An Aerie of Children: the Child-Acting Companies in 16thCentury London

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By Anna K. Carey

Presented at Noonday February 2, 2013  by A.K. Carey  , February 2 2013


Yes, indeed, in the late 16th century, that period when English drama rose to its high-water mark, there were, in London, acting companies made up entirely of children, boys between the ages of 9 and 15, boys whose voices had not yet changed.  They performed professionally,  in their own theaters, in plays written especially for them by the leading dramatists of the day, and they were very popular with the cognoscenti, popular enough for Rosencrantz to disparage them as an “aerie of eyasses” that had driven Hamlet’s favorite troupe of  players out of London and on the road to Ellsinore.


Today, I am going to tell you something about these companies and the culture in which they briefly flourished.  There are records of children’s performances from the Middle Ages, but their popularity in the professional theater was brief, lasting less than 20 years.


I’ll begin with some of their history and then look at the audiences for whom they performed and the plays written for them.

It’s a fair question to ask where this history comes from. How do we know so much about these boy actors and their companies? It was, after all, a long time ago, and there is much we don’t know about even so well known a performer as William Shakespeare.

So why so much about the history of these boys?


For one thing, Shakespeare never performed under the auspice of the church or in one of the great cathedral schools,  institutions that keep meticulous records. Add to this the extant record of expenditures kept in the great houses of the nobility, and we have a pretty good picture of where and when the boys performed.


And how much it cost: for instance, we know that the Earl of Northumberland paid 20 shillings every Christmas and Easter for the children of his chapel to perform  a play  written by the choirmaster, and that the Duke of Norfolk paid 6 shillings  to his choristers for playing at Christmas in 1564-65.  In many cases, we even know what the boys wore.  In one procession, we have nine children of honor dressed in blue velvet embroidered with gold flowers, and in another pageant children are dressed like merchants. Later, 4 boys greeted Queen Mary at her coronation dressed in women’s apparel, with crowns on their heads and scepters in their hands.


And there are the official court records. It may be difficult today for us to understand how tightly regulated this society was. Nothing happened of a public nature that wasn’t approved by the Privy Council, the Master of Revels, or other divisions of the government.  If a play was deemed to attack or satirize the queen, her ministers, or her church, it was not only not performed, its playwright might well land in jail.  In 1589, the  most popular and successful children’s troupe, the Children of Paul’s, was  forbidden to play in London probably for something having to do with the long forgotten Martin Marlprelate controversy and didn’t appear there again professionally for 10 years.


In 1591 the government abruptly closed down all the children’s companies for six years.   All the theaters of London were closed in 1592, probably because of the plague. The next year, both Marlowe and Thomas Nashe were called before the Privy Council to answer charges that their work was contributing to unrest in the city. In 1597, The Isle of Dogs by Nashe and Jonson was suppressed by the Privy Council because its satire was offensive to the church  authorities.  With all these regulations come lots and lots of records which today give us a fairly complete picture of public entertainment activity in London in the late 1500’s.  We know quite a good bit about when and where performances took place.


What was performed is answered also by the Stationer’s Register lists of all plays licensed to be published in London between 1557-1710.   Add to this the meticulous record of court performances kept by the Master of the Revels between 1559 and 1613, and together, these 2 accounts give us the dates of the plays, and tell us who owned them, who wrote them, and who performed them.


The children’s companies did not, however,  spring full grown out of the head of a late 16th century  Merchant and Ivory  or the preference of a few noble patrons even one so powerful as Elizabeth. Their activities fall into 2 periods, before 1592 when their theaters were closed and after 1598 when they reopened, and the companies were more or less the toasts of the theatrical world until about 1612.


The seeds for this flowering were planted in the culture of the early middle ages in those four overarching institutions, the church, the court, the city and the school.  These four institutions provide the root system from which the children’s companies grew.


