Get thee to a Nunnery!

In William Shakespeare’s time, women were not allowed to participate as actors in any Elizabethan acting companies. Why, you may ask? Women on the stage were believed to be more or less, glorified whores. It seems this perception, whether true or not, was a belief that stemmed from the religious ideologies left over from the Medieval Age. The reality is, women were viewed negatively if seen in a theatrical production.  Imagine going to Romeo and Juliet, to see a young boy in a dress play Juliet, the love interest of Romeo. As a modern audience member we might find the sexual implications distracting. However, the English Renaissance has not demonstrated any significant evidence to suggest audiences were distracted by the casting choices. As a modern audience member, I wonder how audience members responded to the spectacle. One can only theorize at this point in time. However, what is clear is the significant interest in sexual stereotyping. In Wilson and Goldfarb, they point out a clear example of this, seen in As You Like It. In this play, Rosalind disguises herself as a man. This seems pretty straight forward to modern actors and directors. However, during the English Renaissance a male actor would be cast as Rosalind (a woman), who pretends to be male. This creates a weird cycle of storytelling in which the actor is let off the hook in a way. Although fully capable in playing Rosalind the woman, the actor is allowed to be a “man” on stage throughout the unfolding of the play. Additionally, actors, aka males, had full reign on how women were to be portrayed in society. If we think of a modern day example, perhaps one can get a stronger sense of what was really occurring during this time in England. If we look at any major magazine for women at the local super market, chances are they are owned by Conde Nast. Perhaps this is a far fetched example, but one could argue that men are deciding how women should be perceived in society. Women, in turn, reading standard publications for women are influenced into conforming to the “ideal woman”. Perhaps this is too deep a debate to bring up in one blog post, but I think it is fair to say that can see how the English Renaissance still has a hold on how women are perceived in society today. Although women perform Shakespeare and other plays all the time, having more rights than previously seen on a grand global scale, it cannot go without saying that Shakespeare’s plays from the English Renaissance are still alive and well in today’s world, thus shaping how women are viewed on a small scale.

Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. “Medieval Theatre.”Living Theatre: History of the Theatre. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2008. Print.


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