Thomas Heywood Heywood, Thomas - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Edward IV (play) 1594

The Four Prentices of London, with The Conquest of Jerusalem (play) c. 1594

The Famous History of the Life and Death of Captain Thomas Stukeley (play) 1596

The Fair Maid of the West, Part I (play) c. 1597

How a Husband May Choose a Good Wife from a Bad (play) c. 1602

If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody (play) 1603

A Woman Killed with Kindness (play) 1603

The Wise Woman of Hogsdon (play) 1604

The Rape of Lucrece (play) c. 1606

The Golden Age (play) c. 1609-11

The Silver Age (play) c. 1610-12

The Brazen Age (play) c. 1610-13

An Apology for Actors (nonfiction) 1612

The Iron Age, Parts I & II (play) c. 1612-13

The Captives (play) 1624

Gunaikeion: or, Nine Bookes of Various History Concerninge Women (nonfiction) 1624

The English Traveller (play) c. 1625

The Fair Maid of the West, Part II (play) c. 1630

Love's Mistress; or, The Queen's Masque (play) 1634

The Hierarchy of the Blessed Angels (poetry and prose) 1635

Exemplary Lives and Memorable Acts of Nine of the Most Worthy Women of the World: Three Jews, Three Gentiles, Three Christians (biography) 1640

The Dramatic Works of Thomas Heywood. 6 vols. (plays) 1874

John Addington Symonds (essay date 1893?)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Symonds, John Addington. “Thomas Heywood.” In Thomas Heywood, edited by A. Wilson Verity, pp. vii-xxxii. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1893?.

[In the following essay, Symonds provides an overview of Heywood's literary career.]

“If I were to be consulted as to a reprint of our old English dramatists,” says Charles Lamb, “I should advise to begin with the collected plays of Heywood. He was a fellow actor and fellow dramatist with Shakespeare. He possessed not the imagination of the latter, but in all those qualities which gained for Shakespeare the attribute of gentle, he was not inferior to him—generosity, courtesy, temperance in the depths of passion;...

(The entire section is 6515 words.)

Marilyn L. Johnson (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Johnson, Marilyn L. “Heywood's Favorite Types: The Good Wife.” In Images of Women in the Work of Thomas Heywood, edited by Dr. James Hogg, pp. 103-35. Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1974.

[In the following excerpt, Johnson discusses Heywood's representations of ideal wives in How a Man May Choose a Good Wife from a Bad and other plays.]

But if heaven will that I a
          Consort have,
O grant mee one that's pious,
          wise, and grave.

(Curtaine Lecture, p. 78)

Scattered comments about marriage and stories of wives in Heywood's prose works clearly indicate that in his...

(The entire section is 9355 words.)

Carolyn Prager (essay date summer 1975)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Prager, Carolyn. “Heywood's Adaptation of Plautus' Rudens: The Problem of Slavery in The Captives.Comparative Drama 9, no. 2 (summer 1975): 116-24.

[In the following essay, Prager maintains that Heywood's play has been underestimated by critics because of the difficulty of dealing with the the subject of slavery issue in dramatic form.]

Scholarly inability to localize the problem of slavery outside of anachronistic translation from the classics has resulted in a critical underestimation of Thomas Heywood's adaptation of Plautus' Rudens in The Captives (1624). Transported by Heywood to a contemporary European terrain, the slave...

(The entire section is 3112 words.)

Eugene M. Waith (essay date 1975)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Waith, Eugene M. “Heywood's Women Worthies.” In Concepts of the Hero in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, edited by Norman T. Burns and Christopher J. Reagan, pp. 222-38. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1975.

[In the following essay, Waith discusses Heywood's transformation of the aristocratic “exemplary lives” genre into biographies intended to inspire the general reading public.]

A subtitle for this paper might be: “From the Exemplary Life to the Pop Biography and the Journalistic Profile,” for Thomas Heywood's book not only shows the pressure of several intellectual and social forces on a major component of the heroic...

(The entire section is 6304 words.)

Raymond C. Shady (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Shady, Raymond C. “Thomas Heywood's Masque at Court.” Elizabethan Theatre 7 (1980): 147-66.

[In the following essay, Shady contends that in Love's Mistress Heywood created a hybrid dramatic genre that incorporates features of both plays and masques.]

For one dizzy week in mid-November, 1634, Thomas Heywood, at the age of sixty, was the favourite Court Poet. A lively play called Love's Mistress, or The Queen's Masque catapulated him to this royal favour, and in a sense, marks the apex of Heywood's forty-odd year career on the London stage. Within a period of eight days, Love's Mistress was performed three times before Charles and...

(The entire section is 7530 words.)

Diana E. Henderson (essay date spring 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Henderson, Diana E. “Many Mansions: Reconstructing A Woman Killed with Kindness.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 26, no. 2 (spring 1986): 277-94.

[In the following essay, Henderson explains the importance of home in Heywood's most famous play.]

“Domestic tragedy” has been defined in a myriad of ways, particularly often in terms of the protagonist (of ordinary status and capacity) or the conflict (between family members or a married couple).1 One element contained in the name itself remains in the background—domus, the home. The “rich circumstantiality of an English country house” in A Woman Killed has been...

