John Heywood Heywood, John - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

A Mery Play betwene Johan Johan the Husbande, Tyb His Wyfe & Syr Jhän the Preest (play) 1533

A Mery Play betwene the Pardoner and the Frere / the Curate and Neybour Pratte (play) 1533

A Play of Loue, a Newe and a Mery Enterlude Concernying Pleasure and Payne in Loue (play) 1533

The Play of the Wether: A New and a Very Mery Enterlude of All Maner Wethers (play) 1533

The Playe Called the Foure PP: A Newe and a Very Mery Enterlude of A Palmer. A Pardoner. A Potycary. A Pedler (play) c. 1544

A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue, Compacte in a Matter Concernyng Two Maner of Mariages (poetry) 1546; enlarged edition 1550

An Hundred Epigrammes (epigrams) 1550

A Balade Specifyienge Partly the Maner, Partly the Matter, in the Mariage betwene Our Soueraigne Lord, and Our Soueraigne Lady (poetry) 1554

Two Hundred Epigrammes Vpon Two Hundred Prouerbes, With a Thyrde Hundred Newely Added (epigrams and proverbs) 1555

The Spider and the Flie: A Parable (poetry) 1556

A Breefe Balet Touchyng the Traytorous Takynge of Scarborow Castell (poetry) 1557

A Fourth Hundred of Epygrams, Newly Inuented (epigrams) 1560

A Ballad against Slander and Detraction (poetry) 1562

John Heywoodes Woorkes: A Dialogue Conteyning the Number of the Effectuall Prouerbes in the Englishe Tounge, Compact in a Matter Concernyng Two Maner of Maryages. With One Hundred of Epigrammes, and Three Hundred of Epigrammes vpon Three Hundred Prouerbes, and a Fifth Hundred of Epigrams. Wherevnto Are Now Newly Added a Syxt Hundred of Epigrams (epigrams and proverbs) 1562

*A Dialogue on Wit and Folly, by John Heywood, Now First Printed from the Original Manuscript in the British Museum. To Which is Prefixed, an Account of That Author, and His Dramatic Works (play) 1846

*This work, which is also known as Witty and Witless, was probably composed around 1544. It survived only in manuscript until its first publication in 1846.

John Walter McCain, Jr. (essay date 1940)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Oratory, Rhetoric and Logic in the Writings of John Heywood,” in The Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, February 1940, pp. 44-7.

[In the following essay, McCain argues that even though many of Heywood's writings display his formal training in rhetoric and logic, the dramatist was adept at transcending rhetorical arguments to make his work aesthetically pleasing.]

The formal learning of the Middle Ages included oratory, rhetoric,1 and logic. These three subjects, the terminology of which was intricate and complex, were not always exclusive of one another; and all three were overformalized before the dawn of the Renaissance in...

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T. W. Craik (essay date 1950)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The True Source of John Heywood's ‘Johan Johan’,” in Modern Language Review, Vol. XLV, No. 3, July 1950, pp. 289-95.

[In the following essay, Craik demonstrates that Johan Johan is a translation of a French farce and concludes that Heywood was not always the innovative author many claim him to be.]

Professor Gustave Cohen's recent edition1 of fifty-three hitherto unedited farces is of great importance to the student of French farce. There is, however, an independent interest for English readers in the fact that in the nineteenth of these farces (Farce nouvelle et fort joyeuse du Pasté et est à trois personnaiges. C'est assavoir:...

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David R. Hauser (essay date 1955)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Date of John Heywood's The Spider and the Flie,” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. LXX, No. 1, January 1955, pp. 15-18.

[In the following essay, Hauser argues that The Spider and the Fly becomes more comprehensible when read as social commentary rather than a historical allegory.]

Heywood's magnum opus has been a constant source of bewilderment to readers attempting to pinpoint its allegorical referents. The confusion has arisen from these lines near the end of the poem:

I have, (good readers) this parable here pende:
(After olde beginning) newly brought to ende.
The thing, yeres mo then twentie since it begoon.
To the...

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T. W. Craik (essay date 1964)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Experiment and Variety in John Heywood's Plays,” in Renaissance Drama, Vol. VII, 1964, pp. 6-11.

[In the following essay, Craik discusses The Play of the Weather, The Four PP, and The Pardoner and the Friar as examples of the Heywood's innovative dramatic technique.]

John Heywood may be considered as standing in a line of English comedy connecting Chaucer and Shakespeare. Like them, he writes for sophisticated hearers who also appreciate robust humor and occasional coarseness; and, like theirs, his best work has the appearance of evolving naturally—even unexpectedly—and not of being worked out beforehand in every detail. Though his...

