illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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Student Question

Why weren't women allowed to act during Elizabethan times and what did "actresses" wear?

Quick answer:

Women were not allowed to act during Elizabethan times due to societal prejudices, viewing female actors as immoral or even prostitutes. Acting was seen as inappropriate and illegal for women, partly due to the itinerant lifestyle of acting troupes. Male actors, often young boys, played female roles and wore women's clothing, which some clergymen condemned as sacrilegious cross-dressing.

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Excellent answer.  One other reason for the prohibition is that society tended to assume women in acting groups were prostitutes.  Partly this was a prejudice based on the travelling of acting troupes, and on a sort of fear and superstition involving the power of women to bewitch the mind.  A woman who could so easily change her appearance and sway people to believe the character was viewed with alarm by many in this era.  Earlier in European history there were women actors (actresses, actually), but in the early modern age this changed in many parts of Europe.  Of course, some actresses who were prostitutes or of what was considered "loose morals" did not help the situation.  Male actors were not usually looked on very favorably before this time, either, and considered persons of low morals and dissolute character, and often viewed as thieves and wastrels.

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Women were not allowed to appear on stage until 1660.  Before this time, acting for women was considered inappropriate and actually illegal.  For one thing, the acting troops traveled around, sleeping in odd places.  The proximity and lack of privacy certainly contributed to the prohibition of women becoming such itinerant actors.

Because of the prohibition of women in theatre, young men-- usually prepubescent--played the female roles and dressed in women's clothing.  In reaction to this condition, there was a condemnation of the Elizabethan theatre by some clergymen who contended that it was sacriligeous for men to dress as men, envisioning it as though it were "cross-dressing," a sexual aberration.

The roles of women who were not young or so very womanly were played by the older male actors.  For instance, this may be why Shakespeare's three witches in "Macbeth" have beards.

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