(The entire section is 7310 words.)

David M. Bergeron (essay date spring 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Bergeron, David M. “Patronage of Dramatists: The Case of Thomas Heywood.” English Literary Renaissance 18, no. 2 (spring 1988): 294-304.

[In the following essay, Bergeron contends that in Heywood's time, the support of dramatists through patronage had not yet been replaced by support from theater audiences.]

Werner Gundersheimer, writing on the subject of Renaissance patronage, asks whether Shakespeare's awareness of how the political and social order of European society was reflected in the system of patronage may have “led him to prefer the support of the London crowds to that of a single patronus[.] If so, we may view his career less as a...

(The entire section is 4323 words.)

Nancy A. Gutierrez (essay date fall 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Gutierrez, Nancy A. “The Irresolution of Melodrama: The Meaning of Adultery in A Woman Killed with Kindness.Exemplaria 1, no. 2 (fall 1989): 265-91.

[In the following essay, Gutierrez contends that Heywood's play is not a tragedy but a melodrama with an open-ended conclusion that provides no solution to the problem of adultery.]

Since genre is a mediating concept “between the individual work and its culture,”1 it seems appropriate to apply to Thomas Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness (1603), a play whose critical history is notable for its many arguments about genre, the critical perspective that Stephen Greenblatt calls a...

(The entire section is 11077 words.)

Edward T. Bonahue, Jr. (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Bonahue, Edward T., Jr. “Social Control, the City, and the Market: Heywood's If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody.Renaissance Papers (1993): 75-90.

[In the following essay, Bonahue discusses the role of Heywood's play in providing a forum for debate on the more controversial aspects of the changing culture of the city in early modern England.]

Until recently, scholars describing the economic and social history of early modern London assessed the dominant cultural paradigm as one of continual “crisis,” a series of political, economic, and social problems that grew more and more volatile until they finally launched the civil war.1...

(The entire section is 5236 words.)

Richard Rowland (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Rowland, Richard. “‘Thou teachest me humanitie’: Thomas Heywood's The English Traveller.” In English Comedy, edited by Michael Cordner, Peter Holland, and John Kerrigan, pp. 137-57. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Rowland considers The English Traveller as a response to Philip Massinger's play The Roman Actor.]

At the Blackfriars theatre in 1626 the King's Men gave several performances of Philip Massinger's tragedy The Roman Actor, a play which Anne Barton has rightly characterised as ‘more pessimistic about the power of art to correct and inform its audience than any other play written...

(The entire section is 8232 words.)

Theodora A. Jankowski (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Jankowski, Theodora A. “Historicizing and Legitimating Capitalism: Thomas Heywood's Edward IV and If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody.Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 7 (1995): 305-37.

[In the following essay, Jankowski explores the role of Heywood's texts in validating the relationship between mercantile interests and the English monarchy in the development of industry and trade at home and abroad.]


                                                            But now behold
In the quick forge and working-house of thought,
How London doth pour out her citizens!
The mayor and all his brethren in best sort,...

(The entire section is 15422 words.)

Lindsay Davies (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Davies, Lindsay. “Neither Maids nor Wives in The Wise-Woman of Hogsdon.” In Place and Displacement in the Renaissance, edited by Alvin Vos, pp. 69-86. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1995.

[In the following essay, Davies discusses Heywood's play as a response to ambiguities in the marriage laws that left women in a vulnerable, but also potentially transgressive, position.]

Thomas Heywood's comedy, The Wise-Woman of Hogsdon (1604), is often called a prodigal comedy because of Chartley, its compulsively prodigal male lead.1 As Barbara Baines has put it, Chartley “out-prodigals the worst prodigals of...

(The entire section is 6486 words.)

Joseph Courtland (essay date 2001)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Courtland, Joseph. “A Cultural Rereading of The Fair Maid of the West: Part I.” In A Cultural Studies Approach to Two Exotic Citizen Romances by Thomas Heywood, pp. 91-121. New York: Peter Lang, 2001.

[In the following excerpt, Courtland examines Heywood's play within the context of Elizabethan colonialism.]

Scholars have long recognized Thomas Heywood's exotic fantasy, The Fair Maid of the West: Part l, as one of the best citizen adventure dramas ever written: Frederick S. Boas has called it one of Heywood's most attractive and accomplished pieces of work,1 Arthur Melville Clark judged it to be a “breezy...

(The entire section is 10260 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Bach, Rebecca Ann. “The Homosocial Imaginary of A Woman Killed with Kindness.Textual Practice 12, no. 3 (winter 1998): 503-24.

Refutes the common critical assessment that classifies Heywood's play as a domestic tragedy, claiming that the term domestic carried a far different meaning in early modern England than it does today.

Baines, Barbara J. Thomas Heywood. Boston: Twayne, 1984, 178 p.

Comprehensive coverage of Heywood's life and work, with chapters on each of the dramatic genres in which Heywood wrote.

Boas, Frederick S. “The Four Ages: Golden, Silver, Brazen,...

(The entire section is 685 words.)