Eve Sanders, assistant professor
by James Martin
Boys will be boys except in the English Renaissance theatre, where
boys would be girls. Italian boys of the time, however, were pretty much
always boys. Confused? Perhaps Dr. Eve Sanders can shed some light on
Sanders is a recent addition to Concordias English Department, where
she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on Shakespeare. Her current
area of research is the theatre of mid-16th- to early 17th-century England
and Italy, specifically focused on the tradition of casting young boys
to play the roles of women.
The practice was commonplace in England until the restoration of Charles
II in 1660. (The exiled monarch spent the English Civil War watching women
actors on French stages, and later imported his newfangled Continental
tastes to his homeland.)
Sanders, who explored related terrain in her 1998 award-winning book
Gender and Literacy on Stage in Early Modern England, is intrigued
by these differing practices.
In comparing England and Italy, she said in an interview,
what strikes me is that the theatre of Shakespeares day, with
its cross-dressed boys performing the roles of women, in some ways challenged
ideas about gender in a more sustained way than did theatre on the Continent.
Sanders cites envelope-pushing texts such as John Lylys Gallathea
(in which two girls, played by boys, fall in love and are allowed to marry
after Venus offers one a heaven-sent sex change) and Shakespeares
Antony and Cleopatra (in which the Queen of the Nile exhibits intellect,
resourcefulness and courage, qualities more conventionally linked
Yet at the same time, she countered, English transvestite
theatre presented a lesser challenge when it came to actual prerogatives
of men and women in the institution of the theatre.
Sanders explained that, even though English audiences were mixed
(that is, men and women sitting together a practice that often
scandalized European tourists), the use of boy actors meant that
in the English theatre women were effectively excluded from institutional
structures in which, in Italy, they had a comparatively more significant
role: the market economy, civic structures, court-centered patronage networks.
In Italy, women not only performed on stage. Often, they were the
most sought-after members of theatre companies at times, even directors
Dusty Italian archives
Sanders said her project allows her to be a detective of sorts,
both in terms of traditional literary criticism and excursions into dusty
Italian archives. Much of her research legwork concerns Isabella Andreini,
a young actress who gained massive fame when she assumed the role of innamorata
(the female lead) in the premier Italian company, the Gelosi.
Andreini is notable not only for her own importance in Italian society
(her death in 1604 merited the issue of gold, silver, and bronze medallions
bearing the slogan Eternal Fame), but because her son later
wrote a rather telling play about a travelling theatre company forced
to add an actress to their cast when the town they are visiting complains
that there are no women among the cast.
Sanders suspects that a comparative study of English and Italian theatre
will not only give us a more nuanced understanding of theatrical
practices of Shakespeares stage, but the hotbed of gender
issues therein offers insight into a world beyond that of the footlights.
Its said of Coriolanus that as a 16-year-old he might have
played the part of a woman on stage, she said, referring to the
description in Shakespeares tragedy about the Roman military hero:
When he might act the woman in the scene, / He provd best
man i th field.
Later, as a man, when asked to display his battle wounds to the
populace, Coriolanus refuses to do so in terms that recall the earlier
description of him as a boy suited to play a womans part.
Though exiled for his refusal, he declines to perform gestures and
behaviour connoted as womanly or boy-like for fear of losing his identity
as a man. Clearly, the categories of man, woman, and boy were then interconnected
in ways that the theatre not only shaped, but was also shaped by.