Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Learning Thisby's Part-or-What's Hecuba to Him?

Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Learning Thisby's Part-or-What's Hecuba to Him?

Article excerpt

Every schoolchild knows that there were no women actors on the Elizabethan stage; the female parts were taken by young men actors. But every schoolchild also learns that this fact is of little consequence for the twentieth-century reader of Shakespeare's plays. Because the taking of female parts by boys was universal and commonplace, we are told, it was accepted as 'verisimilitude' by the Elizabethan audience, who simply disregarded it, as we would disregard the creaking of stage scenery and accept the backcloth forest as 'real' for the duration of the play.

Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters, 9

1. What Every Schoolchild Knows?

I begin by citing the opening paragraph of the opening chapter--"Female Roles and Elizabethan Eroticism"--in Jardine's groundbreaking book of 1983, a study followed six years later by Stephen Orgel's even more widely influential article, "Nobody's Perfect: Or Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Women?" (1) Separately (Orgel doesn't seem to have known Jardine's work--or didn't cite it) but also together (since subsequent scholarship frequently cited them both), these two set the agenda for the academic re-investigation over the next two decades of that most common of Elizabethan theater commonplaces, what "every schoolchild knows": that Shakespeare's company, like every other Early Modern English playing company, was an all male company, and that his parts for women were cross-dressed.

Of course, Jardine's opening flourish doesn't so much engage with history as strike a rhetorical pose. (Every schoolchild? I think not.) And once struck, the pose immediately starts to wobble. It's not just that, proposing to write about performance and the theater, Jardine's own viewing (which recruits "us" to her "we," making her point of view ours) seems oddly stranded in a bye-gone era. Creaking scenery? A backcloth forest taken for "real"? One has to wonder whether Jardine had seen any Shakespeare in the theater since, say, John Barton's Troilus and Cressida (RSC, 1968) or Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream (RSC, 1970). (This is crucial. For the questions we know to ask about Shakespeare on his own stage are conditioned by what today's Shakespeare stage teaches us to expect. If we look with the "wrong" eyes, we'll ask the "wrong" questions. Jardine's gaze is narrowed, it appears, to proscenium arch thinking and by the aesthetics of "verisimilitude.") Worse, however, is the drift of the argument. In her opening sentence they are "young men actors." Two sentences later, they've become "boys." Further along, framing the terms of "Elizabethan eroticism," she first cites John Rainolds in the 1590s (although he, the president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, was, in any case, engaged in a controversy about academic, not professional, playing) then Thomas Randolph in 1634, with no sense of the forty-odd years separating them (10). In comparable cultural terms, that's like making J. M. Barrie's 1904 Peter Pan and John Osborne's 1956 Look Back in Anger (or Osborne's Anger and Sarah Kane's 1995 Blasted) contemporaries.

Orgel's hold on theater history was similarly problematic. Republishing "Nobody's Perfect" in Impersonations, he repeated his original argument, its premise that the Elizabethan playhouse was regulated by a repressive (and, compared to the rest of Europe, anomalous) cultural regime: "the appearance of women on stage was forbidden" (1); England "banned actresses from the public stage" (1); England "proscribed women from the public stage" (2). But he knows this is wrong--and says so on 72: "Standard history implies that until the Restoration women were banned from the stage, but in fact this is not the case; there were no statutes whatever relating to the matter." By page 72, however, the damage had been done; Orgel himself was part of the machine making "standard history."

The 1980s was no time, however, to allow awkward historical facts to get in the way of discursive theoretical argument. …

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