William Rowley Essay - Critical Essays

Rowley, William


William Rowley 1585?-1626

English playwright.

A prominent stage actor, Rowley is chiefly remembered as a co-author of as many as 50 plays. His skills as a comic writer were in high demand and Rowley collaborated with many of the most notable playwrights of his day, including Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker, John Ford, John Fletcher, and John Webster. Some scholars also believe he may have co-authored a play with William Shakespeare. Rowley is credited with creating the comic elements, satiric subplots, and puns in such works as A Fair Quarrel (1617) and The Changeling (1622), both collaborations with Thomas Middleton. Though he has not garnered the same degree of critical attention as many of his co-authors, Rowley made notable contributions to many well-known plays of his day.

Biographical Information

Almost nothing is known about Rowley's life. When and where he was born is a matter of wide speculation, though the street-wise utterances of his characters suggest that Rowley may have grown up in London, the son of lowly parents. His educational background is also a mystery, and the earliest public record of Rowley comes from the first decade of the seventeenth century, in theater handbills where he was listed as an actor. Over the course of nearly twenty years of working for such London theatrical groups as Queen Anne's company, Prince Charles's Men, and the King's company, Rowley gained popular recognition as one of London's leading actors, specializing in the portrayal of fat clowns and in popular “low” comedy. Rowley's stage career also brought him into contact with many of England's best-known playwrights, with whom he co-wrote approximately 30-50 plays. Rowley's exact death date is not known, although his burial was recorded at St. James's in Clerkenwell on February 11, 1626.

Major Works

While his literary renown derives entirely from the works he wrote with other playwrights, Rowley did compose several plays alone. Among these are A Shoemaker a Gentleman (1608?), A New Wonder, a Woman Never Vext (1611-14?), All's Lost by Lust (1619?), and A Match at Midnight (1622). With the exception of All's Lost by Lust, a tragedy which garners some critical praise, Rowley's plays can be described as comedic farces focusing on domestic disputes caused by sexual intrigue. These works are seldom examined by literary scholars for their intrinsic merit but instead are studied to pinpoint Rowley's style so that his role in collaborative works can be more clearly discerned.

Nearly all of the major dramatic works for which Rowley is remembered were collaborations with Thomas Middleton, among them A Fair Quarrel, The Old Law, or, A New Way to Please You (1618?), and The Changeling. Although scholars cannot precisely identify what lines and acts of these plays were written by which of the playwrights, they usually credit Rowley with the humorous, often satirical, subplots in what are otherwise tragedies or works of social commentary. Like nearly all of his collaborations, these three plays exhibit the common element of multiple plots, with Rowley's comic additions serving to balance the plays' weightier thematic concerns. A play that has only recently gained attention as one of Rowley's best collaborative efforts—on this occasion with Thomas Dekker and John Ford—is The Witch of Edmonton (1621), a work which uses the factual events surrounding the execution of an Englishwoman for witchcraft to illustrate social injustice.

Critical Reception

Critics generally agree that Rowley's best plays are those on which he collaborated with Middleton, with the latter usually seen as responsible for the works' psychological subtlety and overall dramatic force. The vast majority of Rowley-Middleton criticism has focused on The Changeling, a sexually charged tragicomedy concerned with themes of sin and retribution, although the co-authors' A Fair Quarrel and The Old Law have also drawn considerable praise. In some cases scholars have simply ignored Rowley's part in the writing of these plays, mentioning his authorship only in passing before concentrating on themes and issues attributed to Middleton alone. Other critics have speculated on which sections of each play were written by Middleton and which by Rowley, basing their hypotheses on thematic, semantic, and grammatical similarities to extant works of Middleton or Rowley. In most cases, Rowley is assigned the comedic sections of these plays, and he is typically regarded as being responsible for the works' punning, bawdy humor, and in some cases, verse passages of substandard quality. Criticism follows the same pattern regarding Rowley's other collaborative efforts, his contributions being either ignored or deemed inferior elements in otherwise worthy dramas. Nevertheless, modern scholars are beginning to argue that Rowley deserves greater credit for his contributions. These more positive appraisals have asserted that Rowley's comic subplots do not detract from, but rather complement, the serious themes of the plays on which he collaborated. Some commentators have argued that in his work with Middleton, Rowley helped balance the latter writer's formal and restrained style with humor, giving their works a popular appeal they might otherwise have lacked. In this revised view, Rowley emerges as a capable and worthy playwright who understood common men and women and who was essential to the success of many of his era's most notable plays.

