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The Bardic Tradition's Effect on Elizabethan Casting

by Cynthia Joyce Clay


Elizabethan stages were barren of women players, and yet across the Channel women commonly performed. Why boys and not women first created the great female roles of Shakespeare is an enigma which has not been fully answered. This theatrical convention of the English Renaissance has been dismissed as unremarkable, or it has been discussed as a homoerotic attraction and as a symptom of a society with a single sex gender system (Howard, 1988). As useful as these latter perspectives may be, they still do not answer why poet and actress Isabella Andreini (1562-1604) could perform at the royal courts of Ferdinando I and Henri IV but not at the royal court of Elizabeth I. How the Elizabethan convention of all male casts came into being, and why it was peculiar to England needs attention. A comparison of the historical roots of English and European secular theater yields a possible solution.

In both places secular theater arose in part from the religious plays supported by the Church--the Mystery, Miracle, and Morality plays. However, English secular theater, unlike European, also arose in part from the universities. Contemporaries of Shakespeare, playwrights Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, John Lyly, and Robert Green, all held degrees from either Oxford or Cambridge. Much of the training for their degrees consisted of studying Greek and Latin plays which were memorized and even performed. After their formal studies, these men made use of their educations by writing plays after the Classical fashion--plays which were professionally performed on English stages.

Although the Classics were the educational fare of the universities of England, the universities themselves were, in part, outcroppings of the ancient and revered Bardic oral tradition of the British Isles (Scherman, 1981, p. 244-248). Indeed, some of the earliest halls of learning at Oxford "specialized in Welsh or Irish tenants" (Brook and Hifield, 1988, p. 59), and just as students flocked to a famed teacher in the Bardic tradition, so other first halls of learning at Oxford were centered on particular, famed teachers (Brook and Hifield, 1988, p. 59). Oxford's first recorded academic event refers to Oxford as an established seat of learning, and Giraldus Cambrensis of Wales (the recorder) was keenly aware that his three day lecture followed the Bardic tradition: "it was a costly and noble act [the event of his three day lecture] for the authentic and ancient times of the poets were thus renewed..." (Morris, 1978, p. 5-6). The academic quarter of Cambridge " owed much of its prehistory back to Roman times," which, of course, were Pagan Celtic and Saxon times, and "Already in Roman times it was a centre of communications" (Brook and Hifield, 1988, p. 1). Further, just as the traditional Bards were used to travelling about with their students, so some Oxford scholars travelled with their students to Cambridge during the "town and gown" riots at Oxford around 1209 (Brook and Hifield, 1988, p. 1). Westminster school, where Ben Jonson was educated, was also one of the most ancient sites of learning in England whose precise beginnings are unknown (Carpenter, 1966, p. 161 and 28). Thus, all of Shakespeare's fellow playwrights had attended schools which had probably been seats of learning in pre-Christian times.

The Celts had a long tradition of rewarding erudition with prestige and power. In Celtic Ireland, historians, jurists, physicians, skilled craftsmen, and poets were of a highly privileged class called the aes dana --"people of poetry" (Scherman, 1981, p. 33 ). A man was elevated in class by education, and he who achieved the scholastic level of ollave (master) was equal in rank to the king (Scherman, 1981, p. 33). Rigorous oral examinations had to be passed to gain the distinction and rank of poet. As we have degrees to signify the extent of our education, so did the Celts (Hyde, 1967, p. 487-488). It took as many as twenty years of study to attain the final stages of learning (Hyde, 1967, p. 260; Scherman, 1981, p. 24 ). In Welsh law, three grades of poets were defined: the chief poet, the house poet, and the minstrel (Gwyn Williams, 1953, p. 8), and this structure of grades seems to have been followed by each of the Celtic nations. With the coming of Catholicism, Celtic sites of study were converted to monasteries; the monasteries took over the function of education and, in time, became the universities. This Bardic tie to English universities underlies why Shakespeare wrought his female roles with boys, not women, in mind.

In the universities, the Bardic emphasis on speaking aloud well was retained. The university performances of the Classical plays in the original Greek and Latin suggests this. The verse of plays is meant to be heard, and so scholars sensitive to the beauties of the spoken word would appreciate the need to acquire an acoustical understanding of the Greek and Latin scripts. A respect for the Poet developed naturally into a respect for the Dramatist.

