In Shakespeare’s day women could not act in public and female roles were performed by boys and young men.
However, what is less well known is there were children’s companies entirely comprised of young boys who played both male and female roles. The Children of the Chapel was one of the most famous, and this blog will explore some of the more extreme methods they went to in order to recruit boys actors.
Children’s companies grew out of the medieval tradition of boy choristers acting in religious plays for the court. This tradition gave the Choirmaster (by royal authority) the power to impress children into service in courtly choirs at Windsor, St. Pauls and the Chapel Royal. Impressment was similar to the practice of press-ganging adult males into military service. By the late 16th century St. Pauls and the Chapel Royal both had children’s acting and singing companies.
My interest in the children’s companies centres on the period from 1600-1608 when the Children of the Chapel leased a purpose-built indoor theatre space in Blackfriars from Cuthbert and Richard Burbage. The Burbages had intended to use the Blackfriars Theatre for public performances but had been prevented when unhappy residents had petitioned the Privy Council to stop them.
The new Blackfriars Theatre needed as many children as possible – and quickly – to create a new acting troupe. Nathaniel Giles had become Choirmaster of the Chapel Children in 1597 and with this position came the power to impress children into service. Giles’s ‘Charter’ gave him the authority to impress 12 boys although many Blackfriars plays had up to 20 people on stage at once. Continue reading »