Boys Playing Women in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida
Chealsea Anagnoson
Class of 2011

Theatre during the Renaissance was very much defined and constricted by the culture of the age. Directors were forced to comply with somewhat radical values and even their casting of roles was affected. Female actors did not appear on stage until the mid 1600’s because acting was not deemed a credible profession. (“Globe Theatre Female Roles”) Therefore teenaged boys played female characters; it is strange to think that Shakespeare’s complex female roles were first played by high-voiced boys. Troilus and Cressida is no exception, the roles of Andromache, Cressida, Cassandra and the legendary beauty Helen would have been played by male actors in the Renaissance.
While there are only four female roles in the tragedy, Shakespeare has a knack for developing complex, demanding characters with no exclusion of these ladies. Troilus and Cressida is set during the Trojan War, a war over a woman. While most of the action of this tragedy involves the men, the play is essentially focused around and driven by the women. A man’s love for a single woman is the cause of the war and the title male focuses his attention on pursuing and securing the title female as his wife while her father pulls her from him. The action of the play would not progress without the women.
Each of the women in this tragedy is a powerful woman; not only because of their status but also because of the influence they hold over the men. Each role, however brief requires a feminine dominance. The women exert power over the men without the men truly realizing just how much they are truly influenced by the women. These complexities would be challenging for any experienced actress to successfully convey, never mind a young actor of the opposite gender.
Themes of masculinity and femininity are prevalent throughout Troilus and Cressida. The men are constantly attempting to display their masculinity or endeavor to find it while the women seem to flaunt their femininity. (Gupton, 673) This further adds to the challenge of depicting believable female characters using an entirely male cast. How would a teenaged boy accurately portray a flaunting female?
It, of course with females not being allowed by law on stage, was common practice and widely accepted for boys to play the female roles necessary within the play. However, though common and accepted this practice was not always viewed as moral. Transvestitism and eroticism are some of the subjections forced upon the masquerading boys. (Jardine, 57) It is no wonder that many during this time looked the theatre upon as inappropriate and immoral. That being said, it was not uncommon for Shakespeare to cross boundaries through his plays. Shakespeare commonly addresses the questions of gender and sexuality; it is only safe to assume that he used the boy playing a female role in his exploration and experimentation with the topic. (Detmer-Goebel, 172) With masculinity and femininity as a recurring theme throughout the play, Troilus and Cressida also explores the topics of gender and sexuality also.
This exploration ultimately gave way to the metaphor of the Renaissance theatre as prostitution. “Troilus and Cressida presents, in perhaps as grotesque and unrelenting fashion as possible, the base nature of representation. In Troilus many of the elements of the theater-as-prostitution metaphor--the seductive, feminine power of the visual, the corruptive influence of association, the oppression of social ostracism, the impossible escape to honorific success--coalesce into a bitter recognition of the promiscuity of spectacle and speculation. Elsewhere in Shakespeare the world is a stage; in Troilus, however, it is a brothel. And there seems to be no difference between the two.” (Lenz) This sentiment leaves us with the idea that boys playing women’s roles also adds to the spectacle, and in a way it does. However, in a way it also allows the Renaissance audience heed the statements of the female characters. When taken out of context, many of the soliloquies and monologues present in Troilus and Cressida are profound philosophical statements. Even though the characters are perceived as female, the audience knows a male is playing the part and can therefore take the words being said seriously. This is relatively important to take into consideration “because traditionally, a male character is more likely to possess the power of philosophical reasoning than a female one.” (Nair, 44)
Shakespeare continues to push boundaries in this aspect. While the female characters flaunt their femininity, he also allows them to display some masculinity with their intelligence. They speak their minds, rally and provide insight into gender roles.

“Hard seem won; but I was won, my lord,
With the first glance that ever—pardon me;
If I confess much, you will play the tyrant.
I love you now, but till now not so much
But I might master it. In faith, I lie;
My thoughts were like unbridled children, grown
Too headstrong for their mother. See we fools!
Why have I blabbed? Who shall be true to us,
When we are so unsecret to ourselves?
But, though I loved you well, I wooed you not;
And yet, good faith, I wished myself a man,
or that we women had men’s privilege
Of speaking first. Sweet bid me hold my tongue,
For in this rapture I shall surely speak
Te thing I shall Repent. See, see your silence,
Cunning in dumbness, from my weakness draws
My very soul of counsel! Stop my mouth.”

Cressida not only speaks of her love for Troilus but also of the constraints of her gender in IIIii (116-132). Shakespeare toys with another female character wishing to become a man as he has done in other plays so that the female character can overcome the social boundaries. When the fact that this role would have been played by a male is taken into consideration the words seem to have more weight.
Male actors taking on the female roles struggled to over come the same types of bias. Actors were paid less for female roles than for male roles- regardless of line numbers. (Globe Theatre Female Roles) This then provides an answer to how they may have helped their character development. Struggling against gender bias allowed them to relate to the character in a fashion providing the male actor with first-hand insight into one aspect of the female life. Much like Cressida is forced to consent to Diomede’s favor therefore betraying Troilus, a male actor was forced to consent to less pay for a female part. This “forced consent” is a form of self-protection or preservation that is very likely completely necessary. (Heller, 440)
The male actor playing the female role may have added to the spectacle of Troilus and Cressida and cause some to question the moral validity of theatre during the Renaissance time period, but the players also strengthened the roles. Shakespeare consistently pushed boundaries regarding gender and social roles throughout his plays. Troilus and Cressida was no exception. Keeping male players for female roles in mind, Shakespeare strengthened the message behind the words of the play and masquerade by providing social commentary that was doubly enforced. Women in the Renaissance were often not taken seriously because of their gender while the actors who played female roles also struggled to be taken seriously.             The implications of males playing women in Troilus and Cressida are many. Boundaries are pushed, messages are clear and the play is strengthened. Shakespeare used his players as a means for social commentary- more than one male has said that he wished he were a man during multiple plays.

Works Cited

Detmer-Goebel, Emily. “Crossing Boundaries in Shakespeare”. English Studies in
Canada. 33:3 September 2007. 171-183

“Globe Theatre Female Roles”. 20 July 2005. 16 November 2010

Gupton, Janet L. “Women’s Worlds in Shakespeare’s Plays, and: Gender and
Performance in Shakespeare’s Problem Comedies”. Theatre Journal. 53:4  December 2001. 672-674

Heller, Jennifer Louise. “Space, Mind and Body in Middleton and Cary”. Studies in
English Literature 1500-1900. 45:2 Spring 2005. 425-441

Jardine, Lisa. Boy Actors, Female Roles and Elizabethan Eroticism. New York: Routledg

Lenz, Joseph. “Base Trade: Theatre as Prostitution”. English Literacy History. 60:4 1993.

Nair, Shashi. “‘O brotel wele of mannes joie unstable!’: Gender and Philosophy in
Troilus and Criseyde”. Paregon. 23:2 2006. 35-56

Shakespeare, William. Troilus and Cressida.