John Heywood Analysis

Other Literary Forms

In his own time, John Heywood was best known for his published collections of epigrams, not for his plays, even though the dramas were printed earlier. His first published poetic work was A Dialogue of Proverbs (1546), a versified discussion of marriage incorporating more than twelve hundred proverbs. Heywood’s reputation was made by his several collections of original versified epigrams, six hundred in all, published beginning 1550 and collected in his Works in 1562; these quips and anecdotes, ranging from two to scores of lines apiece, are sometimes turgid, but they often shine with the wit for which Heywood was famous. He also wrote short occasional poems, songs and ballads, and a lengthy and obscure verse allegory, The Spider and the Fly (1556).


John Heywood was one of the first writers of secular English drama who portrayed not abstractions but individual persons as characters. Most early Tudor plays represented Bible stories or saints’ legends, or dramatized the conflict of such allegorical characters as Wisdom and Treason. Heywood’s interludes portray husbands, pardoners, scholars, and fools; while most are unnamed types, each is individualized deftly and many have more than one dimension of character. Although Heywood’s three disputation plays are heavy with choplogic, his three farces retain their vigor and interest. In plotting, character drawing, and versifying, Heywood was far more skilled, at his best, than were other Tudor playwrights. It must be said, however, that Heywood’s direct influence on later dramatists seems to have been small. The flowering of Elizabethan comedy, some fifty years after his interludes were published, developed without evident influence from his plays.

Other literary forms

In addition to writing poetry, John Heywood wrote dramatic works that can be divided into two groups: debates and farces. The four debates include The Play of Love (pr. c. 1528-1529), Witty and Witless (abridged pb. 1846, 1909), The Play of the Weather (pb. 1533), and Gentleness and Nobility (1535, attributed to Heywood). The farces include The Pardoner and the Friar (pb. 1533), Johan Johan the Husband, Tyb His Wife, and Sir Johan the Priest (pb. 1533, commonly known as Johan Johan), and The Playe of the Foure P.P.: A Newe and a Very Mery Enterlude of a Palmer, a Pardoner, a Potycary, a Pedler (pb. 1541-1547, commonly known as The Four P.P.). Two other plays, Calilsto and Melibaea (1530) and Thersites (1537), have been ascribed to Heywood but with insufficient evidence. Although Heywood was known in his own day primarily as the author of witty epigrams, modern criticism has tended to focus on his contributions to the evolution of English drama.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Many elements of John Heywood’s work—comedy, bawdry, wordplay, and lyricism—reflect the various ways poetry was developing during the Renaissance in England. Heywood experimented with all these poetic devices, although his contemporaries saw him mainly as a “mad wit.”


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Bevington, David. From Mankind to Marlowe. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962. Traces the development of drama throughout the period, placing Heywood in context with his contemporaries, as they experimented with the various forms that founded the English public theater.

Bolwell, Robert G. W. The Life and Works of John Heywood. 1921. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1966. An early biography of Heywood written with extensive reference to his works and including transcriptions of several important texts from Heywood and the court of Henry VIII.

Chambers, E. K. The Medieval Stage. 2 vols. Cambridge, England: Oxford University Press, 1903. Examines the development of medieval theatre and provides a detailed analysis of the development of the interlude, the genre that was Heywood’s specialty.

Foxe, John. Acts and Monuments. London: R. B. Seeley, 1938. Foxe records Heywood’s recantation and the details of his part in the plot against Archbishop Cranmer that led to it.

Fraser, Russell A., and Norman C. Rabkin, eds. The Tudor Period. Vol. 1 in Drama of the English Renaissance. New York: Macmillan, 1976. This large, scholarly, critical source text includes works of a number of dramatists of the period. Also contains a detailed introduction to the period...

(The entire section is 434 words.)