Thomas Heywood 1573?-1641
English playwright, poet, and biographer.
The following entry provides criticism on Heywood's works from 1893 through 2001.
A prolific Elizabethan playwright, Heywood is known for his popular dramas in a wide variety of genres, including chronicle histories, domestic tragedies, romances, comedy adventures, pageants, masques, and dramatized legends and myths. His most famous work is the domestic tragedy A Woman Killed with Kindness (1603).
Heywood was born in 1573 or 1574 in either Rothwell or Ashby, Lincolnshire, to Elizabeth and the Reverend Robert Heywood. Very little is known about the circumstances of Heywood's early life. Some sources suggest the family was poor, but most literary historians believe the family was respectable and fairly prosperous. There is some evidence he attended Cambridge University, probably Emmanuel College, from 1592 to 1593, when his father's death apparently forced him to leave school and begin working. In 1603, Heywood married Anne Buttler, and after her death he married Jane Span. There is no solid evidence that either marriage produced children; although baptismal records exist for several children named Heywood, there is no clear indication that they were offspring of the playwright. In 1596, Heywood began writing plays for Philip Henslowe and acting in Henslowe's company of players, the Admiral's Men. Heywood also may have been a shareholder in the company. He was a prolific playwright who composed in a wide range of dramatic genres for differing theatrical concerns, including the Earl of Worcester's company, Queen Anne's Men, and Lady Elizabeth's Men. He also collaborated with other writers on a number of works, boasting that he had “either an entire hand, or at the least a main finger” in more than 220 plays over the course of his writing career. Only about twenty of these are extant. Although his plays were both popular and successful, Heywood remained poor throughout his life, a condition he discussed with regret in his lengthy poem The Hierarchy of the Blessed Angels (1635). In the last five years of his life, he abandoned the theater and began writing poetry and commendatory verses, entering what some critics have called his journalistic phase characterized by hack work and reworkings of his earlier writings. Heywood died in August, 1641, in London and was buried in St. James's, Clerkenwell.
Although the majority of Heywood's work is lost, some of his more popular plays remain available to scholars and researchers today. One of the first productions of Heywood's work was the chronicle history play Edward IV in 1594. This was followed by The Four Prentices of London (c. 1594), which involves a group of young apprentices who in 1095 travel to the Holy Land as part of the First Crusade. The work, like most of Heywood's plays, was aimed at a middle-class audience since it suggested that young artisans, as well as young noblemen, participated in the crusades. Around 1597, Heywood produced The Fair Maid of the West, a two-part romantic drama about a sea captain and an inn-keeper, complete with pirates, slavery, and a highly praised tavern scene. In 1603, one of Heywood's most popular dramas was staged, his play about Queen Elizabeth, If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody. Heywood then turned to classical material as the basis for his work, writing the tragedy The Rape of Lucrece around 1606, followed by a series of four plays dramatizing the legends and myths of ancient Greece and Rome: The Golden Age (c. 1609-11), The Silver Age (c. 1610-12), The Brazen Age (c. 1610-13), and The Iron Age (c. 1612-13). Also in 1612, Heywood published An Apology for Actors, which defends the theater from its Puritan detractors and makes a case for the stage as an important part of English culture.
Heywood's domestic tragedy A Woman Killed with Kindness has always been considered his masterpiece. Set on an English country estate, the play features a primary plot and a subplot, both depicting the domestic lives of the English gentry. The work deals with adultery, murder, the control and exchange of women, and containment of female sexuality—all in a manner surprisingly sympathetic to women. Heywood may have taken part in a popular controversy on the status of women around 1617-19. His company presented a play, possibly written by Heywood, in response to the misogynist writings of Joseph Swetnam. His nonfiction work Gunaikeion; or, Nine Bookes of Various History Concerninge Women (1624) and his collection of biographical essays Exemplary Lives and Memorable Acts of Nine of the Most Worthy Women of the World: Three Jews, Three Gentiles, Three Christians (1640) are his most famous works displaying his sympathy and support of women's issues.
