This excellent answer by Joshua Engel draws a comparison between men dressed as women in Shakespeare-era plays and perspective jumps in modern cinema:

The audience would, of course, have been aware that these characters were portrayed by boys. [...] It worked only because the audience was fully imbued in the trope, and simply accepted it. I think of it as similar to the effect of intercutting in modern cinema: the world doesn't jump perspectives like that, but since you've been trained to accept that as the language of cinema, it doesn't give you even a moment's pause. It's not so much "suspension of disbelief" as genuine belief: that's the way this world works.

Which made me wonder: when did this stop being the norm? In Shakespeare's day, there were no women actors, and all the female characters were portrayed by men, but of course this is no longer the case today. When did women in plays start being portrayed by actual women? For that matter, was the change sudden (perhaps due to a change in law) or was there a more gradual shift?

If a fully multicultural and international answer to this would be too broad, then it's OK to restrict answers to English theatre, which has had (as far as I know) a continuous history between Shakespeare's time and the present day.


1 Answer 1


It started in the 1600s, and was a gradual process not a sudden one. By the Edwardian era, it was no surprise to the audience to see an actress on stage.

Up until the 1600s, women had very few rights, and there was no chance of a woman appearing on stage. Theater was popular during the early 1600s and in other places in Europe woman first appeared on stage during operas. This, however, angered the church, and the public wasn't too pleased either.

Women first appeared on stage in England during Charles I's reign (1625-1649), but the actors themselves were not English, they were French. Charles's Queen, Henrietta Maria, was a Frenchwoman and it was her influence that brought a French company, complete with actresses, to perform in London at the Blackfriars Theatre. The public were horrified, and the rising Puritans even more so.

An audience member called Thomas Brande wrote the following to the Bishop of London about the play:

Glad I am to saye that they [the actresses] were hissed, hooted, and pippin-pelted from the stage, so as I do not think they will soone be ready to trie the same againe.

The first introduction of actresses had been a failure. And as Oliver Cromwell abolished the crown and banned theater, there was no chance of actresses becoming normal.

However, during Charles II's banishment, he had seen French plays were it was already normal for actresses to be seen on stage. During the restoration of the crown, he wanted women to be allowed to appear on stage, but he had to do it in a way such that the puritans and public wouldn't be angry.

He granted a charter to the Drury Lane company. It stated all females be played by woman, not men. The document still exists today (trying to find image or transcript can't find). The reaction was mixed, but not entirely outraged. However, as the first women started appearing, the public began both accepting it and expecting it, and theater companies realised it brought in more audience members, so allowed character roles to be played by woman.

The first legal actress was Margaret Hughes, who became the first woman to perform on an English stage at the Vere Street theatre, on 8 December 1660. She played Desdemona in Shakespeare's Othello.

Soon after came the famous Nell Gwyn, an actress and the King's mistress.

Moving into the 1700s, and Victorian era, actresses were abundant and some famous enough to marry into nobility.


The story of woman's ascent to the stage

NCTheatre - Women in Theatre: A Historical Look

Theatre Database - Women on Stage

  • Very interesting answer, thank you. So the main thing causing the change was the return of Charles II from France with different ideas about actresses? Now I wonder if actresses were always a thing in France, or if female characters were at some point played by men there too ...
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 10:15
  • @Randal'Thor as far as I read they had actresses quite a while beforehand, but I didn't delve into it to deeply because you said just England in the question. I can expand a bit more if you want, just find out some facts like how much longer they had actresses? Commented May 29, 2017 at 11:16
  • It's OK if you don't - I can change the question title to "English theatre" and then maybe post a new question about French theatre.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 11:26
  • Moliere's colleague and lover Madeleine Bejart started her stage career in the 1630s. Scarron's "Roman comique", published in the 1650s, regards women on the stage as normal. Commented Jul 5 at 11:59

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