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How Did Boy Actors Portray Juliet?

――An attempt to reconstruct lost performances――

Asuka Kimura
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Early Modern British Theater

William Shakespeare was active in the 16th and 17th centuries, and is one of Britain's leading playwrights. Even today, more than four centuries later, his plays are still performed in countries around the world, including Japan. However, how were these works performed in the theaters of London in Shakespeare's time? What was the scale and capacity of theaters, and what kind of costumes and props colored the stage? What kind of dialogue and gestures did the actors use to convey the emotions of the characters to the audience and live in the world of fiction? Of course, there was no recording technology at that time, so there is no audiovisual material that directly answers these questions. Even so, by carefully reading the dramas and collecting scattered historical documents, we begin to see an emerging image of lost performances from the past.

Ever since the former site of the Rose Theatre was fortuitously excavated in 1989, a large amount of research has been performed with the aim of three-dimensional reconstruction of performances from that time. 1997 marked the rebuilding of the Globe Theatre, an outdoor theater where the majority of Shakespeare's plays were performed, including Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. Also, in 2014, an indoor theater was built that replicated the Blackfriars Theatre, which was used by Shakespeare's company in later years. All of these three theaters are located on the southern bank of the River Thames, which was the theater district at that time. In addition to offering an enjoyable theater experience that creates the feeling of traveling back in time by 400 years, these theaters are also an experimental site for imagining performances at that time, and the theaters are actively involved in academic research and performance practice.[1]

I am particularly interested in boy actors. Actresses first appeared on the English stage after the Restoration in 1660. Until then, boy actors had played all female roles. The term 'boy' gives an impression of young children up to junior high school, and in fact, these actors were long thought to be pre-pubescent boys, whose voices were still unchanged. However, in the 2000s, this long-held assumption was reviewed. As a result of steady research to determine the careers of boy actors from the parish records that correspond to the family register used in Japan, their age group varied widely from 12 to 22 years old, with the median age around 16 to 17 years old. This age is much older than the original assumption.[2]

Today in Japan, 22 years of age corresponds to university students in their senior year. It seems strange to refer to such a person as a boy. This is related to the unique definition of a boy at that time. In 16th- and 17th-century England, the majority of male citizens between the ages of 14 and 21 were registered as apprentices in a trade union (guild). These men lived in their master's residence and workplace for at least seven years. Since these men did not receive a salary, they were financially dependent on their masters. Furthermore, the bodies and labor of apprentices were considered to be the property of the master, so sexual intercourse and marriage were also prohibited. This can be compared to a child living under the watch of a strict parent. Consequently, regardless of their age, until completing their indentured servitude and becoming financially independent, such persons were considered 'boys' who had yet to become 'men'. Although there was no guild for actors, theater companies also hired boy actors using the same apprenticeship system. The boy actor signed an indentured servitude contract with an adult actor, received acting guidance while staying at his master's residence, and gained stage experience as a female actor. After completing his period of indentured servitude, the boy actor became an adult actor and made his debut as a male actor.[3]

How can these recent findings about boy actors change the way we read the related work? For example, let's examine the famous love tragedy Romeo and Juliet. In this story, a man and a woman born to two opposing families fall in love and even get married without telling their parents, but both of them commit suicide due to an unfortunate series of events. First, let us consider how the physique of a boy actor would have affected the stage performance. In the play, Juliet is introduced two weeks and a few days shy of her 14th birthday. We can imagine how the impression of Juliet would have changed dramatically depending on whether she was portrayed by a 12-year-old small boy actor whose voice had yet to change, or by a 22-year-old actor whose voice had changed and who had grown tall. If a young-looking 12-year-old actor played Juliet, there should have been an emphasis on the recklessness of youth, with Juliet falling head over heels for Romeo as her first love, to the point where she follows him in death by committing suicide with a dagger. Conversely, if played by a 22-year-old actor with a mature body, there should have been an emphasis on the precociousness and autonomy of Juliet, whose assertion of sexual desire was against the patriarchal norm of female chastity. Specifically, the actor should have boldly portrayed Juliet's sexual passion and her decision to maintain her love for her husband Romeo, even to the point of deceiving her parents. Unfortunately, it is not possible to identify the boy actor who played Juliet. Nevertheless, cast-lists are available for many works by playwrights other than Shakespeare, so it is possible to have more specific discussions.

