Boy actors made an enormous and indispensable contribution to the theatres of the time. They fall into two distinct categories. On the one hand are those who belonged to the companies in which all the actors were boys, and on the other hand are those who worked for the adult groups. The popularity of the boy-only companies at times reached such heights as to constitute a serious threat to the adult companies, as Shakespeare makes clear in an unusual and lengthy digression in Hamlet which has far more to do with the theatres of his own time than with the matter of the play. The ‘tragedians of the city’, says Rosencrantz, are less followed than when Hamlet was ‘in the city’ – fictionally Wittenberg, though with an obvious application to London. They have been forced to go on tour (to Elsinore in this case) because of an ‘eyrie of children’ who ‘are now the fashion, and so berattle the common stages – so they call them – that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills, and dare scarce come thither’ (Hamlet, 2.2.340– 45). Shakespeare was writing Hamlet around 1600, a year after the company known as Paul’s Boys resumed playing after being in abeyance for nine years. And it was in 1600 that the Children of the Chapel Royal, who had stopped playing in 1584, began again at the Blackfriars.
The boys’ service was not always voluntary. Royal choirmasters had the right to impress boys for the Queen’s service, very much as men could be pressed into the army.
I did not know that. That's really quite grim.