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Durham University

Department of English Studies


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Boy Actors and Women Princes: Cross-gender casting in English drama in historical perspective

16th January 2020, 11:00 to 17:00, Debating Chamber, Palace Green, Perry Mills and Professor Barbara Raveholfer

A workshop and staged recital examining how Renaissance plays worked with boy actors performing female roles.

I smell a rat behind the hangings!
The Duke hath suck'd thyheart.
I'll either live a patriot or die my countrys martyr.

- James Shirley, The Traitor (1631)

English Renaissance drama is rich in female dramatic characters, from Marlowe's Dido to Shakespeare's Cleopatra and Webster's Duchess of Malfi. But before 1642, female characters were impersonated by boy actors.

This workshop examines Renaissance plays vfith plum roles for boy actors. We begin N"fith the fast-paced, darkly comic tragedy Ihe Traitor. It is based on a true story, the assassination of Alessandro de' Medici, libidinous Duke of Florence, by his kinsman Lorenzo. The murder inspired early modern tragedians Shirley's version feels like Hamlet on speed as much as later witers, including Alfred deMusset. Sarah Bernhardt in the role of Lorenzo gave a bravura performance of louche, melancholy villainy.

  • How was a female character constructed? How did a boy actor tackle the role?
  • How might audiences feel, watching boys enact the control of women a few feet away from them?
  • What makes a male historical figure attractive for actresses?

Such questions occupy the afternoon.


11-1 Staged recital of James Shirley's The Traitor (1631). With Barbara Ravelhofer and students.

2-3.45 Perry Mills, 'Boy Actors in Female Roles: From Christopher Marlowe's Dido Queen of Carthage to Ben Jonson's Silent Woman'. An illustrated tour of boy actors' performances with examples from productions and some practical exercises.

4-5 Roundtable discussion vfith audience and performers.

Perry Mills is Deputy Headmaster at King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon (known as "Shakespeare's School"). He is founder and director of Eduard's Boys, an all-boy company which explores the neglected repertoire of plays written for the boys' companies around the turn of the seventeenth century. The company has performed at the RSC Swan theatre and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe. Visit

Barbara Ravelhofer, Professor in English Literature, is a specialist in early theatre and dance history.

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