William Rowley Introduction

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

William Rowley 1585?-1626

English playwright.

A prominent stage actor, Rowley is chiefly remembered as a co-author of as many as 50 plays. His skills as a comic writer were in high demand and Rowley collaborated with many of the most notable playwrights of his day, including Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker, John Ford, John Fletcher, and John Webster. Some scholars also believe he may have co-authored a play with William Shakespeare. Rowley is credited with creating the comic elements, satiric subplots, and puns in such works as A Fair Quarrel (1617) and The Changeling (1622), both collaborations with Thomas Middleton. Though he has not garnered the same degree of critical attention as many of his co-authors, Rowley made notable contributions to many well-known plays of his day.

Biographical Information

Almost nothing is known about Rowley's life. When and where he was born is a matter of wide speculation, though the street-wise utterances of his characters suggest that Rowley may have grown up in London, the son of lowly parents. His educational background is also a mystery, and the earliest public record of Rowley comes from the first decade of the seventeenth century, in theater handbills where he was listed as an actor. Over the course of nearly twenty years of working for such London theatrical groups as Queen Anne's company, Prince Charles's Men, and the King's company, Rowley gained popular recognition as one of London's leading actors, specializing in the portrayal of fat clowns and in popular “low” comedy. Rowley's stage career also brought him into contact with many of England's best-known playwrights, with whom he co-wrote approximately 30-50 plays. Rowley's exact death date is not known, although his burial was recorded at St. James's in Clerkenwell on February 11, 1626.

Major Works

While his literary renown derives entirely from the works he wrote with other playwrights, Rowley did compose several plays alone. Among these are A Shoemaker a Gentleman (1608?), A New Wonder, a Woman Never Vext (1611-14?), All's Lost by Lust (1619?), and A Match at Midnight (1622). With the exception of All's Lost by Lust, a tragedy which garners some critical praise, Rowley's plays can be described as comedic farces focusing on domestic disputes caused by sexual intrigue. These works are seldom examined by literary scholars for their intrinsic merit but instead are studied to pinpoint Rowley's style so that his role in collaborative works can be more clearly discerned.

Nearly all of the major dramatic works for which Rowley is remembered were collaborations with Thomas Middleton, among them A Fair Quarrel, The Old Law, or, A New Way to Please You (1618?), and The Changeling. Although scholars cannot precisely identify what lines and acts of these plays were written by which of the playwrights, they usually credit Rowley with the humorous, often satirical, subplots in what are otherwise tragedies or works of social commentary. Like nearly all of his collaborations, these three plays exhibit the common element of multiple plots, with Rowley's comic additions serving to balance the plays' weightier thematic concerns. A play that has only recently gained attention as one of Rowley's best collaborative efforts—on this occasion with Thomas Dekker and John Ford—is The Witch of Edmonton (1621), a work which uses the factual events surrounding the execution of an Englishwoman for witchcraft to illustrate social injustice.

Critical Reception

Critics generally agree that Rowley's best plays are those on which he collaborated with Middleton, with the latter usually seen as responsible for the works' psychological subtlety and overall dramatic force. The vast majority of Rowley-Middleton criticism has focused on The Changeling, a sexually charged tragicomedy concerned with themes of sin and retribution, although the co-authors' A Fair Quarrel and The Old Law have also drawn considerable praise. In some cases scholars have simply ignored Rowley's part in the writing of these plays, mentioning his authorship only in passing before concentrating on themes and issues attributed to Middleton alone. Other critics have speculated on which sections of each play were written by Middleton and which by Rowley, basing their hypotheses on thematic, semantic, and grammatical similarities to extant works of Middleton or Rowley. In most cases, Rowley is assigned the comedic sections of these plays, and he is typically regarded as being responsible for the works' punning, bawdy humor, and in some cases, verse passages of substandard quality. Criticism follows the same pattern regarding Rowley's other collaborative efforts, his contributions being either ignored or deemed inferior elements in otherwise worthy dramas. Nevertheless, modern scholars are beginning to argue that Rowley deserves greater credit for his contributions. These more positive appraisals have asserted that Rowley's comic subplots do not detract from, but rather complement, the serious themes of the plays on which he collaborated. Some commentators have argued that in his work with Middleton, Rowley helped balance the latter writer's formal and restrained style with humor, giving their works a popular appeal they might otherwise have lacked. In this revised view, Rowley emerges as a capable and worthy playwright who understood common men and women and who was essential to the success of many of his era's most notable plays.