This Day in History – December 8th, 1660

Typically our time travels tend to remain in the 19th century, but today we are surfing the time vortex back to the mid 17th century and landing in London, England on Saturday, December 8th, 1660.

The English Civil War that raged between 1642 and 1651 brought about many changes; one that resulted in King Charles the First being about a foot shorter after having his head cut off during the public execution of the monarch at the hands of the victorious Parliamentarians. It was a cold day when he died; apparently King Charles requested a second shirt to wear to his execution so that he would not shiver and thus appear afraid. But it is the actions of his heir, King Charles II, that leads us to land our time machines in 1660.

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Prior to 1660, due to religious morality against the theatre, it was actually illegal for woman to appear on the stage; even the most apathetic of modern high school students tends to remember that Shakespeare’s female characters were played by boys or convincingly effeminate men. This, however, all changed with Charles II shortly after returning to England and being restored to the throne after his years of exile in France. While on the continent, and away from the English laws enacted by the Puritans, Charles II developed a liking of theatre, and in France women were already allowed on the stage, and this king is notorious for liking his women.

On December 8th, 1660, the first female actor appeared on an English public stage. The play was Shakespeare’s Othello and it was either Margaret Hughes or Anne Marshall (it was hard to tell from our cheap seats up “in the nosebleeds.”) who played the lead female role of Desdemona.

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Margaret Hughes

Margaret Hughes (1630 – 1 October 1719), also Peg Hughes or Margaret Hewes, is often credited as the first professional actress on the English stage. Hughes was also famous as the mistress of the English Civil War general and later Restoration admiral, Prince Rupert of the Rhine.

Anne Marshall (1661 – 1682), also Mrs. Anne Quin, was a leading English actress of the Restoration era, one of the first generation of women performers to appear on the public stage in England. John Downes, in his Roscius Anglicanus (1708), reports that Anne Marshall among the initial group of actresses employed by manager Thomas Killigrew with his King’s Company. She has been nominated as possibly the “first English actress,” the Desdemona in the performance of Othello on December 8th, 1660. Marshall certainly played Desdemona in later performances.

In the years to follow, Restoration theatre saw a drastic increase in female characters created by playwrights in a large number of comedies that revolved around mistaken identity and girls disguised as boys; often at the end of the play to prove that the “boy” was indeed a woman, there would be a scene in which the characters’ breasts were revealed to the theatre audience for confirmation. This “spectacle” was a novel concept to the English, and probably everything that the puritans feared; comedies from this period are laced with innuendo and many lewd references that might make even modern audiences blush.

In the 2004 film Stage Beauty, Claire Danes plays Maria Hughes in a fictional account of the first actress on the British stage, and despite being marketed as a comedy, the film follows the tragic demise of Ned Kynaston (played by Billy Crudup), an actor popular for his female roles who suddenly finds himself barred from playing the roles that gave him his fame.

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