Theatre in England had been banned by the Puritan Long Parliament in 1642 but, following the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, the ban was lifted. The king marked the revival of theatre by granting the dramatists Sir Thomas Killigrew and Sir William Davenant a monopoly on theatre performances.
On 8 December 1660 Killigrew’s new King’s Company staged a production of William Shakespeare’s Othello at the Vere Street theatre in Lincoln’s Inn. Female roles had previously been played by boys or young men, but this particular performance is known for being the first professional production to feature a woman in the cast.
This date is well recorded but, considering the revolutionary nature of this performance, it is somewhat surprising that the identity of the actress herself is not known with any certainty. The majority of commentators believe that the role of Desdemona was played by Margaret Hughes, who went on to become an accomplished stage performer during the Reformation and the mistress of Prince Rupert of the Rhine. However, new evidence unearthed by the British Library in London suggests that it may actually have been Anne Marshall, a similarly well-regarded actress, who took to the stage that night.
Prior to the performance, a prologue composed by the actor and poet Thomas Jordan warned audience members that Desdemona would be played by an actual woman. Contrary to the commonly held view that actresses were equivalent to prostitutes, this prologue said she was “as far from being what you call a Whore, As Desdemona injur’d by the Moor”.