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David M. Bevington (essay date 1964)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Is John Heywood's Play of the Weather really about the Weather?,” in Renaissance Drama, Vol. VII, 1964, pp. 11-19.

[In the following essay, Bevington concentrates on the role played by Merry Report in Play of the Weather, concluding that the character is an “allowed fool,” “wisely exposing the insanity of supposedly sane men.”]

To what extent is John Heywood's Play of the Weather about the weather? A modern reader approaches it first as a jeu d'esprit on a trivial subject, revealing the playwright's skill in mere ingenious debate and farfetched comic situations. Kenneth Cameron theorizes, on the other hand, that...

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Maurice Hussey and Surendra Agarwala (essay date 1968)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Introduction: Old English Comedies,” in The Play of the Weather by John Heywood and Other Tudor Comedies, adapted by Maurice Hussey and Surendra Agarwala, Theatre Art Books, 1968, pp. 1-7.

[In the following essay, Hussey and Agarwala describe important details from Heywood's life and argue that his plays served as a bridge between medieval and Elizabethan drama with their employment of farce, individualized characters, and stylized debate.]

When or where John Heywood was born is not known precisely. The events and the course of his life have to be pieced together from a variety of sources. This fact is surprising in a man who was so distinguished in his...

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James C. Bryant (essay date 1971)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Pardoner and the Friar as Reformation Polemic,” in Renaissance Papers 1971, edited by Dennis G. Donovan and A. Leigh Deneef, The Southeastern Renaissance Conference, 1972, pp. 17-24.

[In the following essay, Bryant analyzes The Pardoner and the Friar, which, he argues, is not really a bitter attack on the Roman Catholic Church but rather a general satire of religious corruption.]

While Henry VIII may have smiled at first upon dramatic pieces written in support of the papacy, his apparent tolerance changed drastically after Pope Clement VII excommunicated him in 1533. Thereafter the stage became a powerful weapon for propagandists in the...

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Alcuin Blamires (essay date 1979)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “John Heywood and The Four PP,” in Trivium, Vol. 14, May 1979, pp. 47-69.

[In the following essay, Blamires calls The Four PP Heywood's best drama, arguing that the play should not be dismissed by critics as a frivolous work full of humor and short on literary achievement.]

John Heywood's ‘mad plays’, as he called them, have seemed to many readers to be a particularly eccentric outgrowth from the crop of hybrid drama which characterizes the mid-sixteenth century in England. In surveys of pre-Shakespearian drama, his works are often briskly disposed of as “debates” (insinuating that they are in a subsidiary category of drama) influenced...

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Howard B. Norland (essay date 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Formalizing English Farce: Johan Johan and its French Connection,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 17, No. 2, Summer 1983, pp. 141-52.

[In the following essay, Norland focuses on the ways in which Johan Johan varies from its French source, concluding that Heywood, if he is indeed the translator of this farce, produced an English version that is in many ways artistically superior to the French original.]

Although Noah's wife and Mak with his “sothren tothe” may possibly provide earlier examples of farcical action in the Towneley cycle, Johan Johan, published by William Rastell in 1533, is the first play printed in England to represent...

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Nai-Tung Ting (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Use of Folk Tales in the Works of John Heywood,” in International Folklore Review, Vol. 4, 1986, pp. 55-61.

[In the following essay, Ting demonstrates that several of Heywood's plays and some of the proverbs in his Dialogue of Proverbs were based on folktales and other medieval oral traditions.]

To most folklorists, John Heywood, a popular mid-16th-century English writer, is known primarily as a collector of proverbs. His Dialogue of Proverbs, as Rudolph Habenicht has pointed out, gave strong impetus to the fashion for proverbs during his own day.1 Heywood presumably knew not only earlier and classical adages through reading,...

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Richard Finkelstein (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Formation of the Christian Self in The Four P.P.,” in Early Drama to 1600, edited by Albert H. Tricomi, State University of New York at Binghamton, 1987, pp. 143-52.

[In the following essay, Finkelstein argues that The Four PP owes much to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, although Heywood's play subtly modifies many of Chaucer's anti-feminist themes.]

In the The Four P.P. John Heywood amplifies the schematic débat plots of Witty and Witless and The Pardoner and the Friar to present a four-way competition for authority and power. Whereas The Play of the Weather mixes the débat with a morality-play structure, the...

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David Boocker (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Heywood's Indulgent Pardoner,” in English Language Notes, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, December 1991, pp. 21-30.