More specifically, from the late 15th century, boy performers were integral to

  • To courtly and civic entertainment: masques, pageants, progresses and celebrations,
  • To the polyphonic settings for the Mass being written by Palestrina, Tallas, Lassus, and Byrd all of which were intended for choirs of men and  boys
  • To grammar-school performances of classical plays incorporated into every curriculum to teach elocution and presence
  • To early century performances of full dramatic works in the palaces of the mighty.

The four types overlap as music was a component of nearly every performance, but these four categories provide the cultural foundation and training that made the fully professional companies possible. I’ll talk a bit more about that in a moment. But first, music and the boy’s voices.

The pure soprano of a boy’s voice was a pass key to court and church from the 14th century to the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Anyone who has been to evensong at Winchester or Westminster Abbey or Canterbury has been transported by both the look and the sound of the choir boys.  Gorgeous as the boy’s voices are now, imagine how they must have sounded 500 years ago when the choir masters of the great cathedrals had the right of impressing boys with beautiful voices into their choirs, when everyone who was anyone had a chapel and a choir of choristers, and when every cathedral had a choir school providing a free education for any boy, regardless of birth, so long as his voice was good enough.  Add to this the vocal needs created by the changes that had occurred in the liturgy with the movement from early medieval chants and plainsongs, to complex polyphonic liturgical settings written for choirs of men and boys.

From the late Middle Ages up to the mid-16th century, the role of the boys’ choirs in the daily ceremony of the Mass was considerable.  In addition to the basic choral setting of the high mass there were requiem masses, nuptial masses and special masses devoted to some saint, martyr or confessor. Since all the period’s composers wrote musical settings for the liturgy, the choirs could and often did sing a different one every day.

But the Reformation of the mid-16th century brought great changes to church choral music as to everything else.  The number of special feast days was curtailed. Henry’s new prayer book sought to simplify the music so that the whole congregation could sing it. As Cranmer said “the song that shall be made thereunto would not be full of notes, but, as near as may be, for every syllable a note”

Suddenly, the magnificent pageantry and sound of the liturgy was dimmed.  The goal of these ordinances was to make the experience of the mass more accessible to the laity. This they accomplished, but church music was severely restricted and impoverished.  As the music became less complex, the energies and talents of the boys became available for other endeavors. In the second half of the 16th century, the boys’ choirs moved their primary musical and dramatic activities out of the churches and into the streets, the court, and onto the stage.

These performances fall into the 4 categories listed a moment ago. First public entertainment: celebrations and progresses:

To a reader of the diaries of the early 16th century, it seems that no marriage could be performed, no burial completed, no visitor greeted without legions of children to sing, recite and decorate. From occasions as grand as Henry VIII and Mary’s coronations, to the funeral procession of Sir John Heth, to William Petre hiring the Children of Paul’s to come to his town house to sing and act for him during his convalescence from illness,  children were there in large numbers, singing, dancing, reciting verses and playing instruments.  I love that idea. Instead of turning on your IPod, you bring in 12 or 15 boys to sing Cole Porter!!!

Then there was:

Curriculum Drama: These plays were performed as a part of the choir and grammar school curriculum which focused strongly on the classical drama, especially on the satiric comedies of Terrance and Plautus.  Boys at age 7 began to memorize the unimpeachable Latin of the Roman authors, Cato, Ovid, Cicero, and the great classical playwrights. By the age of 12, the school boys were performing these and other plays written for them by their choir masters as a means of teaching elegant diction, poise, and graceful bodily movement. (Shapiro 2-3).   They even occasionally performed these plays in public, under municipal auspices, in the palaces of great nobles, and even at court.

But usually, Court drama was more festal than scholastic.

Court drama: Decades before the choristers performed in their own theaters, they were performing full blown plays to celebrate great occasions and holidays at court and in the great noble houses. During the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, sovereigns and nobles in every country  maintained chapels for their personal worship and staffed them with priests, canons, a choirmaster, an organist, a few instrumentalists and a choir of men and boys. (Shapiro 6) The English kings had 2 chapels, one at   Windsor and a travelling troupe, the Chapel Royal that moved with the court in its progresses around the city and country.

