Regarding the social position of women, the 21st Century is a very long way from Elizabethan England. Whereas there are now few things in the way of any woman in Western society who wants to achieve anything she wishes, in Elizabethan England women were raised to be submissive to men and did not have choices. They could be whipped when they disobeyed: disobedience was regarded as a crime against religion. Women could not enter any of the professions or trades. Girls could not be apprentices. They could not attend schools or universities: their education consisted of learning the skills required for running their marital homes, and bearing and raising children. This they did by learning from their mothers and grandmothers. Teaching a girl to read and write was unacceptable, although noble families sometimes educated their daughters with tutors. And, as we know, Queen Elizabeth was a highly educated woman.
Scholars are divided as to whether there was an actual law against women appearing on the stages of the London theatres but it was certainly unthinkable. There is evidence that there were women in the acting groups in the provinces but never in London. Actors were considered to be the lowest form of human existence, often associated with crime, immoral behaviour and violence, and it was considered unthinkable that women should come out of their homes and associate with them.
Elizabethan and Jacobean plays are substantially populated with female characters, some now immortal, like Cleopatra, Juliet, Portia, Rosalind, Desdamona in Shakespeare; The Duchess of Malfi in Webster; Beatrice Joanna in Middleton etc. The list goes on. Those characters were all played by boys, mainly by boys whose voices had not yet broken, although there were exceptions and older men, if feminine enough, took female roles.
Shakespeare sometimes wrote a small postmodern comment in his dialogue, for example in Antony and Cleopatra. Antony is now dead and as Octavius Caesar approaches Cleopatra, fearing that there will be plays written about their love affair and their life in Alexandria, decides to commit suicide. She says: “The quick comedians/Extemporally will stage us, and present/Our Alexandrian revels. Antony/Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see/Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness/In the posture of a whore.”
And indeed, the ultra feminine Juliet, Rosalind and Viola, and all the other female characters were ‘boyed’ by child and teenage actors squeaking their way through their great lines. In our times the demands on our imaginations are not as great as the demands on an Elizabethan audience’s. In modern productions we usually have female actors, appropriate costumes, creative lighting, painted sets etc. The Elizabethans had actors dressed in their Sunday best on a bare stage, with boys playing the females. They found it easier to suspend their disbelief than we do.
In several of his plays where a central character is a female Shakespeare uses a device to relieve the pressure, both for the actor and the audience, and in those plays the plot is strongly woven around that device. He introduces a female character at the beginning of a play then, for some reason, has her disguised as a man for the rest of the play until, in the final scene, she reveals herself as a woman. In those cases the male playing the role is able to present himself as a male and be convincing as a male. We see that in Twelfth Night, with Viola, for example, and Rosalind in As You Like It. In the modern theatre we are always aware by body language, voice, gestures, and so on, that we are watching a woman disguised as a man. The Elizabethan audience, watching the male actors in those roles, could forget that and not be distracted by the falseness of it.
However, the division between the genders was not as rigid as it is today. Everyone is on a scale between male and female, with some males being quite ‘feminine’ and some females being quite ‘masculine’, and we live in an era where one can change one’s birth gender. Moreover, some people are both male and female and if they display that in the way they live their lives they can be considered freaks. In Elizabethan times gender was more fluid. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries homosexuality was a taboo and illegal in most countries, and still is in some. The twenty-first century is much more in line with Elizabethan society on that issue in that it isn’t – as it wasn’t in Elizabethan society – shameful to be openly in love with someone of one’s own gender, at least in most Western countries. In fact, the twenty-first century has consolidated that in the introduction of same sex marriage in a number of countries.
In Twelfth Night, the Duke Orsino sends Viola, whom he thinks is the young man, Cesario, to woo Olivia on his behalf. In the process he falls in love with Cesario, and some of the best lines in the play are an expression of that. When she is revealed as a woman in the last scene it makes no difference to him whether she is a man or a woman. That is not an issue and it is an excellent illustration of the Elizabethan gender attitude.
Whether women were discriminated against or not – and they were – in Elizabethan society, or, indeed, any society, the emotional and biological instinct in human beings doesn’t change in harmony with the social attitudes of the time or place. Whether people are imprisoned, executed or thrown off buildings for bending their gender, those emotions and sexual preferences cannot be changed. In Elizabethan times it just went on without any comment or regulation and in twenty-first century Western society, after centuries of taboo, laws have had to be introduced to allow it to take its natural course.