Women didn't perform in theatres during Shakespeare's day because it was illegal — that's the single sentence used to explain why the world's most famous playwright never cast female performers in his plays.

But around the world, scholars are picking apart that blanket statement and making some unexpected discoveries about what girls and women did do. These scholars include Canadian professor Deanne Williams, from Toronto's York University, who gives the Alice Griffin Shakespeare Lecture at the University of Auckland today .

Given the recent Pop-up Globe controversy, where the #metoo campaign was used to promote a season that originally included an all-male The Taming of the Shrew, Williams' lecture — based on surprising findings about girl characters and performers in early modern England — is expected to attract widespread attention.

Williams, who says the Pop-up Globe story made the news in Canada, is pleased the company backed down from an all-male The Taming of the Shrew having listened to community and public feedback.

"I think to be truly historically accurate, it would be necessary to employ boys but I'm not entirely sure why historical accuracy is important," she says. "I think it needs to be clear what the purpose is of aiming for historical accuracy in the context of a given production and in The Taming of the Shrew, particularly, what are the stakes of having an historically accurate production of that kind?

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"Would the message be better served by employing women because one of the things about Shakespeare's England was that he didn't have trained female actresses. That's not a problem any more; we have lots of trained females actresses."

But her Alice Griffin lecture could be a game-changer in the way we regard girls in Shakespeare's plays as well as why females didn't perform in them. Williams, an expert in women and girls in early modern English literature, hasn't yet found a comprehensive ruling or law that barred females from performing in Shakespeare's day.

"I think that there needs to be a really broad understanding of the historical contexts of Shakespeare's theatre," she says. "It's insufficient to say men played female parts and just to leave it at that because it's a much more complicated problem.

"One of the things that I am researching currently is girl actors and what my research has shown me is that there are tons of girl performers in Shakespeare's England, there had been tons of girl performers all the way back to the Middle Ages and there was no sense girls or women were forbidden, there was no rule about that."

Williams says why the "it was illegal" line has become accepted needs further investigation but suggests it may be because boys had better access to education and theatre training. Playwrights like Shakespeare, looking to cast more professional performers, would have taken boys because they had better training and a similar status to women in Elizabethan society.

Today we have a wealth of highly trained actresses, including the formidable Judi Dench, to perform Shakespeare but this was not so in the playwright's time.
Today we have a wealth of highly trained actresses, including the formidable Judi Dench, to perform Shakespeare but this was not so in the playwright's time.

Williams also points out that males show up more in the historical record than females because there's more documentation, like school reports and property deeds, about them. Others believe while it wasn't illegal, it might have been considered immoral for women to appear on stage in professional playhouses because of the bad reputations theatres had.

Digging deeper has allowed her to uncover some intriguing examples of girl performers. Young girls played St Ursula in Royal entries and processions; the daughters of one Lady Elizabeth Russell starred in a play written by their mother and performed in front of Queen Elizabeth I herself as the Bisham entertainment in 1592.

"It was not illegal for girls or women to perform," Williams says. "The practice of Shakespeare's theatre was that they had boys playing female parts for a variety of reasons but that was a practice specific to that particular stage and we look at Shakespeare's stage because it's Shakespeare and Shakespeare is so important but that doesn't mean that that was everything.

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"As soon as you look elsewhere, you find girls — and there were tons of other opportunities for performance, it's not just the professional stage — so court masques, civic pageants, processions, entries and entertainments and my research is discovering girl after girl after girl."

Academic as it may seem, Williams says such research is important considering the prejudices and limits girls still experience in many parts of the world. She was working on her book, Shakespeare and the Performance of Girlhood, when Pakistani school girl, now a female education activist, Malala Yousafzai and two of her classmates were shot by a Taliban gunman in retaliation for her activities.

"We're still living with the consequences of some of these beliefs," says Williams. "The struggle continues."

She started studying girls in Shakespeare's plays shortly after her own daughter was born and admits she didn't know whether she'd find anything worth further research.

"I was thinking, 'what does Shakespeare have to say to my little girl and what is her position in Shakespeare?' I initially felt like it was a project that didn't exist — that there weren't girls — and as soon as I started looking, there were many, many girls; same with the girl performers, you've been told there are none and then you discover there are countless."

Her research originally started with girl characters in Shakespeare's plays. Once again, Williams found if you look beneath the surface, there's interesting information to be found.

"Shakespeare likes his girls very feisty; he likes girls who resist their patriarchal authority, resist their fathers' will, girls who speak their minds," she says. "There are very rebel girls from the very first girl characters that he writes: Joan of Arc in Henry VI Part 1 is one of the very first girls and Julia and Silvia in Two Gentleman of Verona, another very early play, and Katherina and Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew. They are all very rebellious and very self-directed."

Williams wrote in detail about Juliet, Shakespeare's most famous girl character, in her book pointing out that Juliet isn't even 14 — a fact stressed throughout the play — and strongly going against her family's wishes. She says Shakespeare had two daughters of his own and was perhaps basing his characters on first-hand observations.

The Alice Griffin Lecture is this evening at the University of Auckland; while it's free, registration is essential.