Academic journal article Thymos

Shakespeare's "Boys"

Academic journal article Thymos

Shakespeare's "Boys"

Article excerpt

Shakespeare was keenly affected by the lives of the boys who played the parts of women in his plays. Evidence for his understanding and compassion is found in the speeches of those characters who cross-dress female to male. By a double negation of his gender, the boy actor is given an opportunity to speak for himself as well for the female character he is portraying. The examples are Julia as Sebastian in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Portia as Balthazar and Nerissa as both the young lawyer's clerk and Jessica in The Merchant of Venice, Viola as Cesario in Twelfth Night, Imogen as Fidele in Cymbeline, and especially Rosalind as Ganymede in As You Like It. I argue that what they were given to say by Shakespeare reveals the experience of being a boy, not only in early modern England or ancient Greece (where all parts were also played by males), but also in our time. I suggest the treatment of boys in the theatre is mirrored by the treatment of boys today. In those instances where doubled impersonation was written into Shakespeare's plays, we have a unique opportunity to hear boys tell us about themselves. As with so much else that is timeless insight, the bard understood and articulated the experience of being a boy. Taken together, the utterances of his "boys" tell us how it is to be a boy.

Keywords: boys, Shakespeare's plays, double impersonation

. . . boys, with women's voices,

Strive to speak big ....

- Richard II, III ii, 113-114.

Here sate alone a slender boy;

And with a thrill of fearful joy

The Sculptor recognized the form

Of Juliet! . . .

At last with an impatient air,

Half-vexed, half-scornful, wistful too

The boy broke silence. "Doubtless you,

Like many others here, have met

My actress sister, 'Juliet'?

Am I not like her? Though her hair

Is raven black, and mine is fair,

A wig might make the difference.

I'm rough, she sweet? Tut! All pretence:

Once off the stage she is no saint!

I'm sallow? Ay, but rouge and paint

Could set that right: she's just as pale.

Look at my form: you find it frail?

But hers is padded. 'Juliet,'

Whose beauty all confess, is yet

In sober fact no whit more fair

Than I, could you but see her bare,

Unpainted, unbewigged, undressed.

This 'Juliet' and I are one.

The truth of course is known to none

Outside the theatre...."

- E.E. Bradford, "The Sculptor"1

Shakespeare's female characters were written to be played by boys.2 This is explained by the times, which thought it disgraceful for a woman to appear on stage.3 Shakespeare was also fond of the theme of girls cross-dressing as boys (and vice versa), but this does not seem to be explained by custom or convenience. The transformation from girl to boy in Shakespeare's plays is especially fascinating, since in that case we have a young male actor playing a female character pretending to be what he in fact is, a boy or teenage youth.

If the negative of a negative is a positive, female characters playing youths are boy actors speaking as themselves, as boys. A young male character dressing as a female might be an instance of mere disguise, but a young female character who is in reality a boy dressing as a young male may also be an occasion for self-revelation. It occurs to me that what these boys playing female parts impersonating young men have to say may reveal something about the psychological life of boys. That is what I want to explore in what follows.

The examples are Julia as Sebastian in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Portia as Balthazar and Nerissa as both the young lawyer's clerk and Jessica in The Merchant of Venice, Viola as Cesario in Twelfth Night, Imogen as Fidèle in Cymbeline, and especially Rosalind as Ganymede in As You Like It.41 will argue that what they were given to say by Shakespeare reveals the experience of being a boy, not only in early modern England or ancient Greece (where all parts were also played by males), but also in our time. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.