The English Traveller (c. 1625) is Heywood's only other surviving marital drama besides A Woman Killed with Kindness. The work involves two domestic plots, one tragic, the other comedic. In 1634, Heywood again combined genres in his five-act play Love's Mistress, or The Queen's Masque, which was successfully performed at court. The work incorporates features of both conventional plays and of the masque genre, a combination rarely accomplished with any success in the theater of the time. A year later, Heywood published his lengthy didactic poem The Hierarchy of the Blessed Angels, consisting of individual books, each devoted to one of the seven orders of angels. The work includes numerous prose sections and draws on a variety of sources, primarily folklore and the Old Testament.
Heywood's plays were enormously popular with audiences during his lifetime. From a critical standpoint, however, he has always suffered from comparisons with Shakespeare, his contemporary, although Charles Lamb referred to Heywood as the “prose Shakespeare” and insisted that in some ways Heywood's “beautiful writings” were equal to those of his fellow actor and writer. David M. Bergeron (1988) asserts that “in several ways his career was more diverse than, say, Shakespeare's, as he worked with a wide variety of dramatic forms and with various acting companies.” M. C. Bradbrook (1983) believes that differences between the staged versions of Heywood's plays and the corrupt published versions account for some of the negative criticism of his work. Bradbrook suggests that Heywood's initial failure to publish his work made his art “ephemeral” and that the author's well-known “preference for performance leaves him but Shakespeare's shadow.”
John Addington Symonds (1893) contends that Heywood was at his best when dealing with “homespun stories” and pictures of domesticity, whereas “pure comedy and pure tragedy were neither of them suited to his genius.” The most famous of his domestic plays is A Woman Killed with Kindness, which Symonds calls “the finest bourgeois tragedy of our Elizabethan literature.” Diana E. Henderson (1986) has studied Heywood's use of the home in the play, concluding that it serves as more than an important plot device and marker of bourgeois realism; in addition, “it provides a base for transforming essentially static social precepts and Christian homily into a dynamic sequence of events on a localized stage.”
Many modern critics focus on Heywood's views on women, which were considered progressive for his time. Nancy A. Gutierrez (1989), for example, examines women's issues in A Woman Killed with Kindness, and maintains that the play “dramatizes the age's moral uncertainty about the role of women by focusing on the potentially catastrophic social transgression of adultery.” Marilyn L. Johnson (1974) explores Heywood's concept of the good wife as represented in his plays and in Gunaikeion. Although she concedes that his view is similar to that offered in contemporary advice manuals, “he does seem more willing than most writers to see the woman's point of view.” Eugene M. Waith (1975) positions both Gunaikeion and Exemplary Lives within a contemporary controversy about women. Gunaikeion, according to Waith, “is devoted to the greater glory of women” and was one of several responses to Joseph Swetnam's 1615 diatribe Arraignment of Lewd, idle, forward and unconstant women. Waith identifies Exemplary Lives as a “feminist tract.”
Although most critics consider A Woman Killed with Kindness Heywood's best work, Raymond C. Shady (1980) maintains that the court performance of Love's Mistress “marks the apex of Heywood's forty-year career on the London stage.” According to Shady, the unique quality of the work rests on “a sustained symbiotic relationship of masque and play that is unique in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.” Another combination of genres, in this case comedy and tragedy, is exhibited in The English Traveller, reports Richard Rowland (1994), who claims that “the stability of generic conventions is undermined by Heywood's invention of a story that offers neither the relief of lighthearted cuckoldry nor the arousal of tragic passions.” According to Rowland, Heywood was deliberately overturning the dramatic convention that kept the high art of tragedy, associated with an aristocratic audience, separate from the low art of comedy, aimed at a bourgeois audience—not surprising since the majority of his plays addressed middle-class theatergoers and many of them took the experiences of the gentry and the bourgeoisie as their primary subject matter.