Principal Works

The Travels of the Three English Brothers [with John Day and George Wilkins] (play) 1607

A Shoemaker a Gentleman (play) 1608?

Fortune by Land and Sea [with Thomas Heywood] (play) 1609?

A Search for Money, or, The Lamentable Complaint for the Losse of Mounsieur l'Argent (nonfiction) 1609

A New Wonder, a Woman Never Vext (play) 1611-14?

Hymen's Holiday, or, Cupid's Vagaries (play) circa 1612

The Birth of Merlin [with William Shakespeare?] (play) 1613-15?

The Fool Without Book (play) 1613?

A Knave in Print, or, One for Another (play) 1613?

Wit at Several Weapons [with Thomas Middleton] (play) 1613-15?

A Fair Quarrel [with Thomas Middleton] (play) circa 1617

The Old Law, or, A New Way to Please You [with Thomas Middleton] (play) 1618?

All's Lost by Lust (play) 1619?

The World Tossed at Tennis [with Thomas Middleton] (play) 1620

For a Funerall Elegie on the Death of Hugh Atwell, Seruant to Prince Charles (poetry) 1621

The Witch of Edmonton [with Thomas Dekker and John Ford] (play) 1621

The Changeling [with Thomas Middleton] (play) 1622

A Match at Midnight (play) 1622

The Four Honourable Loves (play) circa 1623

The Maid in the Mill [with John Fletcher] (play) 1623

The Nonesuch (play) 1623?

A Cure for a Cuckold [with John Webster] (play) 1624-25?

The Late Murder in Whitechapel, or, Keep the Widow Waking (play) 1624

A Match or No Match (play) 1624


Pauline Gertrude Wiggin Leonard (essay date 1897)

SOURCE: Leonard, Pauline Gertrude Wiggin. An Inquiry into the Authorship of the Middleton-Rowley Plays. Boston: Ginn, 1897, 59 p.

[In the following excerpt, Leonard takes exception with critics who have claimed that Rowley played an insignificant role in the plays he co-wrote with Thomas Middleton.]

Having considered the character of the scenes of these plays written by Middleton in comparison with that of the scenes contributed by Rowley, the reader is almost inevitably hurried to the conclusion that Rowley's contribution to the plays written in this partnership was a comparatively insignificant one, and that their remarkable excellence is largely, if not wholly, due to Middleton's genius. Indeed this has been the common opinion, and even Mr. Swinburne, who seems to be disposed to do full justice to Rowley, having remarked in connection with A Fair Quarrel that his part in it is easy for any tyro in criticism to unify, assigns him the underplot, and says that here his “besetting faults of coarseness and quaintness, stiffness and roughness, are so flagrant and obtrusive that we cannot avoid a feeling of regret and irritation at such untimely and inharmonious evidence of his partnership with a poet of finer if not of sturdier genius.” But this conclusion is not a necessary one, and, although if we should confine Rowley's share in these plays to the scenes actually written by him, we should be disposed to agree with Mr. Swinburne, I believe that a second and more careful consideration of the character of the dramas in the light of our somewhat minute investigation into the respective qualities of the two dramatists, will show that this position is not tenable, and that the contribution of Rowley was the reverse of insignificant.

In the first place, it is not necessary to confine Rowley's influence upon these dramas to the scenes which show traces of his hand; for the fact that it is possible to divide plays, and set aside certain scenes as having been written by Middleton and certain others by Rowley, does not by any means necessarily imply that these scenes belong to their respective writers in the same sense in which their unassisted work belongs to them.

This may appear to be a distinction too nice for serious consideration; but it is possible to maintain the point. Playwrights accustomed to collaboration assert that, often enough, after a play is done, neither of the collaborators is able to state exactly what is his and what is the other man's. As they talk over the plan, the plot grows insensibly, situations develop and characters become fixed, and the man who is strong in plots is helped out by the other who can, perhaps, manage the details better than he. At the end, if one has more time or greater literary skill than the other, he may, perhaps, set the whole play down; or at least it sometimes happens that the man who has had a less important share in the conception and planning out of any one scene may be the actual writer of it. But as the dialogue is not by any means the whole of a drama, it would be exceedingly unjust to give all the credit for the scene to him. Evidently, then, unless there is some reason why we should not admit that the partnership of Middleton and Rowley may have been of this nature, we are doing great injustice to Rowley if we assume, as critics generally have done, that his share in the plays was necessarily unimportant merely because those scenes that bear the mark of his hand happen to be the inferior ones.