Before the reign of Elizabeth, the children performed infrequently at court. But with Elizabeth’s accession in 1558, their theatrical activities increased and plays were presented dozens of times a year, not only by the boys from Windsor Chapel and the Chapel Royal, but by the Children of Paul’s, the Westminster Choir Boys, the Merchant Taylor’s Boys, and the boys of St Paul’s Grammar School.

It was only a matter of time, and a short time at that, before these companies begin to stretch out toward wider audiences and began to perform commercially, and it was the high caliber of court performances that gave them the entree they needed.

It was Sebastian Westcote and the Children of Paul’s who first brought the boys to the general public.  The Children of Paul’s were great favorites of Elizabeth’s, and they had to be good. Their choirmaster was still empowered to impress into his troupe boys from any cathedral church in England.   These were not children’s pageants such as we might see put on by the 3rd grade at Thanksgiving.  These were highly polished performances that would have to be seen and approved by the Master of the Revels before being accepted as entertainment for her majesty.  That caliber of performance required rehearsal and plenty of it.  And it was the need for rehearsal space that led to the children’s troupes moving out of choir stalls and into Blackfriars , Whitefriars, and other  indoor performance areas constructed to imitate the great halls and chambers in the royal palaces.

So In 1579 the Children of Paul’s along with the Chapel Children were permitted by the Privy Council to give performances in a public space in order to prepare for court appearances (Shapiro 13) during the coming Christmas revelry.  Under Sebastian Westcote, the Boys of Paul’s began “rehearsing” full-fledged dramatic productions before guilds,  as well as providing music and interludes at election feasts, and other semi-public celebrations.

It is impossible to say at what point these “rehearsals” became outright commercial productions.  But by the late 1570’s  Westcote’s company was classified  with professional adult companies that had their own theaters.

The illusion of amateurism, of being choristers called to perform for the queen, didn’t hurt the broader appeal of boys’ troupes.  In fact, the boy’s companies did all they could to remind the audience of their royal connections.  In their performances venues,   they tried to reproduce both the physical conditions and festal atmosphere of court occasions. After all, these so called rehearsals were for royal performances.  The boy’s appeal was not diminished by the claim that they were “by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen.” And people who would be or had been excluded from the royal performance due to lack of space or their social inferiority, could see the same play in an ambiance that closely approximated that of the court production. (Shapiro 33).

These indoor spaces were much more intimate and expensive than the great public theaters like the Globe, The Rose or the Swan.  They probably accommodated an audience of between 500 to 1000 in artificially lit indoor spaces, much smaller than the 3000 person capacity of The Globe..  The audience sat on three sides of a raised stage but the ceilings were high enough for there to be galleries. And, as in the public theaters, those who really wanted to show off their finery, sat on stools on the stage.

What is clear is that by 1599, several children’s companies were playing in London in their own theaters in plays written expressly for them by the best playwrights of the day:  John Lyly, Ben Jonson, John Marston, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, Beaumont and Fletcher, and John Chapman.   You will note, that Shakespeare did not write anything for the boys’ companies. All of his plays were written for his own company playing in the great public theaters like the Globe.

But make no mistake, Jonson, Lyly, Marlowe et al were the theatrical stars of the period and most wrote for both the public and  private theaters.  The pubic theaters were cheap, large and attended by people from all classes. The private theaters were small, expensive and appealed to those who wanted to see and be seen, the taste makers and the taste-maker wannabes of the period.

So, the children’s troupes had two audience for their plays: at court– the upper nobility all the way up to the Queen, and in the theaters– those who wished to emulate the  fashions and habits of the upper nobility: younger sons, students at the Inns of court, literary men associated with noble households, provincial gentry vising London.  All with money to spend on luxuries that would burnish their with-it reputations and elevate their social identities.  The boy companies were definitely trendy.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that this was a difficult audience to please or impress. In fact, it was a difficult audience to reign in.  These people were out to display and confirm their status, enhance their reputations, affirm their own nobility and show themselves as perceptive, knowing, and smart. In other words, the actions in the audience were as full of drama as those on the stage.

