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The Emergence of Women on Stage in Restoration Drama

(NOT for evaluation)

It is commonly known that up until the Restoration period, 1660-1700, women were not allowed on the theatre stage – instead men, or young boys, would take on the roles of women in the likes of Shakespeare’s plays. A woman acting would be seen as a great sin, on the same level as prostitution. Yet when Charles II was crowned King of England, Scotland, and Ireland the theatre changed forever. Before his reign, theatre had been banned but Charles II opened up the playhouses again after 18 years of no plays (González and Martínez-García, 2014, p.99).  Two years after he was made king, Charles ‘issued a royal warrant in 1662 stating that henceforth “women rather than boy actors were to play all female roles.”’ (HistorianRuby, 2018). This was important because it marked a change in British theatre; not only were women beginning to take to the stage, but the king himself had decreed that they had every right to. Until this stage, it had been thought that women ‘did not need their natural vanity to be flattered by being admired and revered as goddesses on stage’ and ‘that women who were allowed outdoors, unchaperoned, would soon have less than reputable relations with men’ (González and Martínez-García, 2014, p.99). This meant that the patriarchal society had prevented women from acting since it had deemed it improper, suggesting that women would think too highly of themselves if allowed to act and that they would be much more likely to engage in improper behaviour. In Charles’s exile however, he had discovered that women abroad were able to act on stage (ibid) and so he introduced the idea to Britain. It is commonly thought that the first actress to perform on stage at this time was a woman playing Desdemona in Othello in December of 1660 (Howe, 1992, p.19). The king’s acceptance and enthusiasm did not stop these actresses from being exploited and shamed, however. Howe (1992, p.32) argues that ‘no ‘respectable’ woman became an actress. Society assumed that a woman who displayed herself on the public stage was probably a whore’. The long running association between actresses and prostitution did not stop when it became more acceptable for women to perform. They were constantly subjected to gossip and hate, with González and Martínez-García (2014, p.100) arguing that ‘many were the voices that raged against them, denouncing them as unnatural women who did not fit the female ideal of either deployment’ and these actresses were regarded as much lower than their male counterparts, receiving a lesser pay and being shunned by society (HistorianRuby, 2018). Without these brave women however, theatre would not be what it is today – they were pivotal in carving a path for the actresses who followed them and vital in creating more opportunities for different genders and identities to be represented on stage.


González, R.S. and Martínez-García, L. (2014) ‘How to Represent Female Identity on the Restoration Stage: Actresses (self) Fashioning’, International Studies, 16(1) pp. 97-110

HistorianRuby (2018) History of Early Actresses. Available at: [Accessed 23/11/22]

Howe, E. (1992) The First English Actresses: Women and Drama, 1660-1700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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