays by women as participating in part of the sex trade.
  • In order to avoid controversy and to be allowed to perform acting troupes were all male. And, since they traveled, it was safer and easier (since the mixing of the sexes often brings with it added complications) for just males to be part of the acting companies.
  • Playhouses were only allowed to be on the outskirts of London; such an area was one vulnerable to unsavory traffic, so men could better defend themselves against thieves and such.
  • Since such dramatic roles as Desdemona is closely connected to Othello, and Lady Macbeth to Macbeth, as is Cleopatra with Antony, and Volumnia with Coriolanus, the roles of the female leads were usually taken by the apprentice of the lead actor. These apprentices lived with their masters, who worked long with them in private, thus allowing young men to play such demanding roles. Had women had these roles, such arrangements would not have been possible.

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