- Women Players in England, 1500–1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage
The ironclad rule that has governed the study and teaching of early modern English drama is that women did not appear on the public stage until 1660. While some women may have been spectators or sellers of comestibles, the only women who performed in plays prior to 1660 were aristocratic women who appeared in court masques. These formerly undeniable characteristics now appear to be only part of the picture of "theater" in England from the late medieval period to the Restoration. The excellent and important collection Women Players in England, 1500–1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage, edited by Pamela Allen Brown and Peter Parolin, offers not only a corrective to these earlier views but numerous suggestions for future research. Guiding this collection is the idea that if critics want to find women players, they need to look beyond the all-male public theaters of London. Consequently, the work's title refers to women as "players" rather than [End Page 478] "actors." Brown, Parolin, and contributors produce a wonderful series of important essays that consider the performances of women of various classes to encompass many activities. James Stokes, Gweno Williams, Alison Findlay, and Stephanie Hodgson-Wright report that women in the late medieval period were involved in entertainments as varied as Corpus Christi cycle plays, Whitsun and saint's day celebrations, church ales, pageants, and public devotions to the Virgin Mary, as well as traditional folk celebrations such as May Day. They participated as players, sponsor-financiers, producer-stagers, audience members, and managers.
Natasha Korda, Bruce R. Smith, and Bella Mirabella indicate that, by the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, lower-class women performed as dealers in secondhand clothing, peddlers, hawkers, tipplers, victuallers, receivers of stolen goods, mountebanks, ballad singers, musicians, and healers. While we might not consider these trades to require "performance," businesswomen needed to present themselves to their clients as successful. While Italian actresses were known for more traditional performing skills such as singing, dancing, jesting, miming, and playing musical instruments—as M. A. Katritzky, Julie D. Campbell, and Rachel Poulsen describe—the performance skills of aristocratic women were both similar to and very different from those of Italian actresses and lower-class Englishwomen. Women at the French court were skilled in music, singing, and dance, as well as debate and witty, erudite discourse. Melinda J. Gough astutely shows that acting by young royals allowed them to "[mirror] back to the [French] court . . . its own graceful magnificence" (194). And Jean E. Howard allows that aristocratic Englishwomen performed in court masques and private entertainments at each others' country homes.
Part 1, "Beyond London," examines the roles late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century women played in the production of guild or religious plays. In "Women and Performance: Evidences of Universal Cultural Suffrage in Medieval and Early Modern Lincolnshire," Stokes maintains "that women were major, indeed co-equal, contributors" (25) to traditional cultural productions. Women's roles only decreased with the increase of anti-Catholic legislation. Additionally, religious houses in the diocese of Lincoln, such as Nun Coton Priory, allowed entertainments in which the nuns were both audience and players.
The essay by Williams, Findlay, and Hodgson-Wright, "Payments, Permits and Punishments: Women Performers and the Politics of Place," considers women players in Lancashire and the northwest, Gloucestershire, and York. From 1376 to the 1580s, York produced the most complex "collective theatrical enterprise" (47) in England, including a cycle of Corpus Christi plays which involved about 10 percent of the population in over 300 speaking parts. Women's guilds were responsible for The Burial of the Virgin and The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. While there is no direct evidence that women acted in the cycle plays themselves, Williams et al. provide compelling evidence that it would be indecorous for a man to play the part of the pregnant Virgin Mary. Despite the "reformist character" of Gloucestershire, a woman playing the character...