Women First Appear on the English Stage Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Since the Middle Ages, women were banned from the stage in England. That tradition was broken when women appeared in Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones’s court masque Chloridia. Indeed, Henrietta Maria, queen consort of England, performed in the masque as Chloris. England thus joined in the reintroduction of actresses into the theater that had been taking place across Europe throughout the seventeenth century.

Summary of Event

An English court masque was a special theatrical event usually produced at court for a holiday or some other festive occasion. Inigo Jones, Jones, Inigo who had studied in Italy, was a theatrical producer and visual designer who teamed with the playwright Ben Jonson Jonson, Ben to produce some thirty court masques between 1608 and 1631. It was in their final effort, Chloridia Chloridia (Jonson) (pr., pb. 1631), that a woman first appeared on the English stage in the role of Chloris. That woman was none other than Henrietta Maria Henrietta Maria , queen consort of England and the sister of King Louis XIII Louis XIII of France. According to the first edition’s title page, Chloris and her nymphs were “personated in a masque, at Court, by the Queenes Majesty and her ladies, at Shrove-Tide, 1630.” (Because the Julian year began on March 25 rather than January 1, Shrovetide, or February 14-16, 1630, in the Julian calendar took place February 24-26, 1631, according to the modern Gregorian calendar.) [kw]Women First Appear on the English Stage (Feb. 24, 1631) [kw]Stage, Women First Appear on the English (Feb. 24, 1631) [kw]English Stage, Women First Appear on the (Feb. 24, 1631) Theater;Feb. 24, 1631: Women First Appear on the English Stage[1140] Cultural and intellectual history;Feb. 24, 1631: Women First Appear on the English Stage[1140] England;Feb. 24, 1631: Women First Appear on the English Stage[1140] Theater;England Theater;women in Women;theater and

The first performance of Chloridia thus ended a centuries-long tradition of banning women from the stage under stricture from the Church. England thus joined other European countries, such as Italy, Spain, and France, that had allowed actresses in professional companies for many years. Indeed, throughout Europe in the seventeenth century, women were slowly becoming not only professional actresses but important leaders of major acting troupes as well. Despite the importance of Queen Henrietta Maria’s theatrical performance as a first step in this direction, however, the tradition of men performing in women’s roles would not change in England until after the Restoration in 1660.

It is difficult to say exactly when the first actresses appeared on the European continent, but women were prominent members of Italian commedia dell’arte companies as early as the latter half of the sixteenth century. One of the most important commedia actresses was Isabella Andreini, Andreini, Isabella who debuted on stage in 1577. Theater;Italy Andreini and her husband, Francesco Andreini, Andreini, Francesco jointly managed the famous Gelosi Company Gelosi Company , which toured throughout Italy and France. When Francesco died, Isabella took over as manager of the company until her death in 1604. She thus set the standard for actresses to measure up to in the seventeenth century.

In 1587, a license was issued by the Church in Spain making it legal for women to appear on stage. Many women took advantage of this new freedom, including Jusepa Vaca, Vaca, Jusepa the leading lady of the great Spanish playwright Lope de Vega Carpio Vega Carpio, Lope de , who is considered the “Spanish Shakespeare.” Perhaps the most famous actress of seventeenth century Spain Theater;Spain Spain;theater was Maria Calderon Calderon, Maria , known as La Calderona. Maria Calderon ultimately became mistress to the king and mother of the famous Don Juan of Austria Don Juan of Austria .

It was French actresses, however, who would have the most important influence on English theater, and there is some evidence that as early as 1629 women appeared in a French acting company that was touring England. Among the earliest of the French seventeenth century actresses was Marie Venier Venier, Marie (fl. 1590-1619), who was featured at the Hotel D’Argent Theater, but it was Armande Béjart, Béjart, Armande wife of the great actor-playwright Molière Molière , who would become the most influential of the French actresses. Theater;France Upon Molière’s death in 1673, Béjart became the virtual head of his acting company and remained in that position until the creation of the Comédie Française Comédie Française in 1680. Thereafter and for most of the rest of the century, Marie Champmeslé Champmeslé, Marie became the greatest star on the French stage.

