Assuming Gender in Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida: ‘Are we to assume that there were women in the audience?’

Johann Gregory and Alice Leonard
In Volume 1, Issue 2
Autumn 2010

Abstract

Hamlet was first performed at the Globe around 1600. According to Andrew Gurr, apple-wives, citizen-wives, fishwives, ladies and whores were known to attend commercial theatres. But on stage there remained only male actors, so that the female gender had to be assumed by boy actors for parts such as Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. At this level of performance, gender can be assumed, constructed, and exchanged. Troilus and Cressida (c. 1601-2) was probably performed at the Inns of Court, where a very different audience of law students and barristers gathered. In Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida, the women take on the roles of both actor and audience, as the women view the men onstage and each other, while being watched by the offstage audience. The female characters’ watchfulness, however, is performed by male actors, while at the Inns of Court it has often been assumed that women were not invited. This essay tackles the significance of boy-actors assuming a female gender by considering women as audience within the fiction of the plays and even some figures who cross gender boundaries while stepping onto the stage or out of the play. Part one shifts from possible theatre audiences in London to fictional audiences within Hamlet; part two moves from considering Cressida as an audience figure to briefly examine the possibility of women being present at an Inns of Court performance.

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