Today in 1660, for the first time a woman took to the stage in England and performed a role in a production of Shakespeare’s Othello.
We know she was a trailblazer. We know she was a pioneer.
We don’t know who she was.
But let’s back up a bit.
In 1660, public theaters were only beginning to reopen after being closed during the rule of Oliver Cromwell.
Before then, with only a few exceptions, all stage acting in England had been done by men.
Any women characters were played by smaller or younger male actors in the company, or maybe a page.
The new king, Charles II, had been living in exile in France, where actresses were common.
So when theaters reopened, he was fine with women performers.
Some researchers have suggested the king wanted to focus his male gaze on the ladies; some have also said it was to discourage cross-dressing among men, and, by extension, gayness.
Or it could have just been that he and theater producers thought it would be good for business.
Whatever the reasons, it was such a big change that the theater company had one of the actors read a special prologue noting Desdemona was being played by an actual woman, “No Man in Gown, or Page in Petty-Coat.”
But which actual woman? We don’t know!
No one seems to have written it down, but researchers say it was likely one of two women.
One was Anne Marshall, about whom we know only that she was good at comedy and dramatic roles.
The other was Margaret “Peg” Hughes, who was famous and glamorous and possibly a little infamous; it was said she was the mistress of a member of the royal family.
Whoever it was, she opened some big doors for women actors.
Critics thought acting was something respectable women shouldn’t do, but these women won over the public.
In just a decade before they started appearing onstage in England, playwrights were writing roles specifically for women to play, and there were even performances that had all-female casts.
Not a bad thing to be remembered for, even if we can’t attach your name to that legacy.
Today in 2013, Metallica played a show in Antarctica, which made them the first band to play on all seven continents.
They performed for an hour inside a small dome with an audience of scientists and a few winners of a contest in South America.
And they called the show “Freeze ‘Em All”!
Who was the first Shakespearean actress? (British Library)
Samuel Pepys and the First Actresses (Royal Museums Greenwich)