[By R.B. Parkes (Engraver), R. Cooper (Artist) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.]
We’re all about showcasing what really makes a person hot here, but this week I’m actually featuring a figure who was well known by contemporaries for, among other things, being drop-dead gorgeous.
Historical fiction fans may already be familiar with Edward Kynaston, a 17th century actor who is most famous today for his stunning beauty when he played women on the English stage. What’s most interesting to me about Kynaston is that, popularly speaking, his broader acting career has been eclipsed by his beauty in drag. Kynaston’s famous beauty as and aptitude for playing women, along with corresponding assumptions about his sexuality, have generally concealed a superb actor—he was well received in dramatic and comedic roles—who wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers. In addition to a few homoerotic rumours that circulated during his lifetime, Kynaston was involved in a couple of scandals surrounding the staging of plays that satirised contemporaries. One such role resulted in Kynaston being badly assaulted.
Although the English theatre in the early modern period is often imagined as being free from actresses, audiences increasingly favoured women playing women during Kynaston’s career. Kynaston, however, remained popular in women’s roles. But he wasn’t a one-trick pony; he continued to act beyond the point when he actually wished to retire because he was such a profitable draw. Moreover, Kynaston’s biographer, J. Milling, shows how frequently and well Kynaston played men, even implying that he usually played men’s roles, at least later in his career. He was more than a pretty face or a shtick. He played men and women alike, though he stuck to men’s roles after the Crown cracked down on men playing women in the 1660s amidst fears that it would lead to sodomy.
To me, Kynaston’s unusual relationship with beauty serves as a reminder that looks are far from everything, even when people make them so. By most accounts Kynaston was an actor with range and gravitas, yet his appearance has outshined his achievements and even his character—we know little about the kind of person he was offstage. History is often about highlighting change, but Kynaston raises all kinds of questions for me about the historical value of beauty.
“Kynaston, Edward (bap. 1643, d. 1712?),” J. Milling in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, September 2013, http://www.oxforddnb.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/view/article/15821 (accessed April 30, 2016).
Charles Spencer, Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier (London: Phoenix, 2007), 314-315.