ELIZABETHAN children were snatched off the street and forced into theatre companies but Shakespeare tried to stop it from happening, researchers have claimed.
Children as young as 11 were being kidnapped on their way to school and made to dress up as girls in exclusive plays for the gentry.
If they failed to learn their lines, they were horse-whipped.
Documents in the Public Record Office at Kew have also revealed how unscrupulous theatre owners targeted grammar school boys because victims needed to be able to read to learn their lines.
They detail at least eight youngsters being snatched.
There were also private theatres which held VIP performances for aristocrats behind closed doors.
Larger outdoor public theatres, such as The Globe, were concerned by the morals of dragooning children into acting and Shakespeare appears to snipe at the trade in lines from Hamlet.
Patricia Reynolds, reader adviser at The National Archives, began her research after coming across a book in the library called Children Of The Chapel At Blackfriars 1597-1603, by Charles William Wallace.
Children’s companies grew out of the medieval tradition of boy choristers acting in religious plays for the court.
The choirmasters had royal authority to press gang children into service.
By the late 16th century, St Paul’s and the Chapel Royal both had children’s companies.
The new Blackfriars Theatre needed as many boys as possible to create a rival acting troupe.
In 1600 choirmaster Nathaniel Giles sent two men to grab 13-year-old Thomas Clifton “with great force and surprise” on his way to Christ Church Grammar School.
The boy was hauled back to the theatre and with threats of whipping, given lines to learn “by harte”.
His father Henry only got his child back because he knew Sir John Fortescue, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Privy Council.
Thomas’s ordeal was detailed in Mr Clifton’s complaint, found in the National Archives, which was dealt with in the Star Chamber in 1602.
He revealed during the hearing that seven other boys as young as 11 were also “unjustly taken” by the Blackfriars kidnappers around the same time.
Ms Reynolds said: “This was a dark and disturbing episode of kidnap and forced child labour. Shakespeare refused to have anything to do with it. Public theatres like The Globe only used boy actors apprenticed by their parents.
“Kidnapping was something that went on in the private theatres, but things had got out of hand.”
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet children’s companies are referred to as “little eyases”, meaning untrained hawks.