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 Measure for Measure, Isabella, Mariana and Juliet would have been played by boys. Even Mistress Overdone would have been played by a boy, but probably one in his later teens.

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.

In several of his plays, such as The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Cymbeline, and Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has female characters disguise themselves in boys' clothing, which must have been more comfortable for the boy actors.


The population of London was still closely knit enough for the theatre of Shakespeare's day to have a profound impact on the whole of society, much as television drama does today. It was a powerful medium to entertain, and to unite popular sentiment and provoke thought, something that ‘everybody talked about'.

In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare provided his audience with many ideas and challenging concepts as well as entertainment. In this play we see Shakespeare as an accomplished dramatist, skilfully wielding his power under a new monarch and inviting his audience to consider many of the important issues of his own day – which are just as relevant to us.

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