It may be difficult to believe, but women were once forbidden to perform on a live theatre stage. During the Renaissance era, Shakespearean actors were strictly men. But on December 8, 1660, that all changed when the first female actor appeared on the English public stage as Desdemona in Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Othello.

Illegal to perform

Due to the religious morality concerning the theatre, it was illegal for women to perform on the stage. It’s hard to imagine, but Shakespeare’s most famous characters, including Juliet, were once strictly performed by men.

British Library

Unfortunately, even if women had high acting aspirations, they weren’t even considered for the performances. But luckily, in 1660, this strict societal rule would change, and it was about time.

Thanks to Charles II, and France

When Charles II returned to England after being exiled in France, he obtained the throne. Immediately, Renaissance English society began to change, and it was for the better.

Charles II noticed something significant was missing from his life: his love for theatre. During his stay in France, the king was away from English laws enacted by the Puritans. He developed a strong liking for live theatre, and in France, women were allowed to perform on stage.


So, when Charles II returned to England, he wanted women involved in the theatre, just like traditions in France. Who could say no to the king?

Shakespeare’s first woman

On December 8, 1660, the time had finally come for the first woman to appear on an English public stage as Desdemona in Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Othello. The role is believed to have been performed by later famous English actresses Margaret Hughes or Anne Marshall. Both women would become popular actresses, and Marshall played Desdemona in later performances.

Oxford University Press Blog

In subsequent years, Renaissance theatre saw a drastic increase in female performers, as well as female characters written by playwrights. Women finally found their place in the theatre, and the rest is history.