The respect accorded the Celtic poets of Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and Scotland was so great that they were given special privileges. The poets alone had the right to travel unmolested from country to country and had the right to expect accommodations at any royal or noble Hall (Scherman, pp.33-34, 1981). Further, the company of students who travelled with the poets were also entitled to the hospitality of the nobility (Scherman, p. 34, 1981). That the privileges of freedom of travel and a certain welcome at noble homes were extended to the traveling Bards is not surprising in a culture that wants its war heroes exalted in history but has no easy writing system for recording (Scherman, p. 35, 1981). Bards were the living vessels of each Celtic nations repertoire of history, law, news, and religious doctrine, and entertainment. Even though the writing system of Latin took hold and the universities eventually became the bastions of higher education, there were still secular poets of the traditional mold on into the Eighteenth Century (Bergin, 1970, p. 3). The traditional duties of the poets inclued glorifying the exploits of king and the beauties of countryside; recounting the noble lineages; making as well as preserving the cannon of laws; satirizing with terrible curses any nobleman who broke the laws or slighted a Bard; firing compatriot warriors with nationalism and blood-lust; and determining who was heroic in battle and who the victor (Scherman, p. 34, 1981). Thus, in order to subdue Irish rebellion, Shakespeare's Queen passed the "Act of Elizabeth" which denouced Irish poets for encouraging "lords and gentlemen in Ireland... to rebellion, rape, and ravin" (As cited in Hyde, p. 493, 1967).

Through the course of time, it was a practice for the various royal houses to have a court, or house, poet who was part of the noble's retinue (Hyde, p. 490, 1967;. Scherman, p. 267, 1981; Gwyn Williams, 1953, pp. 8 &12,; Bergin, 1967, p. 7). This seems to connect to the laws governing Elizabethan actors in that "....there was no guild of actors, for they were, in law, members of a nobleman's retinue..." (Davies, p. 6, 1939). Also, just as the poets were traditionally paid in clothing as well as in money for their work ( Gwyn Williams, 1953, p. 8), so, too, Elizabethan acting troupes habitually received clothing from their noble patrons. The Lord Chamberlain's Men (Shakespeare's troupe until becoming the King James' Men) used clothing they received from Lord Chamberlain as costumes in their theatrical productions. (The troupe's expectation of clothing allows for a rather humorous interpretation of Shakespeare's sonnet number twenty-six.) Since the laws governing acting troupes mimic the laws concerning poets, a further understanding of the treatment of house poets should assist in revealing the Elizabethan attitude towards playwrights.

A house poet, in the Sixtheenth Century, was a "man of wit and learning, frequently a better and more clear-seeing statesman than his chief, who was in matters of policy frequently directed by his bard's advice" (Hyde, p. 496, 1967). The statesmen of Wales turned to their poets for direction in matters of policy. To prevent possible Welsh insurrection, therefore, Elizabeth I invited Welsh poets to her court where in ancient tradition they were housed and feasted as they wrote verse in their native Welsh (Glammor Williams, p. 163, 1979). Elizabeth I's dealings with Celtic poets suggest that the political and social importance of the Bardic tradition still held. Edmund Spencer attested to the idea that Bards were powerful officials when, in 1589, he said that bards were "held in so high regard and estimation...that none may displease them, for feare to runne into reproach through their offense, and be made infamous in the mouths of all men" (Hoagan, p. xxx, 1977). Further, just as each Celtic nation traditionally had a chief poet, so James I appointed playwright Ben Jonson as the first poet laureate of England. James' honoring Jonson with a life-time pension indicates that educated men who wrote plays as a living were regarded as poets and held in esteem. Charles I added to the pension a tierce of canary, the customary royal gift to the poet laureate. Elizabeth I herself wrote poetry, following the Bardic tradition that those of greatest postion were people of poetry.

The influence of the Bardic traditon on the development of English theater did not just occur through the universities. The lay poets directly influenced English secular theater. The first tragedy in English, Gorbuduc, performed before Elizabeth I, had as co-author Thomas Sackville who had been a student of Wesh Bard Morus Kyffin (Gurney, 1969, p.157). Thus, the first English play came directly from the Bardic tradition. Further, as an all-male profession, the Bardic tradition was already utilizing boys, not women, for female roles in performance. During the Middle Ages, the lay minstrels "traveling in groups of four or more, generally had one boy apprentice at least who played the women' s parts in the interludes which these performed, and likewise danced, tumbled, and sang...These boys who led the rough life of wandering minstrels were the direct prototypes of the Elizabethan boy actors" (Davies, 1939, pp. 3-4). These roving minstrels of the British Isles, who performed more for the common than the noble, were part of the tradition of the Bards. Thus, all secular, professional performers in England prior to and at the time of the production of Gorbuduc were men. Since the Church plays of the Middle Ages also used only men, every source from which Elizabethan theater arose excluded women. Just as the participation in religious ritual was reserved for men, so was the activity of poetry and drama because prestige and power were bound up with both. Therefore, when university learning merged with Medieval stage-craft to form an English secular theater, men would be expected to perform, not women; hence, the absence of women on the stages of Shakespearean England.

In contrast to this learned origin of Elizabethan Theater, much of Europe's theater grew from the commedia dell'arte. Commedia dell'arte, a bawdy street theater originating in Italy, scarcely touched England at all. This proves to be an essential difference because the commedia had always used women as players.

