In Shakespeare’s England women were barred from performing on stage. Female characters were played by boys dressed and made up to look like women. These boys were apprenticed to older actors, who taught their apprentices the craft of acting. Some of the apprentices must have been excellent actors in their own right. Many of Shakespeare’s most challenging roles were written for boy actors, including Cleopatra in Anthony and Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth . Several of Shakespeare’s female characters, like Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night , dress up as young men. This required the boy actors to play women who were pretending to be men, which would be a challenge for any actor. Cross-dressing allowed Shakespeare to explore gender and sexuality in ways that could be provocative. The religiously devout group known as the Puritans were outraged by the boy actors dressing up as women, and they were even more outraged when these “women” dressed up as men.
Shakespeare wrote parts with particular actors in mind. The lead roles in his tragedies were written for Richard Burbage, who was the best actor in Shakespeare’s company and the most famous actor of his day. A poem written in tribute when Burbage died in 1619 suggests that in Shakespeare’s lifetime, when people thought of Hamlet, Lear or Othello, they thought not of the playwright but of Burbage, who created those characters onstage. As well as a powerful stage presence, Burbage had an impressive memory. Thirteen of the characters Shakespeare wrote specifically for him have more than 800 lines dialogue. Burbage was also renowned as a stage-fighter, which is one reason most of his characters, including Romeo, Hamlet, Richard III and Macbeth, fight duels. Some historians claim that Burbage was short and portly, which explains why Gertrude says that her son, Hamlet, first played by Burbage, is “fat and scant of breath.”
The popular comedian Will Kemp played Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing and Peter in Romeo and Juliet . He almost certainly played other slapstick roles, like Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Costard in Love’s Labor’s Lost . Kemp was briefly a shareholder in Shakespeare’s company, and he had a successful comic career in his own right. He was famous for writing and performing jigs, which were semi-improvised comic plays with satirical plots and slapstick dancing. Given Kemp’s talent for improvisation, it wouldn’t be surprising if he sometimes went off-script. In Hamlet , the title character gives a troupe of actors some instructions about how to perform a play he has written. He warns: “let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them.” In 1599, probably the same year that Shakespeare wrote that warning, Kemp left Shakespeare’s company. He was replaced by Robert Armin, an intelligent comedian who wrote plays himself. Armin was also a talented singer. For Armin, Shakespeare wrote wittier, wordier comic parts with plenty of songs, like Feste in Twelfth Night .