There were two modes of self-dramatization available to these self-styled cognoscenti. These were contemptuous silence or noisy disruption,–  haughty detachment or loud witticisms that disrupted the play. – a counter-performance that asserted social elevation and sophisticated  judgment of the young bucks in the audience. (Shapiro. 70).

Those young bucks made for a tough audience to tame.  Some, of course, those who wanted particular attention, sat on the stage, where they could show their detachment by playing cards, making jokes with other audience members or simply by walking out half way through the play, preferably with several friends.  Or the gallant could make funny noises during passionate speeches, complain about the music, make witty remarks about the characters’ actions, or throw apple cores and chicken bones at the children.

So what is a writer or performer to do to keep such an audience under control? “Dramatists writing for the children’s troupes, tried within the plays themselves to neutralize their spectators’ counter performances. Instead of allowing the audience’s mockery to destroy their plays, dramatists simply built it into their works. For this reason, the plays acted by the children’s troupes are largely satiric comedies, which channel the audience’s derision toward “others,” –upstarts, citizens, puritans, and usurers. By ridiculing these deviants from aristocratic norms of behavior, spectators reaffirm their own claim to aristocratic status.” (Shapiro 74-75)

In addition, most of the writers for children’s troupes, offered the audience a flattering image of itself in the hope of engaging respectful attention.  The flattery of the audience was blatant (77).  In the city comedies in the private theaters, the audience is the ideal, and idealized figures of themselves serve to illustrate appropriate speech, dress and conduct (78).

But what of the plays?  Believe me, they were not children dressed as angels or pilgrims, each student lisping a single line in a voice you can hardly hear. No one would have paid extra for that!!!

Most of the plays written for children (and remember that all the plays they performed were written for them and were not performed by other companies) were witty comedies that either praised or satirized the period’s fops and follies.  John Lyly writing early– prior to 1592, wrote mostly romantic comedies for the boys troupes: Endimion, Sapho and Phao, Love’s Metamorphosis, and Galletea.

But those writing after 1597, the most brilliant phase of the boy companies, wrote mostly satire:  Middleton wrote A Trick to Catch the Old One, and A Mad World,  My Masters;  Beaumont wrote The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and Jonson wrote Cynthia’s Revels.  The preponderance of plays written for the boys soon after their theaters reopened in 1597 were satiric comedies or comedies that combined romance with satire.

Given the nature of the audience, the demand for innovation was unceasing.  Comical satire soon became the object of satire and the writers for the boys’ troupes devised City comedy,  a more topical kind of satire that referred to known places around London, more recognizable characters, and familiar social situations.  These plays, such as Fletcher’s The Scornful Lady and Barry’s Ram’s Alley, rely on the prodigal son motif, the courting of  a wealthy heiress, and the 3rd theme of city comedy, the lecherous gallant and the wife of a jealous old citizen.  For instance, in Cupid’s Whirligig, by Sharpham, the jealous husband has himself castrated to prove that any children his wife bears are the results of adultery.  In these plays fathers cheat sons, sons betray fathers. , it is a world of lying lawyers, corrupt courtiers, lecherous wives, hypocritical Puritans, and upstart gallants.  And remember that these are plays performed by 12 year old actors!

Even more discordant to modern sensibilities, there were a few tragedies written for the boys’ troupes. And these relished and exaggerated the disparity between actor and character.

I am sure you know that the adult drama of this period was extraordinarily bloody and graphic.  Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out with a spoon, Titus Andronicus serves pies to Tamora  made from the  bodies of her children, because  her sons had brutally raped, Lavinia,  and cut off her hands and tongue . In Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, we witness the strangulation of the Duchess and two of her children in addition to six other murders and a werewolf.  All of these horrors, explicitly performed on stage, were meat and drink (so to speak) to the Renaissance audience. . The Renaissance protagonists had much in common with Tony Soprano.