And there is certainly nothing to prevent us from making such an admission. In the first place, the division of the responsibility for the actual writing-out of the scenes is a wholly natural one. Rowley took low comedy parts on the stage, and therefore may be supposed to have felt peculiar confidence in his knowledge of what was required in the underplot to make such a part strike the popular favor; and from the few notices we have of him, it is evident that he was an extremely busy man, manager and playwright at the same time. Middleton not only was the better literary workman, but also seems to have had sufficient leisure to be able to devote himself exclusively to the business of dramatic writing. Therefore it was natural that he should take upon himself the portions of these plays that required particular care and labor, leaving to his colleague the easy, farcical scenes of the underplot.

In the second place, it is not only possible that Middleton and Rowley consulted freely, and consequently influenced each other; it is extremely probable. Although in The Changeling they were compelled to deal with the same characters in trying situations—and those such difficult characters as Beatrice and De Flores—yet as we pass from one scene to another, we notice nothing incoherent in these parts, the treatment is consistent; and this achievement could hardly have been possible without a thorough mutual understanding. Evidently the two men consulted; and once admitting this fact of consultation, and the consequent influence of one man's ideas upon the other, the whole question of the respective shares of Middleton and Rowley in their joint plays assumes a new aspect.

I believe that the character of the plays at once becomes more comprehensible. For it grows more and more evident to the student, as he reads his Middleton carefully, that there is something in the scenes which were evidently written by him in A Fair Quarrel, The Spanish Gipsy, and The Changeling that is not found in the work he did without Rowley's aid. This appears in A Fair Quarrel. We have seen that Middleton's attitude toward the world and humanity was distinctly an unromantic one: the innocence of his women was the perishable innocence of ignorance, and after the first young period of The Phœnix he gave the stage no more romantic paragons of the male sex. And yet here we have a play whose chief characteristic, whose one distinguishing feature, and, we may add, whose great enduring charm is extreme, exaggerated romanticism. Its hero is required “to know the boundaries of honour, to be judiciously valiant, to have a temperance which shall beget a smoothness in the angry swellings of youth, to esteem life as nothing when the sacred reputation of a parent is to be defended, yet to shake and tremble under a pious cowardice when that ark of an honest confidence is found to be frail and tottering, to feel the true blows of a real disgrace blunting that sword which the imaginary strokes of a supposed false imputation had put so keen...

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Dewar M. Robb (essay date April 1950)

SOURCE: Robb, Dewar M. “The Canon of William Rowley's Plays.” Modern Language Review 45, no. 2 (April 1950): 129-41.

[In the following essay, Robb attempts to determine what part, if any, Rowley had in writing some twenty plays whose authorship is uncertain.]


In 1910 Dr Stork, in the introduction to his edition of A Shoemaker a Gentleman and All's Lost by Lust, listed thirty-one plays as ascribed, by one critic or another, though without agreement among themselves, to the pen of William Rowley. Even then the list was incomplete; to-day almost fifty plays would have to be included. The following pages contain in summary form...

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George R. Price (essay date February 1953)

SOURCE: Price, George R. “The Authorship and the Manuscript of The Old Law.Huntington Library Quarterly 16, no. 2 (February 1953): 117-39.

[In the following essay, Price discusses what part Rowley, Thomas Middleton, and Philip Massinger each had in writing and revising The Old Law.]

A primary question about The Old Law1 [OL] has always been that of authorship, or more precisely, the nature of the contributions of the collaborators whose names are on the title page. Of the several answers that have been given, the most exhaustive is by E. C. Morris, in an article of fifty years ago.2 Morris's conclusion, however, was...

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George Walton Williams (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Williams, George Walton. Introduction to The Changeling, by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, edited by George Walton Williams, pp. ix-xxiv. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.

[In the following essay, Williams discusses the collaborative authorship, popularity, plot, and themes of The Changeling.]

Thomas Middleton and William Rowley probably wrote The Changeling in the spring of 1622, for one of the literary sources of the play was entered for printing on March 11, 1622, and the play was complete on May 7, 1622, when it was licensed for performance by the company under the protection of Princess Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia.1 The...

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Robert Jordan (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Jordan, Robert. “Myth and Psychology in The Changeling.Renaissance Drama n.s. 3 (1970): 157-65.

[In the following essay, Jordan concentrates on mythic and poetic images in The Changeling.]