During the Puritan Commonwealth in England, Prince Charles had taken refuge in France. When the Stuart monarchy was restored in 1660, the newly crowned King Charles II Charles II (king of England);theater and imported several French conventions, including allowing female theatrical performers. The innovation made in 1631 by the former Queen Henrietta Maria, herself a member of the French nobility, was almost immediately renewed and expanded. When William Davenant Davenant, William formed the first professional acting company of Restoration England, he hired Mary Saunderson as his leading actress, so that it is possible that the distinction of being the first professional English actress may fall to her. Davenant’s leading man was Thomas Betterton, Betterton, Thomas now thought to be the greatest actor of his day. Saunderson and Betterton soon married, and Mary Betterton Betterton, Mary played all the major roles opposite her husband, in addition to assuming the co-management of his theatrical troupe, the United Company United Company . She was most applauded for her Lady Macbeth to Betterton’s Macbeth.

Soon, Mary Betterton acquired several important rivals, the most renowned of whom was Elizabeth Barry Barry, Elizabeth . Considered among the greatest actresses of her day, Barry performed both serious roles, in plays such as John Dryden’s All for Love: Or, The World Well Lost (pr. 1677, pb. 1678), and roles in Restoration comedies by writers such as Aphra Behn, Behn, Aphra England’s first professional woman playwright. Barry also performed in so-called breeches roles, that is, male roles played by women performers, so that the actresses could reveal their legs. (Men’s breeches at the time typically ended at the knee and revealed the lower leg, while women’s legs were always hidden under long skirts.)

Two other actresses were known for breeches roles, Nell Gwyn Gwyn, Nell and Mrs. Anne Bracegirdle Bracegirdle, Mrs. Anne . Gwyn began her career selling oranges to theater audiences. When she finally obtained a breeches role in 1665 at the age of fifteen, she was immediately hailed for her beauty and comic timing. Before long, she became the mistress of King Charles II and bore him a son, who was created duke of St. Albans.

It was Bracegirdle, however, who was to become the most praised actress of her generation and who was to bring the seventeenth century to its close. She flourished as an actress from 1688 to 1707. Like her contemporaries, Bracegirdle played some breeches roles, but she was mainly known for her “good woman” creations, such as William Shakespeare’s Shakespeare, William Ophelia in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Shakespeare) (pr. c. 1600-1601) and Desdemona, in Othello, the Moor of Venice Othello, the Moor of Venice (Shakespeare) (pr. 1604, revised 1623). By the time Bracegirdle retired from the stage, at least one hundred women had acted professionally in England.


When Henrietta Maria decided to appear in a court masque, she broke a long-standing taboo in English society. In doing so, the queen consort most likely saw herself merely as following the precedent of female performers already prevalent in her home country of France. Her boldness, however, planted the seeds for the English ban on female performers to be shattered in the second half of the seventeenth century, as female performers instead of boys began to play women’s parts.

Indeed, in seventeenth century continental Europe, women not only performed on stage but also managed several of the major acting companies. When Charles II returned from exile in France, he followed Queen Henrietta Maria’s lead and insisted that women be allowed on stage. There followed in England a great blossoming of female theatrical talent, led by Mary Betterton. Although no actresses were performing in England in 1660, the next forty years saw almost one hundred actresses at work on the London stage, and, indeed, this wealth of female talent helped to establish the career of Aphra Behn, the first professional female playwright in England, and to open the door for women in other related professional pursuits.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brockett, Oscar G., and Franklin J. Hildy. History of the Theatre. 9th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2002. The standard reference on all aspects, periods, and regional traditions of theater history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duerr, Edwin. The Length and Depth of Acting. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1963. A thorough study of the history of European and American acting and actors until the mid-twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ficher-Lichte, Erika. History of European Drama and Theatre. New York: Routledge, 2002. A recent study of theater history emphasizing the art from ancient Greece to the present day on the European continent. The attention given to women in theater history is especially useful.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howe, Elizabeth. First English Actresses: Women and Drama, 1660-1700. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. This work gives special attention to social attitudes toward women in the Restoration and how the actresses made gains for women’s rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, John Harold. All the King’s Ladies: Actresses of the Restoration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. A thorough and well-documented study of English actresses from 1660 to 1700. Great attention is given to detail, and there is a separate discussion of the life and achievements of more than ninety actresses in a special appendix.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Aphra Behn; Thomas Betterton; Mrs. Anne Bracegirdle; Charles II (of England); John Dryden; Nell Gwyn; Inigo Jones; Ben Jonson; Louis XIII; Henrietta Maria; Philip IV. Theater;England Theater;women in Women;theater and

Categories: History