William Rowley Criticism

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Pauline Gertrude Wiggin Leonard (essay date 1897)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Leonard, Pauline Gertrude Wiggin. An Inquiry into the Authorship of the Middleton-Rowley Plays. Boston: Ginn, 1897, 59 p.

[In the following excerpt, Leonard takes exception with critics who have claimed that Rowley played an insignificant role in the plays he co-wrote with Thomas Middleton.]

Having considered the character of the scenes of these plays written by Middleton in comparison with that of the scenes contributed by Rowley, the reader is almost inevitably hurried to the conclusion that Rowley's contribution to the plays written in this partnership was a comparatively insignificant one, and that their remarkable excellence is largely, if not wholly, due to Middleton's genius. Indeed this has been the common opinion, and even Mr. Swinburne, who seems to be disposed to do full justice to Rowley, having remarked in connection with A Fair Quarrel that his part in it is easy for any tyro in criticism to unify, assigns him the underplot, and says that here his “besetting faults of coarseness and quaintness, stiffness and roughness, are so flagrant and obtrusive that we cannot avoid a feeling of regret and irritation at such untimely and inharmonious evidence of his partnership with a poet of finer if not of sturdier genius.” But this conclusion is not a necessary one, and, although if we should confine Rowley's share in these plays to the scenes actually written by him, we should be disposed to agree with Mr. Swinburne, I believe that a second and more careful consideration of the character of the dramas in the light of our somewhat minute investigation into the respective qualities of the two dramatists, will show that this position is not tenable, and that the contribution of Rowley was the reverse of insignificant.

In the first place, it is not necessary to confine Rowley's influence upon these dramas to the scenes which show traces of his hand; for the fact that it is possible to divide plays, and set aside certain scenes as having been written by Middleton and certain others by Rowley, does not by any means necessarily imply that these scenes belong to their respective writers in the same sense in which their unassisted work belongs to them.

This may appear to be a distinction too nice for serious consideration; but it is possible to maintain the point. Playwrights accustomed to collaboration assert that, often enough, after a play is done, neither of the collaborators is able to state exactly what is his and what is the other man's. As they talk over the plan, the plot grows insensibly, situations develop and characters become fixed, and the man who is strong in plots is helped out by the other who can, perhaps, manage the details better than he. At the end, if one has more time or greater literary skill than the other, he may, perhaps, set the whole play down; or at least it sometimes happens that the man who has had a less important share in the conception and planning out of any one scene may be the actual writer of it. But as the dialogue is not by any means the whole of a drama, it would be exceedingly unjust to give all the credit for the scene to him. Evidently, then, unless there is some reason why we should not admit that the partnership of Middleton and Rowley may have been of this nature, we are doing great injustice to Rowley if we assume, as critics generally have done, that his share in the plays was necessarily unimportant merely because those scenes that bear the mark of his hand happen to be the inferior ones.

And there is certainly nothing to prevent us from making such an admission. In the first place, the division of the responsibility for the actual writing-out of the scenes is a wholly natural one. Rowley took low comedy parts on the stage, and therefore may be supposed to have felt peculiar confidence in his knowledge of what was required in the underplot to make such a part strike the popular favor; and from the few notices we have of him, it is evident that he was an extremely busy man,...

(The entire section is 114,214 words.)