Commentators on Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling seem to be close to agreement on at least one point, the psychological subtlety of the play.1 Critic after critic comments on this feature, and many of them concentrate their energies on a depth analysis of the characters. In the present article I would like to challenge this standard critical perspective by suggesting that in the very place where so many critics see complexity of character...

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A. L. Kistner and M. K. Kistner (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Kistner, A. L. and Kistner, M. K. “The Spanish Gypsy.The Humanities Association 25 (1974): 211-24.

[In the following essay, the critics analyze themes of loss of identity in the main plot and subplots of Rowley and Middleton's The Spanish Gypsy.]

If each person enters the world with a guiltless soul and an integral identity and through sinning or belying his selfhood by assuming a false identity he loses his original innocence and integrity, then only through repentance, expiation, and reconciliation with any victims of his sin can he regain them. From a tragic point of view the latter portion of this philosophy, repentance, expiation, and rebirth,...

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Henry E. Jacobs (essay date winter 1975)

SOURCE: Jacobs, Henry E. “The Constancy of Change: Character and Perspective in The Changeling.Texas Studies in Literature and Language XVI, no. 4 (winter 1975): 651-74.

[In the following essay, Jacobs considers which characters in The Changeling can best be called “changelings,” concluding that death is the final condition of such individuals.]

“For, all that moveth, doth in Change delight.”

(Spenser, Faerie Queene, VII.vii)

Critics have long discussed the nature and identity of the changelings in Middleton and Rowley's play The Changeling. The problem...

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Raymond J. Pentzell (essay date spring 1975)

SOURCE: Pentzell, Raymond J. “The Changeling: Notes on Mannerism in Dramatic Form.” Comparative Drama 9, no. 1 (spring 1975): 3-28.

[In the following essay, Pentzell focuses on the formal aspects of The Changeling as a means of coming to a fuller understanding of the play.]

In the first act of The Changeling Beatrice-Joanna enters the stage a light-comic ingenue, as transparent and inconsequential as a spoiled Molière fille, and just as self-centered. Near the end of the fifth act she dies, guilty of murder and betrayal, her amour-propre having grown to fruition as a selfishness which grotesquely perverts her zeal for her own...

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A. L. Kistner and M. K. Kistner (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Kistner, A. L. and Kistner, M. K. “The Themes and Structure of A Fair Quarrel.Tennessee Studies in Literature 23 (1978): 31-46.

[In the following essay, the critics examine the thematic and structural elements of Rowley and Middleton's A Fair Quarrel.]

In Thomas Middleton and William Rowley's A Fair Quarrel, the conflict between appearance and reality—a motif inherent in nearly all of Middleton's works—passes from its usually subordinate role to dominate the play, providing theme, structure, and unity between the play's plot levels. The central conflict pits value systems that only appear to be valid against the one which, in the...

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Michael E. Mooney (essay date summer 1979)

SOURCE: Mooney, Michael E. “‘Framing’ as Collaborative Technique: Two Middleton-Rowley Plays.” Comparative Drama 13, no. 2 (summer 1979): 127-41.

[In the following essay, Mooney explores the collaborative effort of Rowley and Thomas Middleton in A Fair Quarrel and The Changeling.]

The nature of Renaissance dramatic collaboration remains a blind spot in the study of its dramaturgy. Although many explanations have been offered, we have yet to adequately describe a practice which employed nearly every Renaissance playwright, from Shakespeare and Jonson to Beaumont and Fletcher and a host of others, among them William Rowley and Thomas Middleton....

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MacD. P. Jackson (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Jackson, MacD. P. “Other Doubtful Middleton Ascriptions.” In Studies in Attribution: Middleton and Shakespeare, pp. 138-47. Salzburg: Institute für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1979.

[In the following essay, Jackson argues that while Rowley was certainly one of the authors of The Birth of Merlin, neither Thomas Middleton nor William Shakespeare collaborated on the work, as some have claimed.]

The Birth of Merlin was first published by Francis Kirkman in 1662 with a title page claiming that it had been written by William Shakespeare and William Rowley, an attribution which Kirkman had already made in his catalogue of...

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Michael E. Mooney (essay date spring 1980)

SOURCE: Mooney, Michael E. “‘The Common Sight’ and Dramatic Form: Rowley's Embedded Jig in A Faire Quarrel.Studies in English Literature 20, no. 2 (spring 1980): 305-23.

[In the following essay, Mooney examines Rowley's use of the jig in A Fair Quarrel.]

