William Rowley Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

When and where William Rowley (ROW-lee) was born and much else about his life and career are only conjecture, with elements of his biography pieced together from allusions to him in play texts and theater records. A popular actor of secondary comic roles on London stages for almost two decades, he wrote plays mainly in collaboration with others, and the four extant ones he presumably did alone are his least memorable contributions to the Jacobean and Caroline drama. He is remembered only because of his work with major contemporaries: Thomas Dekker, John Fletcher, John Ford, Thomas Heywood, John Webster, and (mainly) Thomas Middleton. Although a late published text of The Birth of Merlin names him and William Shakespeare as coauthors, the attribution is suspect.

Rowley’s first play—The Travels of the Three English Brothers, written with John Day and George Wilkins—was licensed in 1607; in the next two years, two comedies, a solo effort called A Shoemaker a Gentleman and Fortune by Land and Sea with Heywood, were performed at The Curtain in London by Queen Anne’s Company, so Rowley probably was a member. By mid-1609, he had switched to Prince Charles’s Men (later called Lady Elizabeth’s Company) as actor and playwright, where he remained until 1622. He moved to the King’s Men in 1623, continuing to write and perform, specializing in comic fat man roles that he and his collaborators may have written expressly for him. Full-time man of the theater though he was, Rowley did some nondramatic writing, including a satirical pamphlet, A Search for Money; a poetic eulogy on the death of Prince Henry, printed in two different collections in 1612 and 1613; and a 1621 elegy in memory of a fellow actor.

The first of Rowley’s four extant solo dramas is A Shoemaker a Gentleman, a tragic farce...

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William Rowley Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Bentley, Gerald Eades. The Jacobean and Caroline Stage. Vols. 2 and 5. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1941. A thorough presentation of known information about Rowley as player and playwright.

Howard-Hill, T. H. “William Rowley.” In Jacobean and Caroline Drama, edited by Fredson Bowers. Vol. 58 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1987. An overview of Rowley’s career, with discussions and evaluations of his plays plus a useful bibliography.

Leggatt, Alexander. English Drama: Shakespeare to the Restoration, 1590-1660. London: Longman, 1988. Accesses Rowley’s contributions to the plays he wrote with Thomas Middleton and others.

Logan, Terence P., and Denzell S. Smith, eds. The Popular School. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975. An authoritative, annotated bibliography of key studies of Rowley’s plays and biographical issues.