(Vanessa Thorpe’s article appeared in the Observer, 4/9.)  

Great Elizabethan and Georgian stage stars, such as Will Kempe, Richard Burbage and David Garrick, may not be household names today, but their reputations live on in the theatre. What, though, of the actresses who appeared in the same companies? Their names, as well as their reputations, have mostly been forgotten.

Shakespeare’s female roles were played by boys or young men until 1660, but new research by the British Library has uncovered details of the careers of the few, ground-breaking women who began to take on major Shakespearean characters in the face of the prejudice of their times.

Regarded as prostitutes or, at best, titillating diversions, these six or seven prominent actresses had to carve out places inside previously all-male companies. They also had to deal with wealthy male theatre-goers paying a little extra each night to watch them dress in the wings.


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