‘To serve us in that behalf when our pleasure is to call for them’: performing boys in Renaissance England


  • I would like to give my sincere thanks to Jennifer Richards and Kate Chedgzoy of Newcastle University, who read and commented upon earlier drafts of this essay. Their help, support and advice have been invaluable to me. I am extremely grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for generously funding this research. My thanks also to the two anonymous readers for the press for their very helpful feedback.
  • From a royal commission dated 26 April 1585 and granted to Thomas Gyles, the then Master of the Children of Paul's, allowing him to recruit suitable boys for the choir; cited in E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), II, 17 (fn. 2).


This essay argues for the recognition of a culture of child performance that flourished throughout Renaissance England, and foregrounds the social contexts from which the quasi-professional boy player emerged at the end of the sixteenth century. Examining the academic and religious provenance of child acting in the period and the ubiquity of boys as performers in numerous semi-dramatic royal and civic pageants, this article reveals that the boy's role in Renaissance theatre begins with the non-professional performative culture to which he is integral, and stretches far beyond his presence as the transvestite boy-heroine on an all-male stage.

The examination of the boy's theatrical roles is further contextualized in relation to moralistic, prescriptive literature on the family, which conceptualizes the child as the property of his parents. The discussion emphasizes the cultural perceptions of subordination, economic import and ownership tied in with child development, in order to make visible the link between the child's role in the theatre and his status in the family. The Renaissance boy actor served as a commodified entity which typified a social and economic structure in which children in general played a vital part.