During the Elizabethan era women were not allowed to perform by law as they were second class citizens at that time. Young boys, also known as “beardless boys” were hired to act to play the roles of younger women in plays, such as Juliette. These boys hadn’t reached puberty therefore still have smooth skin and high pitch voices. The older women in plays such as Julette’s nurse, were performed by adult male comic actors
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The costumes used for the female characters were complex as they had to reflect the clothes worn during the Elizabethan era. They were constructed with many layers of clothing which made it difficult for the boy actors to get dressed. They also wore wigs, or periwigs to give more of a female affect. They applied white make up which were lead based and highly poisonous. This got the female actors to be very unhealthy as well as having facial skin diseases. This caused a high proportion of them who died of lead poisoning. This wasn’t a pleasant job for them, they were also payed the lowest out of all the actors.
Every colour of clothing had its own meaning. They were related to the character’s status and rank of the play. These meanings were understood by the audience as it also the same in their daily lives. The colour, material and style of the clothing convey an enormous amount of information. It will also indicate the role of the character he is playing. The higher ranked costumes were mainly made of velvets, futs, silks or lace- the Upper Class audience would easy recognise the material. The lower ranked costumes were made of cottons and traffeta.
There are many type of female character which Shakespeare has developed- bawdy woman, tragic innocent woman, the scheming femme fatal, the witty but unmariable woman, the married of woman, the women who dress like men and the falsely accused of adultery. All these types of personality had to be performed by the female actors. The bawdy woman characters are sexualized, cheeky and flirtatious, such as the Nurse in “Romeo and Juliet”, Margaret in “Much Ado about Nothing” or Audrey in “As you Like It”. The female actors would have to portray this personality by using sexual innuendo when conversing. Their dress up would also have to be lower class. The tragic innocent woman such as Juliet from “Romeo and Juliet” are often pure and abstain from sex in the beginning of the play, and die when their innocence is lost. The portrayal of these characters would have to have a high social standing to the death seem more tragic. A good example of the scheming femme fatal character is Lady MacBeth. Her manipulation of Macbeth them to both of their deaths, as she commits suicide and he is murdered. Being able to perfectly act out this personality they would have to be presented as clever, bold and independent. Many Shakespeares comedies end with a woman getting married- the married off woman. They are performed by the young boy actors, to be able to act as Helena and Hermia from the “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. There are certain characters from Shakespeare who are women but dress like men such as Rosalind in “As you Like It” and Viola from “Twelfth Night”. These characters are obviously already performed by men therefore being a much easier task and having more freedom, highlighting the lack of social liberty for women. In Shakespeare’s plays (“Othello”) women are sometimes are falsely accused of murder. This demonstrates male insecurity and female sexuality.
In the play “Romeo and Juliet’, Juliet is played by the young boy actors as she is a young woman. In the start of the play the actor will have to perform Juliet as a young and naive girl. “I’ll look to life, if looking liking mmove:/ But no more deep will I endart mine eye/ Than your consent gives strength to fly”. This is evidence that she is compliant with her parents’ wishes, and inexperienced in matters of the heart. In Act 1 Scene 5, the actor will have to be able to recite a beautiful sonnet expressing her love. Her development in her character in this scene show that she is bright and intelligent. Voice is very important especially when showing true feelings of Juliet for Romeo. The actor will have to be speaking in soliloquy in the balcony, showing maturity. Independence and defiance will have to be expressed in the end of Act 3. She shows courage t o do whatever she has to do to be with her husband- taking the potion from Friar Laurence.
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In 1660 that was the only time where Women were only allowed to perform on stage as actresses. The reaction from the audience were positive and the young boy actors wouldn’t have to wear such clothing and make-up anymore. However they did not receive the same status as the men did in the theatre. They had a much lower pay than the male actors and barely any of them became playwrights. Now in the present day, men and women perform together on stage, receiving the same amount of respect and status- including Shakespeare’s plays. Due to the rights they have been granted this has become normal and in fact plays a positive impact in modern theatre as it performance has become more realistic and less disgust to the audience especially during sexual scenery. Some of Shakespearean plays are banned from performing because of his portrayal of female characters and how they are treated.
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