Who played the roles of Shakespeare’s female characters?

     There are quite a few soulful heroines in Shakespeare’s plays. Desdemona, Lady Macbeth, Juliet, Portia, Ophelia, Rosalind, Cordelia, and Gertrude are some of them. Who played these characters on stage?

     In reality, women were forbidden to perform in plays, as it was illegal for women to appear on stage. Therefore, there were no female actors in the Elizabethan theatre. In fact, women in general considered it beneath their dignity to act in plays. Neither did their guardians allow them to do so, as it was a matter of prestige and status. Shakespeare’s women characters were played by young boys who had not developed masculine features in their faces. Boys between 13 and 19 years of age were selected to play these roles because their voices were still high, and their muscles had not fully developed.

     The costumes for the female roles were very elaborate. There were many layers of clothing, and therefore, it would have taken considerable time, and the help of a dresser, to dress a boy actor in the costume of a female. The make-up used for these boy-artists was lead-based and, hence, was toxic. It was quite normal that such boys were very unhealthy. They had facial skin diseases and many died of lead poisoning! These boys were employed as apprentices; and therefore, were not paid well. In fact, they were the worst paid lot among the crew.

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