The First English Actresses

When Othello was performed on December 8, 1660, the audience saw something startling—a woman acting the role of Desdemona. Until then, including in Shakespeare’s time about half a century earlier, the roles on the professional stage in England were played by men, with young men or boys acting the female parts. Casting a woman was quite new.

In order to prepare the viewers and heighten their expectations, the King’s Company had poet Thomas Jordan compose a Prologue to the play, in which one of the actors says:

I come, unknown to any of the rest
To tell you news; I saw the Lady drest;
The Woman playes to day, mistake me not,
No Man in Gown, or Page in Petty-Coat;
A Woman to my knowledge . . .

About a month later, in January 1661, that man about town and theatergoer Samuel Pepys recorded “the first time that ever I saw Women come upon the stage,” in a play by Francis Beaumont, The Beggar’s Bush. By 1662 when newly revised royal patents were issued to William Davenant and Thomas Killigrew for professional theaters, the role of women on stage was made official:

Wee doe . . . permit and give leave That all the woemens part to be acted in either of the said two Companies for the time to come maie be performed by woemen, soe long as their Recreations . . . may by such Reformation be esteemed not onely harmless delight but usefull and instructive to Representations of humane life.

Women actors were there to stay, but what did that mean, and who were they?

Earlier Performances and the New Age

While women were new to the professional theater in 1660, they had, in fact, performed earlier in England in different circumstances. Women were involved in the religious and craft guilds that sponsored the medieval mystery plays and may have performed in them as well. It is well-known that court ladies, led by queens Anne and Henrietta Maria at the courts of James I and Charles I respectively, often performed in elaborate masques, and throughout the 17th century, women participated in household performances of plays.

At left: Anne of Denmark. Miniature, circa 1620? At right: Henrietta Maria, frontispiece. The exemplary lives and memorable acts. 1640. Folger Shakespeare Library.
At left: Anne of Denmark. Miniature, circa 1620? At right: Henrietta Maria. Frontispiece, The exemplary lives and memorable acts. 1640. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Public theaters, officially closed in 1642 under Cromwell, were revived after the restoration of Charles II in 1660. Charles and the royalists who had been living in exile in France were familiar with women performing on stage in Europe, so it made sense to allow them back home.

Troilus and Cressida playbill. Lincoln's Inn Fields, 1697. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Playbill, 1697. Folger Shakespeare Library.

This playbill, one of the earliest to survive, advertises a production in 1697 of Troilus and Cressida in Dryden’s adaptation. Although there is no cast list, we know that the play was performed at Lincoln’s Inn Theatre by Thomas Betterton’s company, which included 13 actresses.

As scholars have shown, the latter 17th century saw a revision in attitudes towards women’s sexuality and the relationship between the sexes, where both had their own individualism. While women now had agency as both actresses and playwrights, the female body was celebrated on stage, but it could also be exploited. As Fiona Ritchie has written of this era, “from the first entrance of the first woman on the public stage in England, the actress is set up as a sexual object to be viewed, enjoyed, and appropriated by the spectator.” (Ritchie’s essay and other further reading sources are listed below.)

The First Actresses in Shakespeare’s Plays

Who were these early actresses? The names of some of them are written into a copy of The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Folger. Although printed in 1630, the book was owned by someone in the late 17th century who added a cast list for a performance of the play which dates from that period. It shows Mistress Page played by Mrs. Cory [Corey], Mistress Quickly by Mrs. Barry, Mistress Ford by Mrs. Leigh, and Anne Page by Mrs. Brasgird [Bracegirdle].

Merry Wives of Windsor. 1630. Folger Shakespeare Library.
The Merry Wives of Windsor. 1630. Folger Shakespeare Library.

All of these women were members of Betterton’s company. Elizabeth Mitchell Corey (born in 1635?) had one of the longest careers of the earliest actresses, from 1660 to 1692. Mrs. Corey was primarily a comic actress—Pepys called her “Doll Common,” a character in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist that she played—and here she is appropriately cast as “Mrs. Page.” The other wife, “Mrs. Ford,” was played by Elinor Dixon Leigh, who flourished from 1670 to 1709. Both she and Corey were married to actors. In his memoir of the contemporary stage, the actor/writer Colley Cibber remembered that Leigh “had a good deal of Humour, and knew how to infuse it into the affected Mothers, Aunts, and modest stale Maids that had miss’d their Market.” Her roles included Emilia in Othello and Lady Wishfort in Congreve’s The Way of the World. Both women were well cast as the two matronly “merry wives.”

The humorous housekeeper, Mistress Quickly, was played by one of the greatest actresses of the period, Elizabeth Barry (?1658–1713).

Elizth. Barry, from an original picture by Sr. Godfrey Kneller. Print, 1792. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Elizabeth Barry. From an original picture by Godfrey Kneller. Print, 1792. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Because Barry excelled in heroic roles such as Dryden’s Cleopatra and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Mistress Quickly seems a little out of her usual range. She helped one of the first female playwrights, Delarivier Manley, make a success of her play The Royal Mischief. Manley wrote: “my Obligations to her were the greater, since against her own approbation, she excell’d and made the part of an ill Woman, not only entertaining, but admirable.” Mrs. Barry was one of the highest paid actresses and she was the first to have an annual benefit granted under James II.

Another great actress, Anne Bracegirdle (circa 1663–1748) played the ingenue role of Anne Page. She was the youngest of these four actresses, and Cibber describes her as being a favorite with audiences. Though many had crushes on her because of her “Youth and lively Aspect,” Cibber writes that she maintained discretion and did not succumb to flattery. Her many roles included Desdemona in Othello and Ophelia in Hamlet, but she was especially charming in comedy. In addition, she performed Semernia, an Indian queen, in Aphra Behn’s play The Widow Ranter, set in the new colony of Virginia.

Anne Bracegirdle as Semernia. William Vincent, The Indian Queen. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Anne Bracegirdle as Semernia. William Vincent, The Indian Queen. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Together, these actresses and many other women were pioneers in shaping the female roles of playwrights such as Shakespeare, Dryden, Congreve, Behn, and Manley for the English stage.


 

Nell Gwyn. Print, by R. Tomson after Peter Lely, from Cunningham, The story of Nell Gwyn. 1883. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Nell Gwyn. Print, by R. Tomson after Peter Lely, from Peter Cunningham, The story of Nell Gwyn. 1883. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Nell Gwyn, who was also the mistress of Charles II, was an early English actress, too. Although not known for performing Shakespearean roles, she enjoyed attending his plays and saw The Tempest four times within four months in 1674. Join us for the play Nell Gwynn at the Folger to learn more about her story and this fascinating period of English theater.

Sources and Further Reading

Beauclerk, Charles. Nell Gwyn. London: Pan Books/Macmillan, 2005.

Bush-Bailey, Gilli. Treading the Bawds: Actresses and Playwrights on the late-Stuart Stage. Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 2006.

Highfill, Philip, et al. Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses . . . in London, 1660–1800, 16 vols. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973-1993.

Howe, Elizabeth. The First English Actresses. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Marsden, Jean I. Fatal Desire: Women, Sexuality, and the English Stage, 1660–1720. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Ritchie, Fiona, “Shakespeare and the Eighteenth-Century Actress,” Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation, 2 (2006).

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