Access and Contestation: Women's Performance in Early Modern England, Italy, France, and Spain

By Parolin, Peter | Early Theatre, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Access and Contestation: Women's Performance in Early Modern England, Italy, France, and Spain


Parolin, Peter, Early Theatre


In the professional theatre of early modern England, with rare exceptions, boys and men played women's roles. The success of this theatre industry, both in its own day and subsequently, has obscured other forms and sites of performance, enabling the assumption that all-male performance was the early modern norm and, concomitantly, that women did not perform. Recently, however, a growing body of scholarship has questioned the story of the 'all-male' stage and concluded that it requires radical rethinking. (1) This special issue on women and performance continues the project of rethinking, offering new instances of women's performance and assessing how performance made a difference for women, both culturally and in their own lives. In the process it seeks to supplement the paradigm of the 'all-male' stage with a more inclusive model of performance, multidisciplinary, transnational, and open to women's integral participation in the performance world of early modern England and continental Europe.

At the highest levels of society, queens, countesses, and other elite ladies not only patronized performances and particular performers but also appeared on stage as performers themselves, often in extravagant court entertainments produced for English aristocrats and foreign diplomats. Beyond London, women's performance was a significant, customary feature: women from all walks of life sponsored, played in, and provided material support for performances including parish dramas, May games, local pageants, and various forms of festive dance. Across the channel, women were famous as professional performers in Italy, Spain, and France. They led companies, developed new theatrical forms, and dazzled audiences with their virtuosic displays of theatrical skill. Furthermore, these actresses were known internationally, including in England. As early as 1547, women from the Italian theatre performed for Henri II and Catherine de Medici in Lyon, and by 1574, women from the Commedia dell'Arte had appeared in London. (2) English commentators sometimes praised the foreign actress extravagantly; more often, they reviled her; what they did not do, however, was ignore her. The foreign woman player, like elite English women dancing in the court masque and local women dancing on feast days, registered in the imaginations of English spectators, men and women alike, inevitably shaping their understanding of performance and informing their sense of how, through performance, femininity and masculinity might be represented.

Scholars grappling with these questions have unearthed new data and published innovative analyses. James Stokes draws on scattered records of performance in Lincolnshire and Somerset to find women participating in May games and 'every other festive aspect of parish life as well. Innumerable records refer to their dancing at revels, weddings, inns, and wassailings'. In such records, Stokes discerns 'the outlines of an unbroken tradition of professional women entertainers stretching back hundreds of years'. (3) At the elite level, Clare McManus argues that women's central role in the early Stuart masques allowed for significant female self-fashioning: 'Through dance women fashioned themselves as courtiers, using the performance which dance allowed them to create an elite female identity'. (4) Sophie Tomlinson sees the court masque as crucial in cultivating positive attitudes about women's performance: 'the importance of the Stuart masque lies in the newly significant and signifying role accorded to female theatrical performance.... In this new disposition, the theatrical woman is viewed sympathetically'. (5) Introducing

Three Seventeenth-Century Plays on Women and Performance, Tomlinson and her collaborators Hero Chalmers and Julie Sanders show that sympathy toward the theatrical woman helped change the cultural landscape over the course of the Stuart period, leading up to the introduction of professional actresses on the Restoration stage in 1660. …

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