John Heywood 1497–-1580
English playwright and poet.
Heywood was a popular court entertainer during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. His six surving interludes—dramatized dialogues—are seen as a link between medieval morality plays and the secular dramas of playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. The interludes, with their bawdry and punning, and their development of distinct, individualized characters, are considered an important development in the dramatic depiction of ordinary life. While many of Heywood's plays are heavily indebted to French farces, most critics have concluded that his retellings are aesthetically superior and reflect his distinctive style and original ideas. Heywood was also renowned in his lifetime for his witty poems and collections of epigrams and proverbs, which are now valued by folklorists but often judged thematically obscure. It is, therefore, as a playwright that Heywood remains of interest today, particularly among scholars of the roots of Elizabethan drama.
Statements in Heywood's correspondence indicate that he was born in London in 1497. He briefly attended Broadgates College at Oxford University but apparently did not complete his studies. From 1519 to 1528 he gained success as a court entertainer, composing and playing music and writing interludes for royalty and their guests. Sometime during this period he married Eliza Rastell, the daughter of the printer John Rastell, who introduced Heywood to his brother-in-law Sir Thomas More. More's influence on Heywood would be keenly felt in Heywood's six plays, both in their use of debates to consider many sides of an issue and in their use of humor and wordplay to convey moral messages. In the period from 1528 to 1548 Heywood served with the choir at Saint Paul's Cathedral and the Royal Chapel and formed connections with several prominent individuals and associations. In 1533 four of his plays, Johan Johan, A Play of Love, The Play of the Weather, and The Pardoner and the Friar were published, although they had all been written and performed prior to 1530; a fifth play, The Four PP, was published in 1544. In this same year Heywood was sent to prison for plotting to overthrow the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. After he recanted he was pardoned and allowed to resume his position as royal entertainer. From 1546 to 1562 Heywood wrote several non-dramatic works, many of them collections of proverbs, epigrams, and poetry which enhanced his reputation as a witty wordsmith. In 1556 his most famous poem, The Spider and the Fly, was published, but its social and political critique was as confusing in its own time as it is today. During this period Heywood's devotion to Catholicism helped him gain favor with Queen Mary, whom he served as a personal steward. For several years he worked in the court of Queen Elizabeth, until persecution of Catholics forced him to flee to France in 1564, where he lived until 1575. Heywood probably died around 1580 in Belgium. A final drama, Witty and Witless, remained unpublished at his death; it survived only in manuscript until it was finally published in 1846.
It is believed that all six of Heywood's plays were written and performed many years before they began to be published in 1533. Unlike medieval plays that rely on biblical allegory, Heywood's plays stress individual characters whose ambiguous morality is satirized. Several of his works are based on French farces and show the influence of Chaucer, particularly in their use of debates, rhyming verse, and bawdy humor, and their thematic concerns with social mores and speech. Johan Johan, echoing much of the style of Chaucer in its tale of a cuckold, is Heywood's reworking of a French farce. The Play of the Weather, too, owes something to Chaucer in its presentation of a welter of characters who petition Jupiter to make the weather suit their particular desires. Despite Heywood's commitment to Catholicism, many of these plays include criticisms of abuses of power in the Church. The Four PP, for example, includes a lying contest involving a Palmer, a Pardoner, a Pothecary, and a Pedler.
In addition to his dramatic work, Heywood published a considerable number of proverbs, epigrams, and poems. Many of his collections of proverbs, including the 1546 Dialogue of Proverbs, string together hundreds of popular English maxims and sayings into a single narrative. His many collections of epigrams—short poems ending with a riddling and usually humorous conclusion—gained Heywood the reputation as one of the wittiest men of his age. His poems alternately sing the praises of English nobility or offer social commentary on political and religious institutions, though in the case of The Spider and the Fly, a long poem written in ninety-six chapters over a twenty year period, the allegorical allusions are difficult to decipher.
Heywood's interludes, proverbs, and poetry gained him in his lifetime great success as an entertainer, a man whose satirical dramatic debates, bawdy humor, and witty turns of phrase made him a favorite in several of the royal courts of his day. Some critics, however, have been harsh in their assessment of Heywood, often finding his poetry tedious, the allusions of The Spider and the Fly incomprehensible, and his drama dated thematically and stylistically. Much of the scholarly debate about his plays centers around their sources and just how indebted Heywood was to published French farces; however, most critics conclude that even though Heywood borrowed heavily from these farces he was able to make them his own with his use of wordplay and philosophical debate. Citing Heywood as one of the first British playwrights to move beyond the conventions of the morality play and strict religious allegory, critics find in his works anticipations of the emphases on individual characters, moral uncertainty, and realistic situations of later drama.