In Europe, commedia dell'arte troupes traveled from town to town performing for the common folk in town squares during fairs. The commedia featured servants as characters, and these servants were usually trying to do two things: avoid beatings and out-wit their masters. (A scenario with which the commedia's audience would have readily identified.) The zani, as the servant characters were called, were generally the sympathetic characters, not the masters; making the commedia dell'arte a populist, not an elitist theater form. The plot of the servant-master conflict was often tied to a plot of a pair of young lovers (even two pairs of young lovers) at odds with the masters of the zani. The zani sided with the young lovers and solved both the lovers' and their own problems (after first making the problems worse). All characters but the lovers wore maks; all female roles, zani and lover, were played by women--except in England, where the commedia took the form of the puppet plays for children. These puppet plays, which traveled from fair to fair just as their European counterparts did, were, of course, the famous Punch and Judy shows where the zani Punch tries to avoid his duty of looking after the baby by throwing the baby out the window when the baby cries. The show usually ends with Punch, Judy, and the baby all beating each other with slapsticks--typical commedia dell'arte humor. The puppet Punch, with its hooked nose, humped back, and long, pointed hat, is copied from the mask and costuming of the commedia character Pulcinello. However, Shakespearean England had no Punch and Judy shows because the puppet Polcinello did not arrive in England until Sixteen-sixty (1660) (Currell, p. 39, 1985).

An impromptu, vulgar entertainment for the common, the commedia dell'arte was the business of the low, not the professsion of the high. Having no association with educational, political, or religious establishments, women performing in the streets posed no real threat to authority. European women could add to the family budget by working as performers. Thus, many commedia troupes had a husband and wife team at its core. Eventually, commedia dell'arte developed into an art more acceptable to refined tastes, and family troupes were invited to different European courts to perform. A raucous entertainment of the streets, commedia dell'arte was a fundamentally different tradition from the elitist Bardic tradtion of the British Isles. Women such as Virginia Andreini (daughter-in-law of Isabella Andreini) could gain respect for the commedia and themselves through their artistry, but still would not gain any political power. Members of commedia troupes were not asked to give advice on matters of governmental policy as were their contemporaries the Welsh poets; nor were they expected to inflame patriotic hearts with war cries, as were their ill-fated contemporaries, the Irish poets.

The commedia dell'arte , then, as a source and major form of European theater, established women as players on the Continent while the Bardic tradition, as a source of Elizabethan theater, established boys as players of female roles in England. In Elizabethan England, university learning, the Bardic tradition, and Medieval stage-craft combined to create a new artistic form devoid of women--the professional secular theater. On the Continent, Medieval stage-craft was joined with the women players of the commedia dell'arte to form the new, respectable, professional secular theater. Elizabethan drama sprang from a tradition which lauded the doings of the noble, while the European drama grew from a business that lauded the ways of the common. As Elizabethan theater manager Thomas Nashe (As quoted in Davies, p. 27, 1939) boasted of English theater, "...our players are not as the players beyond the sea, a sort of squirting baudie comedians, that have whores and common curtizans to playe women's parts, and forbeare no immodest speech or unchaste action that may procure laughter, but our sceane is more stately furnisht than ever it was in the time of Roscius , our representations honorable, and full of gallant resolution, not consisting like theirs of a Pantaloon, a Whore, and a Zanie, but of Emperours, Kings, and Princes: whose true Tragedies ( Sophocleo cothurno ) they doo vaunt." The foundations of English and European theater were so disparit that it was not until a special edict by an English king who had grown up in France (Charles II) that women were cast in plays in Great Britain.


Bergin , O.(1970). Irish Bardic Poetry. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd.

Brook, C. & Hifield, R. (1988). Oxford and Cambridge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Carpenter, E. (1961). A House of Kings: The History of Westminster Abbey. London: Publisher John Day.

Currell, D. (1985). The Complete Book of Puppet Theatre. Avon, Great Britian: The Bath Press. (Original work published 1974 as The complete book of puppetry

Davies, W. R. (1939). Shakespeare's boy players. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd.

Gurney, R. (1969). Bardic heritage: A Selection in Free English Translation. London: Chatto & Windus.

Hoagan, K. (1977). Introduction. 1,000 years of irish poetry: The Gaelic and Anglic-irish Poets from Pagan Times to the Present. Old Greenwhich, Conn.: The Devin-Adir Co.

Howard, J. E. (1988). "Crossdressing, the Theatre and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England." Shakespeare Quarterly. 4 419.

Hyde, R. (1969). A Literary History of Ireland from Earliest Times to the Present Day. New York: Barnes & Noble. (Original work published 1897).

Morris, J. (1978). The Oxford Book of Oxford. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scherman, K. (1981). The Flowering of Ireland: Saints, Scholars, & Kings. Boston: Little Brown & Co.

Williams, Glammor. (Ed.)(1979). Religion, Language, Nationality in Wales. Cardif: University of Wales Press.

Williams, Gwyn. (1953). An Introduction to Welsh Poetry from the Beginnings to the Sixteenth Century. Philadelphia: Dufour Editions/Abbert Saifer.    


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