Guest post by Prof Helen Hackett: Women and drama in Shakespeare’s time

Professor Helen Hackett, who will be speaking on the Bluestockings and Muses panel, reveals the surprising history of women playwrights and performers in Shakespeare’s time.

If there’s one thing that everyone thinks they know about the theatre in Shakespeare’s time, it’s that female roles were taken by boy actors. This was certainly true at the commercial London playhouses like the Globe, but it can lead to a widespread – and mistaken – assumption that women didn’t participate at all in drama in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. In fact, if you look beyond the public playhouses, there are many examples of women performing. Entertainments for Elizabeth I on her progresses sometimes included acting roles for the daughters of the great houses that she visited – and it’s appropriate to think of the Queen herself as a kind of dramatic performer, as she displayed her magnificence to her people, participated in ceremonies, and delivered memorable soundbites. At the court of James I, his wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, performed in a number of masques with her ladies. And in the homes of aristocratic families, women participated in what has sometimes been called ‘closet drama’: plays influenced by classical models that may have been designed for group readings, or may actually have been staged in these domestic settings.

Women wrote such plays too. In the mid sixteenth century Lady Jane Lumley displayed her impressive learning and literary skill in a translation of Euripides’ Iphigenia; then in 1590 Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, a prolific and influential author and patron, translated from French The Tragedy of Antony, almost certainly an influence on Shakespeare’s later Antony and Cleopatra (1606). The first original tragedy by a woman in English was Mariam (c. 1602-04) by Lady Elizabeth Cary, an extraordinarily sophisticated exploration of a turbulent marriage. Mariam is divided between love for her husband, Herod, King of the Jews, and resistance to his unjust and tyrannical commands. She makes the insightful observation that his oppression and restriction of her are the very things that have produced her desire for independence and autonomy: ‘he by barring me from liberty, / To shun my ranging, taught me first to range’. 

Meanwhile the first English comedy by a woman was Love’s Victory by Lady Mary Wroth, niece to Mary Sidney and another prolific and boldly innovative author. Wroth found herself castigated by one contemporary as a ‘hermaphrodite’ for daring to write. This was a period when women were instructed ‘how far more convenient the distaff, and spindle, needle and thimble were for them with a good and honest reputation, than the skill of well using a pen or writing a lofty verse with defame and dishonour’ (Thomas Salter, The Mirror of Modesty, 1579). Performance on the public stage would have been construed as an even more shocking act of self-exposure and sexual forwardness. No wonder that no woman risked it.

However, strong evidence has recently emerged that the closet dramas produced by and for aristocratic women were not merely read aloud by family and friends in country house settings, but were fully staged, including performances by women. After translating Antony, Mary Sidney commissioned a sequel, Cleopatra, by the poet Samuel Daniel. Yasmin Arshad, a PhD student at UCL, has discovered a remarkable portrait of a Jacobean lady in costume as Cleopatra, complete with basket of figs and asp, accompanied by lines from Daniel’s play. The woman may be Lady Anne Clifford, who was tutored by Daniel. This exciting find strongly suggests that closet dramas provided opportunities for women to act, and to use drama to explore models of female heroism. Both Sidney’s and Daniel’s Cleopatra are far more noble than Shakespeare’s ‘serpent of old Nile’, and are torn between regal duty, personal passion, and maternal love in a way not explored at all in Shakespeare’s play, great as it is. 

To explore how Daniel’s Cleopatra works on stage, and how the play might be illuminated by performance, Yasmin is mounting a production of it on Sunday 3rd March at Goodenough College, London. The director is Emma Whipday, also a UCL PhD student, and a talented student cast and production team will be led by the rising young actor Charlotte Gallagher as Cleopatra. It will be a groundbreaking event which will change thinking about women and drama in Shakespeare’s time. Booking opens soon: for more information, see here.

For more on the portrait of a Jacobean lady in role as Daniel’s Cleopatra, see Yasmin Arshad, ‘The enigma of a portrait: Lady Anne Clifford and Daniel’s Cleopatra’, The British Art Journal 11.3 (Spring 2011).


For more on women’s participation in drama in Shakespeare’s time, see Helen Hackett, A Short History of English Renaissance Drama (London: I. B. Tauris, 2013), pp. 175-88.



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