Exploitation of Elizabethan child actors revealed

Research by an Oxford University academic has lifted the lid on the systematic exploitation and abuse of child actors in the time of Shakespeare.

Young boys were snatched on their way to school by 'child catchers' who roamed the streets of London in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

They were then forced to perform on the stage, often in seedy theatres for the titillation of predominantly male audiences.

Even Queen Elizabeth I was implicated, signing warrants allowing theatre bosses to capture children for their companies.

The material came to light during research by Dr Bart van Es for his new book, Shakespeare in Company, and has implications for our reading of some of the Bard's most important plays, including Hamlet.

Dr van Es, a lecturer in English and Fellow of St Catherine's College, studied original Elizabethan documents that show the Queen herself signed commissions allowing theatres to kidnap children and force them to perform under threat of whipping.

'In at least one case, a father tried desperately to recover a child who had been snatched and taken to the Blackfriars playhouse,' said Dr van Es.

According to court depositions, a group of theatre men 'did haul, pull, drag and carry away' 13-year-old Thomas Clifton on his way to school.

Dr van Es added: 'When his father attempted a rescue by turning up at the playhouse he was contemptuously dismissed and told that if his son did not learn his lines he would be whipped.'

Using the Queen's commissions, playhouse owners boasted they had 'authority sufficient so to take any nobleman's son in the land'.

'Technically these warrants were designed to allow the Master of the Children to "take up" boys for service in the Chapel Royal,' said Dr van Es.

'But the reality was very different. It was well known that the Children of the Chapel Royal was really an acting company and the Queen did nothing to intervene.'

Dr van Es also uncovered a seedier side to the practice, with performances by children’s troupes often taking place in dimly-lit theatres featuring predominantly male clienteles - in contrast to mainstream public theatres with more diverse audiences.

He said: 'The exploitation of these boys was often explicitly sexual. The playwright Thomas Middleton, for example, described one children's company as a "nest of boys able to ravish a man".

'Kept children had always been a feature of Tudor entertainment. There is an amazing set of letters in which Henry VIII makes requests for a boy in Cardinal Wolsey's choir that he is "desirous to have".

'It was partly financial pressures that allowed this practice to become commercial.'

According to Dr van Es, Christopher Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage is an example of a play written for a children's company that makes for disturbing reading in light of his research.

He said: 'Looking at it now, its opening scene edges close to paedophilia. It features a boy named Ganymede "dandled" on the knee of the god Jupiter, who calls him a "female, wanton boy" and "darling of my thoughts".

'Ganymede is asked by Jupiter to indulge in "play", which is clearly sexual. The boy is even offered some of Jupiter's wife's jewellery if he will "be his love".

'The fact that all of this was performed in semi-darkness by captive children makes a real difference.'

The research has implications for our reading of some of Shakespeare’s works, including Hamlet. The play was written in 1600, the year Thomas Clifton was kidnapped and the year children's companies were revived after a 10-year ban.

Dr van Es said: 'When Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, children's theatre was big news and he made this central to the plot.

'In the play, the actors have come to visit Hamlet in Denmark because competition from the boy players has driven them from London.

'They even perform a scene that parodies Dido, Queen of Carthage, which Marlowe originally wrote for the boys of Blackfriars.'

According to Dr van Es, Hamlet is one of several plays Shakespeare wrote in opposition to the theatre companies that used the labour of captive children.

He said: 'There were children in Shakespeare's company - playing the roles of women - but these were apprentices rather than schoolboys who had been captured.

‘Shakespeare actually comes out of this rather well.’

Shakespeare in Company by Dr Bart van Es is available now, published by Oxford University Press.