John Heywood Essay - Critical Essays

John Heywood Drama Analysis

The six plays of John Heywood’s canon fall naturally into two groups: three debate plays, rhetorical disputations on set topics, and three farces, which include considerable argumentation but also feature rudimentary plots and lively onstage action. Heywood’s reputation as a dramatist rests on six plays, though he is known to have written others, along with masques at court, and he has sometimes been credited with the authorship of the two-part interlude Gentleness and Nobility (pb. 1535), by John Rastell. Heywood’s accomplishment was that he detached the interlude from its dependency on allegorical figures and introduced flesh-and-blood people into his simple plots; in his farces, Heywood created vivid characters whose interests and passions the audience shares even while it laughs at them. His plays benefit from his wide metrical range and considerable skills as a versifier; he makes good use, too, of his extensive proverb lore and of his famous facility with the quick quip. Despite the long passages of tedious dispute in some of the plays, at its best Heywood’s dramatic dialogue sparkles with vivid homely diction, lively rhythms, and clever rhymes.

Witty and Witless

Of the farces, the simplest is Witty and Witless, with only three characters. In the play, John and James debate the latter’s paradoxical proposition that it is “better to be a fool, than a wise man.” James triumphs by showing that the Witless and the Witty equally suffer bodily pain, that Witless suffers lesser mental pain, and that Witless, being innocent, is sure of the supreme pleasure—salvation. At this point, a third interlocutor, Jerome, intervenes; he upbraids John for yielding and proceeds to overturn all three conclusions. He ends in a terse sermon showing that good deeds affect heavenly rewards proportionally—an anti-Lutheran view that at the time would have pleased Henry VIII, who in 1521 was named Defender of the Faith for his anti-Lutheran writing. Heywood’s debate is in the ironic Humanist tradition of Erasmus’s Mori Encomium (1511; The Praise of Folly, 1549); it also is indebted to a French farce, Dyalogue du fol et du sage, but goes beyond this source, which ends with the victory of the fool, to make a pious nonironic ending.

The Play of Love

A considerable step up from this play in rhetorical complexity is The Play of Love, a disputation in which two pairs of debaters consider the pains and pleasures of love. This play may have been produced about 1528-1529 for a Christmas revel before an Inns of Court audience who would have followed the legalistic arguments with interest. The four characters make up the possible permutations of love pairings. Lover Not Loved begins by asserting that of all pains, his is the worst. Beloved Not Loving, a woman, challenges him with a claim that her pain from incessant and unwelcome wooing is worse. After fruitless argument, they go off to find an arbitrator. Meanwhile the joyful Lover Loved enters with a song and declares that “The highest pleasure man can obtain,/ Is to be a lover beloved again.” He in turn is challenged by the cocky, taunting Vice named Neither Lover Nor Loved, who avers that a lover is always torn by some passion but that he, being passionless, lives in quiet. When Lover Loved goes to find an indifferent judge of their dispute, the Vice relates to the audience his own love experience, in which he and a sweet damsel deceived each other; this story provides plausible motivation (unusual for a Vice character) for his mocking attitude toward all love. Each pair of disputants chooses the other as judges, with the result that both disputes end, anticlimactically, in a tie: Lover Not Loved and Beloved Not Loving are judged to suffer equal pains, while Lover Loved and Neither Lover Nor Loved enjoy equivalent pleasures. While the arguments are tedious, the play has its moment of excitement: At one point, the Vice runs in “among the audience with a high copper tank on his head full of squibs fired crying . . . fire! fire!” His prank has a purpose: He tells Lover Loved that his mistress has been burned, and the Lover’s misery amply proves the Vice’s contention that lovers are anxiety-ridden.

The Play of the Weather

The third of the debate plays, The Play of the Weather, has the largest cast among Heywood’s dramas, with ten characters. Heywood makes an entertaining play from the most trifling of subjects: complaints about the weather. When the great god Jupiter resolves to hear and redress grievances about the weather, eight characters...

(The entire section is 1902 words.)