The role of women

Women barred

In Shakespeare's day women were not allowed to act on the stage in England. All the female roles in Shakespeare were played by adolescent boys whose voices had not broken — including such famous romantic leads as Cleopatra and Juliet. In Hamlet, both Ophelia and Gertrude would have been played by boys. 

More on male actors: This situation did not change until after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, who had spent many years in France where customs were different.
 
More on the irony of male actors: There is an added irony to Ophelia's situation, as the boy playing her would not have had the same restrictions on his behaviour and morals as does the girl he is presenting. A young male actor would have been allowed the ‘taints of liberty' which Polonius describes to Reynaldo in Act II scene i, just before Ophelia enters in distress.

The depiction of women on stage

When Hamlet greets the actors in Act II scene ii, we have an insight into the way women are depicted on stage. Hamlet teases the boy who takes on women's roles, constantly using the word ‘lady' and commenting on his high-heeled shoes (chopines).

 ‘What, my young lady and mistress! By'r lady, your ladyship is nearer to heaven than when I saw you last by the altitude of a chopine.'
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