History has shown that child actors on film and television often face tremendous “growing pains,” with many of them spiraling into drug and alcohol abuse and falling prey (in a variety of terrible ways) to older people that they trust. But according to one academic, child actors of today have it easy compared to child actors in the Elizabethan era.
Dr. Bart van Es of the University of Oxford says that child actors in the Elizabethan era underwent “systematic exploitation and abuse.” By studying court documents, Dr. van Es discovered that children were picked up off the streets and made to perform by “violence and force” (including whipping).
Though it seems surprising to us now, the parents did not have much of a legal leg to stand on to get them back. That is because theatre owners were granted the right to recruit children by force by none other than Queen Elizabeth I. Of course, those powers were initially only supposed to find children to be choristers for the royal chapel, but Dr. van Es calls it an “open secret” that theatre owners took advantage of that law to procure children for their productions.
For example, court documents show that Henry Clifton, father of 13-year-old Thomas Clifton, claimed that men from the Blackfriars Theatre “did haul, pull, drag and carry away” his son on his way to school, causing “great terror and hurt.” Dr. van Es says that this was a regular practice, and the children were sexually exploited on stage and off. In fact, it appears that the plays featuring children were often more sexually suggestive than plays starring adult actors.
Dr. van Es uncovered the horrific information when conducting research on William Shakespeare for his upcoming book, Shakespeare in Company. However, the Bard of Avon himself seems to have been against the practice of abducting children based on his commentary on child actors in Hamlet. In Shakespeare’s case, any child actors in his company’s productions were likely apprentices.
Still, it’s surprising that an era of theatre that is so well-regarded by scholars and actors can prove to have such a dark side.
via BBC News