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  • tambascot

    “In Shakespeare’s time, the act of females performing or writing for the stage was illegal and punishable by death.”

    If you have ANY evidence of that, I’d really like to see it, because I have thus far not found a single law prohibiting any of these practices from the early modern period, and nor have I come across any instances of such a ludicrously harsh punishment being executed for breaking them.

    • Elaine Avila wrote back to reply:

      “In the 16th century, Charles V of Spain prohibited the performances of women by special edict; Pope Innocent IX also forbade their appearance on stage. Women were only permitted to perform on the English Stage in the 1660s. I refer you to this 2014 Ohio State University symposium: “The First Actresses: 1660-1930” focusing on “hostility, censorship and bans” that these women endured. Other good sources include The First English Actresses: Women and Drama, 1660-1700 by Elizabeth Howe, published by Cambridge University Press, and a 2011 exhibit at London’s National Portrait Gallery,“The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons.”

      “I do see that my statement was perhaps overly strong. I was distilling a lengthy conversation with Ms. Wolpe. As you point out, it is difficult to find direct evidence that women who were executed during this period were specifically killed for being onstage. My statement also refers to women who dressed as men. That being said, women who step out of allowed gender roles, face all types of punishment all over the world, even today–some legislated, some not—including execution. For further information on the obstacles facing 16th and 17th c. women who dared to perform, write and/or dress as men, there are many books and articles on Margaret Hughes, Catalina de Erauso, Vincenza Armani, Vittoria Piisima, Aphra Behn, Nell Gwynn.”

      • tambascot

        I see several points of confusion here:

        “In the 16th century, Charles V of Spain prohibited the performances of women by special edict; Pope Innocent IX also forbade their appearance on stage.”

        These are not relevant: the English stage was neither governed by Spanish law nor papal law, and even then the papal edict is a poor citation since we have evidence of female players in Italy in the 16th century. None of Avila’s citations are evidence.

        “Women were only permitted to perform on the English Stage in the 1660s.”

        Permitted by whom? That’s the real question we’re getting at here. We know they did not appear on the public stages, but that is a far cry from justifying the statement “In Shakespeare’s time, the act of females performing or writing for the stage was illegal and punishable by death.” We have to be very, very careful about applying post-Enlightenment sensibilities to pre-Enlightenment works and practices, and the simple reality is that we just don’t know why there were no female performers, and referring us to a collection of eclectic sources doesn’t help build an argument. Without a specific law, or a specific recording of an instance of a woman being punished for playing on a stage, the notion remains a myth born of the fancy of poor historians.

        “It is difficult to find direct evidence that women who were executed during this period were specifically killed for being onstage.”

        It doesn’t help anyone if we’re building arguments on the absence of evidence.

        “My statement also refers to women who dressed as men.”

        In that case, I am willing to forgive the poor grammar that leaves no way of knowing that, but the statement is still patently false, and we have very good instance of that: Mary Firth was such a well known cross-dresser (“virago” in the parlance of the time) that Middleton and Decker dramatized her life in “The Roaring Girl.” We can also deduce from the “pamphlet war” that Early Modern was not so silently accepting of misogyny as Avila alludes to in her piece, which was, again, dramatized for the stage in “Swetnam the Woman Hater Arraigned by Women.” (see Katherine Henderson’s “Half Humankind” for more on the “pamphlet war.”

        “That being said, women who step out of allowed gender roles, face all types of punishment all over the world, even today–some legislated, some not—including execution.”

        True and unfortunate and in need of correction as that may be, it does nothing to establish the staging conditions in which Shakespeare wrote. I fully allow that my citations are from the post-Shakespeare era, and it is conceivable that there was a radical shift in the way early modern Londoners viewed women in the years following Shakespeare’s retirement, but the *illegality* of female players on the early modern London stage, let alone any punishment for it, has no direct evidence at all; none, at least, that I or anyone else seems to be aware of. We’re not doing anyone any favors by relying on fabrications of evidence, and as it stands, the idea that it was “illegal” for women to play on Shakespeare’s stages is just a story that gets handed down along with the ridiculous idea that everyone in Europe thought the world was flat in 1491.

        • Importantly, making the claim that what Wolpe is doing is important because people used to die from it is a way of dismissing the value of her work on its own merits.

          • Elaine Avila

            I would never wish to dismiss the value of Ms. Wolpe’s work “on its own merits.” I find Ms. Wolpe’s
            work to be brilliant, meritorious, and essential to the future of theatre and gender parity.
            I can certainly see why the people who have written here believe I was attempting to make a historical claim about laws in Shakespeare’s England and that these laws carried the death
            penalty. This was not my intent at all.

            I would change the article to read “But women have not always been permitted to play male roles, or to appear on stage.” (and cut the sentence in question.)

            I am a playwright, not a scholar of the early modern period. In order to clarify your questions, I have
            gone back to my sources and consulted new ones. True–the laws I refer to were on the continent. The penalties female performers (and women who dressed as men) endured in this era can be attributed to other causes. For example, Catalina de Erauso, a Spaniard and the subject of my play Lieutenant Nun, was threatened with execution in the New World for murdering civilians, not cross-dressing. The case of Mary Frith (Moll Cutpurse) is often referred to–she appeared on the English stage dressed as a man in 1611. Her repeated punishments are mostly related to other legal and religious charges.

            What is the precise nature of the obstructions to women acting on (or writing for the) stage? How were they overcome? How was cross-dressing viewed during the period? There is much debate between theatre historians, historians of the period, and literary scholars. Yes, the situation was different in England than on the continent or in the Americas. Yes, we view these questions differently today. Discussing all of the issues involved is beyond the scope of this article.

            I am excited that there is new discussion and scholarship about the impediments women faced in
            Shakespeare’s time. May it illuminate and transform barriers women face today.

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