Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 763
When and where William Rowley (ROW-lee) was born and much else about his life and career are only conjecture, with elements of his biography pieced together from allusions to him in play texts and theater records. A popular actor of secondary comic roles on London stages for almost two decades, he wrote plays mainly in collaboration with others, and the four extant ones he presumably did alone are his least memorable contributions to the Jacobean and Caroline drama. He is remembered only because of his work with major contemporaries: Thomas Dekker, John Fletcher, John Ford, Thomas Heywood, John Webster, and (mainly) Thomas Middleton. Although a late published text of The Birth of Merlin names him and William Shakespeare as coauthors, the attribution is suspect.
Rowley’s first play—The Travels of the Three English Brothers, written with John Day and George Wilkins—was licensed in 1607; in the next two years, two comedies, a solo effort called A Shoemaker a Gentleman and Fortune by Land and Sea with Heywood, were performed at The Curtain in London by Queen Anne’s Company, so Rowley probably was a member. By mid-1609, he had switched to Prince Charles’s Men (later called Lady Elizabeth’s Company) as actor and playwright, where he remained until 1622. He moved to the King’s Men in 1623, continuing to write and perform, specializing in comic fat man roles that he and his collaborators may have written expressly for him. Full-time man of the theater though he was, Rowley did some nondramatic writing, including a satirical pamphlet, A Search for Money; a poetic eulogy on the death of Prince Henry, printed in two different collections in 1612 and 1613; and a 1621 elegy in memory of a fellow actor.
The first of Rowley’s four extant solo dramas is A Shoemaker a Gentleman, a tragic farce set both in ancient mythical Britain and contemporary London that is a hodgepodge of trite stage devices, including the drinking of blood, the ascent and descent of an angel, and vivid reports of tortures in battles. The contemporary scenes, with their realistic middle-class portrayals, echo Dekker’s popular A Shoemaker’s Holiday (1600), whose source also provided Rowley with much of his material. Similarly set in seventeenth century London is his citizen comedy, A New Wonder, a Woman Never Vexed (c. 1611-1614), a late example of a genre that appealed to the aspiring artisans and merchants who made up a large portion of early seventeenth century theater audiences. In it, a businessman’s marriage that begins with poor prospects turns out well. His most successful play is All’s Lost by Lust, a romantic tragedy that was frequently revived, even after the Restoration in 1660. In the first performances, according to the dramatis personae, Rowley played Jaques, a simple clownish gentleman. Its Spanish setting, sensationalism, and vindictive parent characters place it among the popular revenge tragedies of the period. Rowley’s last extant play, A Match at Midnight, stands apart from his other known solitary endeavors because of its rapid pace. Another citizen comedy, it is filled with stereotypical characters: a wealthy widow pursued by a usurer (named Bloodhound), deceived suitors, and soldiers both heroic and phony. (Elizabethan audiences did not object to the mixing of genres; indeed, even the darkest of tragedies often have comic relief that is not necessarily integrated with the main plot. All of Rowley’s plays, which have ingenious plots and clever situations, include some of the coarse comedy that the groundlings enjoyed.)
Critics generally have considered Rowley to be a minor, third-rate dramatist, and his name has remained prominent only because of his association with more highly regarded playwrights. Chief among these is Middleton, with whom Rowley wrote a number of plays, notably A Fair Quarrel, a romantic tragicomedy that contrasts different middle-class codes of value, and The Changeling. The latter, one of the most enduringly popular plays of the English Renaissance, is a revenge tragedy whose motivating forces are unrequited love and jealousy. Scholarly consensus is that Rowley wrote its comic plot as well as the first and last scenes, though it is likely that he and Middleton influenced each other’s work.
After a prolific career as a playwright and years as a favorite comic actor, Rowley died early in February of 1626 and was buried at St. James in Clerkenwell, London, on February 11, 1626. Five days later, his widow petitioned to be relieved of the administration of his estate. In Ben Jonson’s The Staple of News, performed in London the following week, characters refer to Rowley’s death and to one of his roles.
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