This essay asks how the boy players of the early modern English public stage and the aristocratic female performers of the early modern English court masque might have considered, and perhaps even affected, one another’s arts. The performances of both groups of performers were carefully calculated to achieve specific aesthetic, social, and political goals. Neither an aristocratic lady dancing in a masque nor a boy performing the role of such a lady on the public stage could have afforded to lose sight of the codes of elegant feminine behavior. Is it possible, then, that women’s and boys’ portrayals of elite femininity employed similar theatrical tactics? This essay proposes one methodology by which we might tease out potential relationships between boys’ and women’s performances. It begins by considering the conceptions of boy players and noble ladies inscribed in the texts of Ben Jonson’s Masque of Queens (1609) and Love Restored (1612), comparing them to the scandalous behavior of Frances and Catherine Howard at the end of the latter masque’s performance. It goes on to suggest that these contexts may help us better to imagine how the boy who first played the eponymous heroine of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (c.1612-13) portrayed her noble yet transgressive femininity. Such a comparison between the verbal and physical rhetoric of masques and those of public theater dramas may allow us to glimpse shared codes of class and gender embodiment across a range of performance cultures.


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pp. 83-97
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