[In the following essay, Boocker argues that The Pardoner and the Friar is not merely a humorous farce but a pointed attack on the Pope and the Church's practice of granting indulgences.]

In his study on Tudor Drama and Religious Controversy James C. Bryant states that John Heywood wrote his plays for the popular audience: “that is, [he] held up the mirror to reflect both nature and the times in which [he] wrote [them]. [He] did not necessarily prescribe public taste; [he] echoed it”.1 This leads Bryant to conclude that...

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Richard Axton and Peter Happé (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Life and Works,” and “The Plays,” in The Plays of John Heywood, edited by Richard Axton and Peter Happé, D. S. Brewer, 1991, pp. 1-10, 11-31.

[In the following excerpts from the introduction to their edition of Heywood's plays, Axton and Happé discuss details from the author's life and survey the plots, themes, and staging of his interludes.]


Art thou Heywood that hath made many plaies?
Ye many plaies, fewe good woorkes in all my daies.

(Epigram 100, Fifth Hundred of Epigrans)

Heywood's long life (c.1497-1578) spans five reigns of doctrinal and social upheaval. As a loyal...

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Troy Reeves (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Frailty of Human Judgment as the Unifying Theme of The Four PP,” in The University of Dayton Review, Vol. 21, No. 3, Spring 1992, pp. 67-71.

[In the following essay, Reeves argues that the moralistic ending of Heywood's bawdy play The Four PP is not out of place, but rather works to underscore the drama's theme that virtue cannot be judged by individuals.]

Despite its bawdy dialogue. trivial plot, and profane characters, The Four PP ends with an evidently straightfaced and seriously-intended moral. John Heywood, apparently wanting the best of both worlds, profane and sacred, seems intent on amusing his audience with a rowdy tale...

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Kent Cartwright (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Humanism of Acting: John Heywood's The Foure PP,” in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring 1993, pp. 21-46.

[In the following essay, Cartwright argues that The Four PP is the first English play in which ambiguous characterization leads to unpredictability and complexity, and thus serves as a bridge from medieval drama to works by Renaissance writers like Marlowe and Shakespeare.]

John Heywood's The Foure PP (c. 1520s)1 exposes a possibility in acting and spectatorial effect that will ultimately help distinguish renaissance drama from medieval drama. Reproducing a system of allegorical...

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Richard Axton (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Royal Throne, Royal Bed: John Heywood and Spectacle,” in Medieval English Theatre, Vol. 16, 1994, pp. 66-75.

[In the following essay, Axton discusses Heywood's use of startling dramatic effects to convey meaning in several of his plays.]

Heywood's only spectacular stage direction comes in A Play of Love:1

Here the vyse cometh in ronnyng sodenly aboute the place among the audyens with a hye copyn tank on his hed full of squybs fyred, cryeng ‘Water, water, fyre, fyre, fyre, water, water, fyre’ …

1297 sd

Real fire in the theatre is one...

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Lynn Forest-Hill (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Lucian's Satire of Philosophers in Heywood's Play of the Wether,” in Medieval English Theatre, Vol. 18, 1996, pp. 142-60.

[In the following essay, Forest-Hill argues that in The Play of the Weather Heywood borrows a satire of ancient philosophers by the classical writer Lucian to make contentious political statements.]

Critics have long recognised that John Heywood used the petitions for weather from Lucian's Dialogue Icaromenippus as the source for his Play of the Wether,1 but they have not observed that the satire of philosophers from the same source is also used in the play. Indeed in the 1991 edition of Heywood's...

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Peter Happé (essay date 1999)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Dramatic Images of Kingship in Heywood and Bale,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 39, No. 2, Spring 1999, pp. 239-53.

[In the following essay, Happé connects The Play of the Weather with the political events of the period in which it was written, particularly linking the play's depiction of Jupiter with Henry VIII.]

This realm of England is an Empire … governed by one supreme head and king, having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial crown of the same.

These words in the Act in Restraint of Appeals of 1553 underlie the dramatic treatment of Henry VIII in John...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Kolin, Philip C. “Recent Studies in John Heywood.” English Literary Renaissance 13, No. 1 (Winter 1983): 113-23.

Detailed annotated bibliography of scholarly essays on Heywood's works.


Bolwell, Robert W. The Life and Works of John Heywood, New York: Columbia University Press, 1921, 188 p.

Full-length study of Heywood's life and principal works.


Cameron, Kenneth Walter. The Background of John Heywood's “Witty and Witless”: A Study in Early Tudor Drama, Raleigh, N. C.: The Thistle Press, 1941, 46 p....

(The entire section is 367 words.)