Men Playing Women Playing Men
Although they took part in plays on the Continent, and participated in the Comedia Dell Arte, women did not act on the English stage in Shakespeare's day. The parts of women, and sometimes of old men, were acted by child actors - boys whose voices had not yet changed.
Children could be apprenticed to a mature actor, who would teach them the art of performance. Several sharers in the Lord Chamberlain's Men started out as child actors. Several of Shakespeare's plays, particularly the comedies, capitalize on the effect of boys acting women - who then take on disguise as boys. It is clear that the boys were fine actors, since Shakespeare wrote some major parts for the women in his plays. So popular were the young actors that whole acting companies were created with child performers - the Children of the Chapel.
The concept of equality between the sexes would have seemed very foreign to most in Shakespeare's day: Adam was created first, and Eve from his body; she was 14 created specifically to give him comfort, and was to be subordinate to him, to obey him and to accept her lesser status. A dominant woman was unnatural, a symptom of disorder.
The medieval church had inculcated a view of women that was split between the ideal of the Virgin Mary, and her fallible counterpart, Eve. Unfortunately, the Virgin Mary was one of a kind, so there was often a general distrust of women; Renaissance and Medieval literature is often misogynistic.
Adam and Eve (Detail). Saenredam Art Gallery of Greater Victoria Royal, and the Paul's Boys. The children's companies played regularly at Court, and used the indoor theatres at St. Paul's and the Blackfriars
The boys were chosen for their voices, and could be "pressed"-- forced into service, as soldiers were in time of war. They were educated in grammar and rhetoric as well as in singing and acting. The puritans, who disapproved of the theatre in general, were particularly scandalized by boys cross-dressing as women.