Thomas Heywood Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The facts of Thomas Heywood’s early life are scarce. Heywood was apparently born sometime in 1573 to the Reverend Robert Heywood and his wife, Elizabeth. Probably a Cambridge graduate, Robert Heywood migrated before Thomas’s birth from Cheshire to Lincolnshire, where he served as rector first at Rothwell and then at Ashby-cum-Fenley. Thomas was one of eleven children; there is, however, no record of any dealings between him and his siblings after he arrived in London.

The Heywoods were, it would seem, a family of gentility, evidenced by the application of Heywood’s Uncle Edmund for a grant of arms. At sixteen or seventeen, Heywood entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, a stronghold of Puritanism, which may explain the moral thrust in much of his writing, particularly in the pamphlets of his later career. His college work ended early, however, when his father died in 1593. At this point, Heywood, like so many young men with talent and a bit of learning but no degree, accepted the challenges of the London stage and began his career as an actor.

In 1593, Heywood was hired by Philip Henslowe as an actor for the Admiral’s Men. Heywood, however, turned his hand very quickly to writing, sharing in the revision of works being done by the company. Among these may have been, in 1599, The Siege of London.

Around 1600, Heywood began writing for Derby’s Men, although the specifics of his relationship with this company are relatively obscure. Edward IV was produced by Derby’s Men before Heywood broke the connection in 1601, when he became an actor-sharer with Worcester’s Men and entered the service of Queen Anne, under the auspices of Henslowe. This new association connected Heywood with Henry Chettle, Thomas Dekker, Wentworth Smith, and John Webster. By this time, as A. M. Clark notes, Heywood was financially well off as a result of his hasty writing, which, according to Clark, was “fatal to [the] literary quality” of his scripts but which...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Although the most commonly quoted statement about Thomas Heywood is Charles Lamb’s characterization of him as “a sort of prose Shakespeare,” the most striking thing about him is his almost incredible productivity. In the epistle to The English Traveler, Heywood calls the play “one reserved amongst two hundred and twenty, in which I have had either an entire hand, or at least a main finger.” He also wrote many nondramatic works in verse and prose and was a prolific translator.

Heywood claimed to be from Lincolnshire, and evidence suggests that his family had wealth and position. A 1623 lawsuit deposition gives his age in one place as “50 years or neare upon” and in another as “49 or thereabouts,” statements that would place his birth either in late 1573 or 1574. In An Apology for Actors, written about 1607 (though it was not published until 1612), he tells of having been in residence at Cambridge University, but it is not known which college he attended. He probably left without a degree, but while in residence at the university he saw “tragedies, comedies, histories, pastorals, and shows, publicly acted, in which graduates of good place and reputation have been specially parted.”

The first reference to Heywood in the diary of theater entrepreneur Philip Henslowe records payment for a play in 1596. In 1598 (the year in which Francis Meres called him one of the best writers of comedy in England), Heywood contractually bound himself to Henslowe’s Admiral Men as an actor while continuing to write plays for this company (until 1599) and others. Late in 1602 he became a shareholder in the earl of Worcester’s company and was soon its most prominent member, writing plays and acting at the Boar’s Head in the city and at the Rose across the Thames on the Bankside; performing at court before King James I and Queen Anne; and touring the provinces, particularly during visitations of the plague to London.


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