In an age that produced William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Heywood achieved a popular success on the stage that very likely dimmed even that of the masters. He was extremely popular in the pit with an audience that sought entertainment more than enlightenment. Critic A. M. Clark has said that Heywood “was the journeyman-playwright par excellence, with a facility, not unlike the knack of a skilled artisan, with a dramatic insight that never altogether failed him, and without the vagaries and transcendences of a conscious literature.” Heywood’s plays presented characters and plots with which his audience could identify. That Heywood was able to present such middle-class characters, speaking naturally and responding to their conflicts with a morality consistent with their station in life, is not surprising, nor is it necessarily commendable. That he was able to do it and, within such strict boundaries, still produce effective scripts, always with dramatic and sometimes with literary quality, is more than commendable. As a result, Heywood became, in a genuine sense, the founder of the middle-class drama.
Heywood’s plots were often borrowed from the chapbook literature that was popular during the early seventeenth century, and those that were not were framed as if they had been. Thus, his settings and actions were familiar to theatergoers. The Wise Woman of Hogsdon, for example, follows from the interest of his contemporaries in witches—an interest on which Heywood later capitalized in The Late Lancashire Witches—and the play effectively uses the comic potential in the fraud of such persons as the Wise Woman proves to be. Such con artists were familiar to Heywood’s audience; thus, the Wise Woman’s various intrigues were of considerable interest. The Fair Maid of the West, although spiced with a certain amount of romance, also demonstrates this sense of immediacy. The audience would have found themselves quite at home during the tavern scenes or laughing with recognition at the clown Clem, who, with typical English decorum, takes himself a bit too seriously for his own good. The central plots of A Woman Killed with Kindness and The English Traveler, however, best demonstrate this point. Such accounts of infidelity and lovers’ intrigues were common in the popular literature of the day, materials that certainly would have been familiar to Heywood’s audience. They are, moreover, stories of characters from the middle class.
It is in fact the characters more than the plots in Heywood’s plays that do the most to break down barriers between the playwright and his audience. In A Woman Killed with Kindness, Frankford, though a member of the landed gentry, is not a member of the nobility. His grief is not that brought on by the peculiar circumstances of lofty birth but, rather, the kind of sorrow that anyone in the audience might experience. Anne’s sin, moreover, is not one she commits because of some gruesome sense of fate. Hers is the weakness of human nature—again, a weakness shared with the audience. Bess, the heroine of The Fair Maid of the West, despite her excessive virtues, would have greatly pleased the audience, as she was a tavern mistress, a member of their own plebeian class. These few examples well illustrate the generalization that the characters of Heywood’s plays, at least the better works, held up a mirror to early seventeenth century life.
To depict the experiences of such middle-class characters confronting what were generally the conflicts of the middle class, Heywood used what could well be regarded as pedestrian language. Poetry was the appropriate language for Shakespeare’s noble characters, just as Heywood’s prose and simple diction are completely in line with the thematic structure of his plays. His characters are lower in stature than are Shakespeare’s; his themes are domestic. For his characters to speak in lofty tones would be out of place, and Heywood was enough of a dramatist to realize that his characters should use language and express sentiments appropriate to their station in life and the conflicts they faced.
The Fair Maid of the West
Clark has labeled The Fair Maid of the West the “quintessence of popular literature,” referring primarily to its excellent fusion of romantic elements with those of the domestic comedy. Heywood’s success in combining these seemingly disparate elements also makes this his best comedy, containing characters from the domestic mode and plot from the romantic. Both work well to illustrate a theme basic to the Heywood canon: that fidelity, chastity, and married love are virtues that ennoble men and women of the middle class.
Bess Bridges, the heroine of The Fair Maid of the West, is reputed to be unmatched in virtue as well as in beauty, making the tavern where she works a popular gathering place for a lively crowd of suitors, including the gallant Spencer, who in her defense kills the overbearing Carroll and is forced to flee to Fayal to avoid being arrested. There he is wounded and, thinking that he will die, sends Goodlack to entrust his entire estate to Bess if she has remained faithful to him. She has, and after hearing that her love is dead, she sets out to Fayal to see his grave. While on the sea, she purges it of Spanish pirates until she is reunited with and married to Spencer at the court of Mullisheg.
This summary illustrates the romantic aspects of the play. It includes voyages on the high seas, suggestive of the many chronicles of travel that were popular at the time. Bess takes on heroic if improbable stature as she captures ships that have been terrorizing the English merchant fleet. Thus, the play rings with patriotism such as would have been applauded by an audience who had within recent memory seen the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The settings shift from the tavern at Fay, in the domestic comedy tradition, to the court of Mullisheg, in the realm of romance. Yet throughout, the basic theme of the play is that the fundamental chastity of simple characters such as Bess and the faithfulness to love characteristic of Spencer are ennobling—that it is virtue, not birth,...
(The entire section is 2562 words.)