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 The Winter's Tale, Hermione, Perdita and the shepherdesses would have been played by boys. Paulina would also have been played by a boy - though probably one in his later teens - or by a young man.

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 The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare provided his audience with many ideas and challenging concepts, as well as entertainment. The first half of the play reflects many of the significant and moving issues seen in his great tragedies, whereas the second half introduces a more optimistic mood of fortunate coincidences, happy endings, and Romance.

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