And the children’s companies didn’t shy away from the graphic blood and gore. Though there are only a few of them,  the tragedies written for the child actors are awash with hypocrisy, betrayal, sex, and blood.  In these plays, even more than in the comedies, the youth and impotence of the actors are exaggerated, undercutting and satirizing the dramatic conventions of the adult theater.  The heroic posturing, typical of adult theater, is made ridiculous but not comic by the passivity and impotence of the boy heroes.

Antonio, in Marston’s Antonio and Mellida and Antonio’s Revenge, falls to the ground 6 times weeping at his own misfortune while Mellida plots their escape.  In the second play, in a frenzy of misdirected revenge, he actually murders a boy who has turned to him for protection and serves the child to its father on a platter. He tortures the villain and cuts out his tongue and then stabs him repeatedly as he is tied up and helpless.  Antonio then  begs to kill his mother and then retreats into childhood calling himself “poor,poor orphan, a weak, weak child, .” and playing with a bubble pipe.  Now you tell me the kind of frisson that creates when performed by a child.

And what happened to them? By 1613 they were all gone, the Chldren of Paul’s, the Children of the King’s Revels, the Children of the Chapel Royal, the Children of Blackfriars.  For sure, James was the not the lover of theater that Elizabeth was.  And the rise of Puritanism didn’t help the theater much. Also, many of their conventions were absorbed into adult drama in plays like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, and a few of their plays such as Bussy D’Ambois were even rewritten for adult companies.

But the demands of the audience for constant novelty and escalating sensation may have become self-devouring.  What was audacious and scandalous yesterday is old hat today.  What shocks this evening is ho-hum by tomorrow.  If satire was or is to continue to shock it runs the risk of sailing too close to the wind and being shut down by the authorities who are the primary targets.

The long and short is we are really not sure why the boy’s companies vanished after 1613. Some critics suggest that the drama simply moved beyond the capacity of the children.   No matter how good the performances, the nature of the performers made the suspension of disbelief difficult if not impossible.  The disparity between the actor and the character created the irony of satire rather than the woe and wonder of tragedy.

And if we look at adult dramas like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and the rewritten Bussy d’Ambois by Chapman, we can see that the children’s conventions and subjects were being absorbed into the mainstream, and so could accomplish far more subtle effects.  In Coriolanus, for instance, Shakespeare (and remember, Shakespeare wrote only for his company at the Globe, never a word for children) Shakespeare uses many of the conventions of the children’s tragic satire: the bossy mother-obedient son relationship, the political and social naivety of the hero,  the homosexual implications of the relationship of Coriolanus and Aufidius and the chaos he leaves behind, all remind us of the impotence and destructiveness of the boy protagonists. As in the children’s drama, the man acting like a child leaves disaster in his wake.

Though the children’s companies were essentially dead by 1612, they left behind a significant heritage. The techniques and effects of both their city comedies and tragic satire had been absorbed into the mainstream.  That and the indoor theaters affirm R.A..Foakes claim that “ the children’s theaters and the dramatists that wrote for them formed a major influence in determining the course English drama was to take “  for the next 400 years. (Foakes.. 39).

But if, after tonight, you want the experience of the children’s theater, my guess is you will spend your time in the library, not the theater.   I think we are unlikely to see the Playhouse or the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company doing Bussy or Cynthia’s Revels any time soon– though who knows what wonders we will see now that the new School for Creative and Performing Arts is fully up and running!!


Works cited:

Foakes, R.A. “Tragedy of the Children’s Theatres after 1600: A

Challenge to the Adult Stage.” The Elizabethan Theatre II. Ed. David Gallaway. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1970. 37-59.

Shapiro, Michael. Children of the Revels: the Boy Companies of

Shakespeare’s Time and their Plays. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.




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