The Atlantic

The Hidden Women Writers of the Elizabethan Theater

In Shakespeare’s time, women were actively engaged in the theater business—and their roles may well have extended to writing plays.
Source: Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty

Editor’s Note: This article is one in a series of responses to Elizabeth Winkler’s article, “Was Shakespeare a Woman?,” in the June issue of the magazine.

I’m not convinced that Emilia Bassano or anyone else was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. But I’m absolutely certain that women had a hand in the writing of many plays performed in his theater. Recent scholarship has demonstrated that women were actively and visibly engaged in the business of the professional theater companies that burgeoned during the Elizabethan period. Aristocratic and royal women were among their patrons, and women lower on the in their day-to-day business. Women supplied costumes for theatrical productions, lent money to the players, and owned shares in the companies. They stood at the entrances of playhouses to collect admission fees. Women also constituted a sizable portion of the playgoers—perhaps more than half—and on a few occasions, they even appeared onstage. (There are contemporary references to French actresses and female Italian acrobats, and Mary Frith—a figure in the London underworld, also known as Moll Cutpurse—delivered a notorious performance at the Fortune Theatre in 1612.) The female audience came from all ranks of society, ranging from royalty to common criminals. Perhaps the greatest number came from London’s middling class.

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