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The first English actresses: women and drama

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In this essay I am going to talk about why Elizabeth Howe claims in, The First English Actresses: Women and drama 1660“ 1700, that the first English actresses were used as sexual objects and what she means through her chapter where she explores the different ways why ?in which the sexuality of the actress was exploited by dramatists who wrote for her’.

During the 18th century, women’s roles in life were mainly domestic and in theatre, female characters were ?assigned to boys dependent on an inferior to the adult male’. For women, ?their place was in the home, even if the home belonged to someone else’. Only 100,000 out of 900,000 of women would work in some farms and factories and it wasn’t until the 1600s, just after the Restoration of King Charles II where ?Charles II issued a royal warrant that only women should play women’s roles’ as he believed that men cross-dressing as women was immoral. Women may have occasionally performed in mystery plays for public entertainments as early as the fifteenth century however no women were employed in the commercial theatre for anything before the Restoration. ?The exact date of the actress’s debut is not known, but is usually assumed to be 8 December 1660, when it is known that a woman played Desdemona in a production of Othello by Thomas Killigrew’s King’s Company’. Killigrew’s company patent allowed women to appear on stage to show, ?harmless and instructive representations of human life’ and the first English actresses came from different backgrounds as the profession requested the ability for women to read, memorize lines, sing and dance.

The Actress and her body

Towards the beginning of her chapter, Howe says how she is not surprised that the first role played by a female in tragedy was the character of Desdemona. She describes how the character of Desdemona ?is a part well suited to an alluring emphasis on an actress’s femininity: she is gentle, passive and vulnerable, she is suspected of being a whore and she is ultimately the victim of horrific bedroom violence’. What Howe means when she says this is that at the time, audiences became aroused, curious and eager to see women perform with the sensuality they brought on stage. This is because the objectification of women as sexual possessions inspired the evolution during the time of the writing of plays to make female actors seen as sexual props on stage instead of them being seen as equal to their male peers. Howe then explains how ?Actresses were frequently required to do no more than pose, like pictures or statues, to be gazed upon and desired by male characters in the play and, presumably, by male spectators’ and then gives an example of ?couch scenes’ which were seen in plays throughout the period. She explains that ?female characters were directed to lie at a distance, asleep on a couch, bed or grassy bank where, attractively defenseless and probably enticingly dishabille, their beauty unwittingly aroused burning passion in the hero or villain who stumbled upon it’. The reason for Howe explaining this is because it was a common motif that arose from the introduction of women on stage to use ?couch scenes’ where an attractive actress was placed sleeping at the center of the stage on a bed or couch in a state where the actress was partially undressed. According to Fraser, ?a young woman was sometimes obliged to sacrifice her virtue in order to obtain a coveted place in the theatre’. This leads to the idea of rape which was usually seen often from ?couch scenes’. Furthermore, the ?male culture made women’s bodies into objects of male desire, converting them into sites of beauty and sexuality for men to gaze upon’. Because couch scenes involved partially undressed women being discovered by the male lead, the first women on the professional English stage were also exploited through breeches roles and rapes scenes as well as the couch scene.


Howe states how ?the most striking manifestation of sexual exploitation in tragedy is its portrayal of rape’. This is because rape scenes were an excuse to remove women’s clothing as Howe mentions ?Rape rapidly proved a most effective means of exposing naked female flesh’. During the late seventeenth century, female characters were exploited in order to satisfy the audience. According to Case, ?women appear as an exploited class within an exploited class’; rape became more explicit as it became more expected. Anne Bracegirdle was an English actress who ?specialized in being raped on stage’. The commonness of rape objectifies women as sexual objects.


Prostitution was common particularly in London as if you were sacked without reference then your options would be limited. There were hardly any employment rights for women. ?An employer could dismiss a servant for the slightest cause: rudeness, dishonesty, suspected theft or even inconvenience’. According to White, ?it is probably safe to assume that prostitution was a large source of income for young women in London’. This is because when female actors first appeared on stage, they were badly paid. ?A young actress would receive 10s to 15s a week and would be expected to work for nothing at the beginning of her career’ (Fraser, 2002, p. 518). Certain actresses gathered praise for their talents and the most famous of these actresses was Nell Gwyn. When theatres closed, there were no places for Gwyn’s talents enabling her to fall to prostitution. The idea of prostitution and being a whore is earlier mentioned towards the beginning of the chapter where Howe mentions a quote by Harold Weber saying, ?In practical terms the freedom women gained to play themselves on stage was to a large extent the freedom to play the whore’. The reason why Howe used this quote is because of actresses like Nell Gwyn.

Breeches Roles

Between 1660 and 1700, a quarter of the plays staged within that time included women playing breeches roles. ?It has been calculated that some 375 plays produced on the public stage in London including alterations of pre-Restoration plays, eighty-nine¦ contained one or more roles for actresses in male clothes’. According to Howe, ?Breeches roles proved enormously popular with the audiences’. Howe says this because female actresses playing male characters made the audience very erotic to see female bodies through the tight male costumes. Howe talks about this and how it is an easy way to entertain the audience through the state of undress ?common to both tragedy and comedy. A state of dress could be equally erotic¦ there was no question of the actress truly impersonating a man’. Howe then says, ?the revelation of a disguised woman’s true sex offered a useful opportunity to show off more of an actress’s physique’. This gave an ironic spin to the entrance of women. Instead of being a good development, it served only to objectify the gender. Nell Gwyn usually played breeches roles parading around the stage showing off her legs. According to Kemp, ?breeches parts disrupt gender hierarchies by allowing women to act in masculine ways’ however, Dusinberre emphasizes how ?there is no doubt that dressing as a boy increasingly emphasized womanhood to an audience only too glad to see a decent pair of legs’. Even among this exploitive sexuality, certain actresses like Gwyn during the time gathered praise regardless of the social limitations. Also, through the male freedom, actresses typically did not lose their appeal as they had more of the freedom to explore their acting abilities.

Comic Objects of Desire

Sex comedies started to boom around the late 1670s and early 1680s, and bedroom scenes involved ?adulterous wives in a provocative state of semi-nudity abounded’. Howe then also goes on to explain how ?The drama’s exploitation of the actresses’ sexuality played an important part in determining the nature of comedy between 1660 and 1700’.

Aphra Behn was the first prolific, talented and popular woman to make her living for writing for the stage in English theatre history; ?in the season of 1681-82, when the demand for comedies revived after a lull caused by a prolonged political crisis, half of the eight new comedies were by her’. Aphra Behn adapted existing plays to include erotic language illustrating the undressing of women. ‘Although her plays often assert the rights of women in a patriarchal society, Aphra Behn had no qualms about exploiting her sex in this way and seems to have been especially fond of inserting bedroom scenes and characters in an ?undress’ into earlier dramas’. What Howe means by this is that Behn humourized prostitutes, older women and widows questioning the treatment of women through her plays as women are vulnerable to their sexual mistreatments. Despite Behn’s success, many may not have been as happy by her lack of femininity.


While actresses like Nell Gwyn may have been one of the many well-known to be sexualised, she was also among the first talented.

In conclusion, the reason why Elizabeth Howe does not challenge the attitudes is because within the Restoration time the idea of women being sexualized and having the first English actresses playing sexual objects on stage seemed to be the most popular and exciting aspect making writers like Aphra Behn a favorite of the time.

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