Sunday, October 21, 2012

Boy actors to the great Queen Elizabeth

by Stephanie Cowell

Nathan Field, boy actor
The world of the theater of Shakespeare’s day was completely masculine. Young boys were trained to play the women’s roles. The first Juliet and the first Ophelia were boys whose voices were not yet broken. It was a very new profession and did not even have a Guild. Professional actors had grown from the medieval theater. When they gathered together to play in the 16th century, it was first in inn yards. The first real theater was not built until 1576. Within ten years theater had begun to soar, particularly because the Queen and her court patronized it.

Women did not appear on the Elizabethan stage (though they played in court masques); it was considered indecent for a woman to appear in a play. On the contrary, the Puritans felt it was indecent for boys to play women; they were fairly horrified at this cross-dressing and believed it encouraged homosexual lust. So everyone regarded something as indecent on this subject! This tug of war continued to the fall of the king when all theater was forbidden by 1640. Until then, the boys played on in wigs and rouge and petticoats.

But in 1593, theater was blossoming in London.  A new rising playwright from Stratford called Shakespeare was filling the seats of the open-air hexagonal roofless Theater in Shoreditch, and picking up extra money playing for the Court especially on holidays: tender love stories, invigorating histories, riotous comedies. Boys between perhaps 10 and 16 were needed to play the women.

Boys needed a great deal of training very quickly before their voices broke or they grew to bearded men six feet tall. Many of the principle adult actors took a few boys into their households where they were trained in fencing, acting, singing, dancing, playing instruments. To portray credible women, the boys wore wigs and breast padding and makeup. For the first Cleopatra, a role of tremendous difficulty, I imagine they used a boy in his midteens whose voice was light in texture. 

The names of some of the boys have come down to us. Alexander Cooke was apprenticed to John Heminges, an actor and Shakespeare’s dear friend.  Robert Goffe created the role of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. And then there was the amazingly handsome Nathan Field. His father was a Puritan preacher who preached against the sins of playgiving, and yet (likely to his father’s horror) he was impressed, much as soldiers were then, into appearing with the Queen’s choir and, as a side occupation, with a troupe of all boy players called The Children of the Chapel Royal. What could his outraged father do? The Queen needed the boy’s beautiful face and charm and likely sweet singing voice and what the Queen needed, she was given. (Field grew up to be a true lady’s man and gorgeous.)

The difficulty and delight of their profession! And what fun it must have been and yet what a responsibility to speak great lines, to have an audience weep over you, to idealize you and to perform before the Queen. For noble and royal patronage protected the new acting troupes. Queen Bess loved theater and many times a year, especially around Christmastide, the acting troupes were summoned to play before her.

In the first part of my novel NICHOLAS COOKE, the 13-year-old Nicholas, a boy player with Shakespeare’s theater troupe, is given one of his first speaking roles in a performance before the Queen at Greenwich Palace. As he waits for his part in the play which does not come before the end, he becomes more and more anxious though one of the men actors assures him, “Why, the Queen’s but a woman like my wife!’

While the other actors are playing, the curious Nicholas goes wandering in Greenwich Palace, and stumbles alone into the Queen’s chambers “…The bedroom itself was hung with tapestries, and of the bed I can say I have never seen such a profundity of creamy white satin, of bolster and pillow and feather quilt. Pictures of the Tudor kings hung high on the walls…..from far below came the laughter of the play. I flew down the steps towards the door of our tiring room. Six or seven times I mistook it and was about to try the last when it flung open and I saw [my master’s] anxious face. “The Lady Prioress must appear now!” he whispered. “Go, Nick!” I rushed through the door to the banqueting hall and up the steps to the stage. The brilliance of the torches overwhelming me as I looked into the audience.

“At the end of the hall on a raised chair with steps mounted to it sat an irritable old woman with a brilliant, curling red wig and a bejeweled dress. I thought, oh this is she!...It so stunned me that when I opened my lips, no words came.”

The boy players were serious and dedicated on stage. I imagine them to have been a little like the young actor I saw a few years ago as Billy Elliot, receiving his applause breathless, amazed. Did one of the boy actors who played at Court ever sit by his fire years later and tell his grandchildren, “Aye, I remember acting in a play with Will Shakespeare on a cold night in Greenwich Palace before the great Queen Bess…and after we bowed before her and danced and then we gathered up our costumes and props and took a boat home on the Thames. Those were the great days of theater, my loves! They shall not come again.”


Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell’s novel Nicholas Cooke: actor, soldier, physician, priest, first published in 1993, was called “Compelling reading, particularly for its rich and accurate detail,” by the San Francisco Examiner and “a detailed portrait of Shakespearean England,” by Kirkus.  It is now available as a Kindle e-book.  Stephanie also the author of The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Her website is


  1. When I did my MA at Queens Belfast a post grader was working on the child actors of the Elizabethan Stage for a Phd. It was fascinating. I shall really love your book so on to kindle it must go. Thank you for such an interesting post.

    1. Oh you're welcome! I would love to get a glimpse of that Phd paper on child actors! Fascinating!


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