The relationship with the adult actor playing Romeo may also have been important. When Romeo and Juliet premiered around 1595, Romeo was portrayed by Richard Burbage, England's best-known actor who was around 27 years old at the time.[4] Although Shakespeare does not mention Romeo's age, the Italian story which is the source of the play states his age as around 20 to 21 years old, so it can be said that Burbage was slightly older than the character set in the story.[5] We can surmise that as the age of the boy actor portraying Juliet became younger, there would have been a greater age difference and physical disparity with Burbage. In this light, it is interesting that Shakespeare endows Juliet, not Romeo, with masculine characteristics. According to the dominant gender ideology at that time, men were associated with strength, courage, reason, and independence, while women were associated with weakness, timidity, instinct (or emotion), and dependence. However, Romeo and Juliet reverses this traditional gender hierarchy. Romeo's actions are often impulsive and irrational, and he cannot take the appropriate action without guidance from his mentor Friar Lawrence. Even after accidentally killing Juliet's cousin Tybalt, Romeo was unable to take responsibility for his actions and simply shed tears while wishing for death. Conversely, although Juliet also sometimes acts abruptly, she takes action after careful examination for the entire situation. Juliet determines her own correct behavior without consulting with a mentor and often acts bravely. It is especially important that Shakespeare has Juliet engage in a great deal of monologues, which are lines that a character delivers directly to the audience while standing alone on the stage. Monologues are a characteristic of the tragic (male) protagonists such as Hamlet in Shakespeare's plays (incidentally, Burbage also played Hamlet). In his role as Romeo, Burbage--an adult actor and a fully-grown man--shed tears that were a testament to the perceived weakness of women and portrayed a character without a defining moment. Conversely, a boy actor who was considered as being similar to a woman and less than a man gained a form of heroism by boldly engaging in monologues on the stage of the theater full of spectators.

Finally, the climax of the play culminates in the suicide of Juliet rather than Romeo. Furthermore, the lines spoken by the Prince of Verona at the closing of the curtain are also suggestive--'For never was a story of more woe/Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.'[6] It is remarkable how the story originally titled Romeo and Juliet is now shifted to the story 'of Juliet and her Romeo.' By assigning a more important role to the female character and the boy actor portraying Juliet, it seems that Shakespeare sought to overturn the traditional hierarchical relationship between a man and a woman, and a master and an apprentice.

[1] Listing the websites of each theater.
The Rose Playhouse <>; Shakespeare's Globe <>; Sam Wanamaker Playhouse <> [accessed 25 January 2022].
[2] David Kathman, 'How Old Were Shakespeare's Boy Actors?', Shakespeare Survey, 58 (2005), 220-46.
[3] John H. Astington, Actors and Acting in Shakespeare's Time: The Art of Stage Playing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 77-79; David Kathman, 'Grocers, Goldsmiths, and Drapers: Freemen and Apprentices in the Elizabethan Theater', Shakespeare Quarterly, 55.1 (2004), 1-49.
[4] Mary Edmond, 'Burbage [Burbadge], Richard (1568-1619), actor', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography <> [accessed 26 January 2022].
[5] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, ed. by René Weis (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), p. 120.
[6] Ibid., V.iii.309-10.

Asuka Kimura/Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Early Modern British Theater

Asuka Kimura was born in 1986. She graduated from the Faculty of Letters, The University of Tokyo in 2008.
In 2011, she completed the Master’s Program in the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, The University of Tokyo. She holds a master’s degree in literature.
In 2016, she completed the Doctoral Program in University College London (UCL). She holds a PhD in English language and literature.
After working as Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Letters of The University of Tokyo, she has been in his current position since 2019.

She specializes in early modern British theater. Her interests include the material conditions of the theater at that time (costumes, props, gestures, the physiques of actors, theater structure, etc.). She is currently focusing on boy actors and researching the characteristics of individual actors, relationships among actors, and the influence of non-normative gender of boy actors on performances and audience reception.

She plans on publishing the written work entitled Performing Widowhood on the Early Modern English Stage.