Skip to content Skip to navigation

17th c

LHMP entry

When we think of dramatic performance by courtiers, masques tend to be the first image, but this article examines the performance of stage plays by the English court under Henrietta Maria, Queen to Charles I. The queen was French and imported French attitudes and expectations to the sphere where she could set the rules. In particular, she greatly increased women’s performance on the court stages, and amateur women’s theatricals became a regular feature of the court.

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night draws on two prominent motifs of Italian theater: a cross-dressed heroine who provokes female desire, and the ideal of the Italian actress, who combined beauty and rhetorical skill. Shakespeare and other English playwrights backed off somewhat on the lesbian eroticism, but retained the image of a female character claiming power through performance and improvising, as manifested in Viola/Cesario’s ambiguous teasing banter with Olivia.

The premise of this article is that Shakespeare’s Loves Labors Lost is inspired by, and reflects, the prominence of women in Italian theater and in French salons who—as in the play—treated serious philosophical questions via banter and wit. Thus, even with no actual women on stage, Loves Labors Lost creates a strong female presence in English theater. The “French salon culture” of this era refers to the courts of Marguerite de Valois and Catherine de Medici, and predates the era most closely associated with the term “salon” beginning in the later 17th century.

Actresses were an integral part of the early modern Italian stage, though the focus in theater history on commedia masks has tended to sideline that point. But female stage participation in Italy, not only transformed theater there, but had ripple effects elsewhere, including England.

In the era before, women were accepted on the professional stage, they performed in less formal venues – squares, fairs, street corners, inn courtyards, and such – the venue of mountebanks. Typically, this was not as the primary performer, and therefore we must search more carefully for the evidence. The underlying purpose of these vaudeville-like mountebank performances, was to sell non-professional, medical treatments: folk or “quack” remedies.

Even scholarship that examines women’s participation in English theater has tended to overlook the role of ordinary women except as audience. One notable exception is studies of Mary (Moll) Frith who, in 1612, is recorded as having appeared on the stage in men’s clothing, playing the lute and singing. This may have been directly connected with performance of the play The Roaring Girl in which she appears as a character, and which advertised her forthcoming appearance on stage in its epilogue.

This article moves away from the traditional focus on professional urban theater companies (in which women had no role prior to the Restoration) to look at regional performance traditions that were more varied. The differences between and among these regional traditions are as important for a closer picture as the quest for continuity and similarity. Local practices were shaped by differences in proximity to London and the court, to prevailing religious attitudes, and to the degree of participation of the local noble families.

Early systematic research into the many types of dramatic performance – civic, religious, and popular — written beginning around 1895 was curiously oblivious to the extensive participation of women, while more recent work has solidly established that presence. This oversight was not so much deliberate as a byproduct of how early research was conducted, in particular, a presumption that civic pageants formed a unified and uniform tradition, with the best known examples focusing on male guild performers.

During the 16th and earlier 17th century, women were not members of professional acting troupes, but did participate in class-appropriate performances at all levels: masques and plays at court, pageants and parish plays in towns, and traveling performers at the poorest level. In addition, women were patrons and spectators. All of these undermine the idea of the “all-male stage”. At the same time, women players were often heaped with scorn. This could be hazardous to the critic when the attacks were on court ladies participating in masques and plays.


Subscribe to 17th c