Female roles on the pre-Restoration English stage were played not by women but by boys dressed as women. This well-known fact has occasioned much comment in recent years by critics interested in the gender implications of boys playing women who sometimes disguised themselves as boys. Many such critics have implicitly assumed that the ‘boys’ in question were pre-adolescent children, perhaps eight to twelve years old, whose ability to play the complex female roles of Shakespeare or Webster would be questionable. They have thus suggested that such roles must have been played by adult sharers, much as in modern all-male productions at Shakespeare’s Globe and elsewhere. From a psychosexual perspective, it makes an obvious difference whether Cleopatra was played by a ten-year-old child, a thirty-year-old man, or by a ‘boy’ of some intermediate age, such as seventeen.
Such discussions have tended to be short on hard evidence, often relying on subjective notions of what would or would not have been plausible for an Elizabethan playing company. It is often assumed that little or no documentary evidence survives about these boys, and that we must rely mostly on guesswork and speculation. In fact, a substantial amount of documentary evidence does survive about pre-Restoration boy players, but much of it has remained buried in archives or scattered across various books and articles. When gathered and analysed, this evidence points to a consistent conclusion: until the early 1660s, female roles on the English stage (including the most demanding, complex parts) were played by adolescent boys, no younger than twelve and no older than twenty-one or twenty-two, with a median of around sixteen or seventeen.