Female characters used to be played by boys. Coryat, in his Crudities (1611), says, “When I went to a theatre (in Venice) I observed certain things that I never saw before; for I saw women acte. ... I have heard that it hath sometimes been used in London” (Vol. ii.).
The first female actress on the English stage was Mrs. Coleman (1656), who played Ianthe in the Siege of Rhodes.
The last male actor that took the part of a woman on the English stage, in serious drama, was Edward Kynaston, noted for his beauty (1619–1687).
Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894
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