While the “embedded jig” is a feature common to many Renaissance plays, it is neither easily identifiable nor sharply defined. Indeed, even in C. R. Baskervill's seminal analysis we find uncertain limits demarcating the jig's perimeters. Although Baskervill centered his discussion on such isolated examples as “Singing Simkin,” “Rowland's Godson,” and “The Blackman,” and although he...

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J. L. Simmons (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Simmons, J. L. “Diabolical Realism in Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling.Renaissance Drama 11 (1980): 135-70.

[In the following essay, Simmons examines sexual fantasy and demonology in The Changeling.]

Middleton's paradoxical genius was affirmed by T. S. Eliot in 1927 in a way that modern criticism tends to vulgarize into simple contradiction. Middleton was, for Eliot, an “impersonal” artist with “no point of view,” “no message”; he was “merely a great recorder,” his work grounded by “a strain of realism underneath.”1 With those characteristics, however, and perhaps even because of them, he wrote in The...

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George Cheatham (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Cheatham, George. “The Date of William Rowley's A New Wonder, a Woman Never Vext.Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 75, no. 4 (1981): 437-42.

[In the following essay, Cheatham uses literary and historical clues to determine when Rowley might have written A New Wonder, A Woman Never Vext.]

Aside from its licensing on 24 November 1631 there is no contemporary external mention of or allusion to A New Wonder, nor is there any record of its initial staging. Consequently, the date of composition of the play is uncertain, even though there are two solid pieces of evidence which establish definite limits for the play's composition....

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Viviana Comensoli (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Comensoli, Viviana. “Witchcraft and Domestic Tragedy in The Witch of Edmonton.” In The Politics of Gender in Early Europe, edited by Jean R. Brink. Allison P. Coudert, and Maryanne C. Horowitz, pp. 43-59. Kirksville, Mo.: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1989.

[In the following essay, Comensoli argues that The Witch of Edmonton, attributed to Rowley, Thomas Dekker, and John Ford, was inspired by the execution of an English woman the same year the play was written and that the dramatists wanted to show that social ills, not demonology, were behind her trial and conviction.]

The Witch of Edmonton (1621) dramatizes the historical...

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Jeffrey Masten (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Masten, Jeffrey. “Family Values: Euthanasia, Editing, and The Old Law.Textual Practice 9, no. 3 (1995): 445-58.

[In the following essay, Masten considers variations in two early editions of The Old Law.]

GOD hath left his Maiestie a Sonne; a Prince, as in outward Liniaments, so in inward Abiliments, (I need say no more) an Alter-Idem, a second-selfe.

[God] wrote, and the writing was the writing, saith Moses, of God; … the matter was in Stone cut into two Tables, and the Tables were the worke of God written on both...

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Michael Nolan (essay date December 1997)

SOURCE: Nolan, Michael. “William Rowley and the Authorship of The Thracian Wonder.Notes and Queries 44, no. 4 (December 1997): 519-23.

[In the following essay, Nolan credits Rowley with the authorship of The Thracian Wonder on the basis of the elements this play has in common with Rowley's known works.]

Though The Thracian Wonder (c. 1610; published 1661) has a title-page attribution to John Webster and William Rowley, the play is now generally categorized as anonymous. The primary critical objection is to Webster and denial of his authorship is the central issue of commentary on Wonder. Conversely, there is silence about...

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Richard W. Grinnell (essay date May 1998)

SOURCE: Grinnell, Richard W. “Naming and Social Disintegration in The Witch of Edmonton.Essays in Theatre 16, no. 2 (May 1998): 209-23.

[In the following essay, Grinnell argues that The Witch of Edmonton is about social insecurity and upheaval.]

In 1621, Elizabeth Sawyer of Edmonton was brought to trial, tried, and executed for using witchcraft to kill her neighbor, Agnes Ratcliffe. Records show us that Sawyer was typical of those accused of witchcraft in Renaissance England: she was female, elderly, poor, willing to lash out at those she felt had wronged her, and Ratcliffe was a typical victim: of slightly higher social status, in conflict with...

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Further Reading


Bawcutt, N. W. Introduction to The Changeling, by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, pp. xv-lxviii. London: Methuen & Co., 1958.

Introductory notes to The Changeling that include biographies of Rowley and Middleton, discussions of their collaborative effort, and the play's stage history.

Berger, Thomas L. “The Petrarchan Forest of The Changeling.Renaissance Papers (1969): 37-46.

Analyzes the use of the Petrarchan conceit of the beloved as fortress in The Changeling.

Bromham, A. A. “The Significance of Names in Middleton and Rowley's The Old Law.”...

(The entire section is 633 words.)