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Keywords:

  • boy player;
  • commodification;
  • non-professional;
  • performance;
  • role

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.