Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 10. Plays by Rowley alone; their sincerity and nobility of aim

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

III. Middleton and Rowley

§ 10. Plays by Rowley alone; their sincerity and nobility of aim

The plays published under Rowley’s name or initials are: A new Wonder, A Woman never vext, 1632; Alls Lost by Lust, 1633; A Match at Midnight, 1633; and A Shoo-maker a Gentleman, 1638. Of these, A Match at Midnight has little resemblance to any of his known work while it has a close resemblance to the early work of Middleton. It goes with something of the rapidity of the wild and whirling comedies of about the time of Your five Gallants, but would add more credit to an imitator than to Middleton. Here, as elsewhere, Rowley, in his capacity of actor, may have made slight changes for acting purposes, which would account for the use of his initials. There is no reason for supposing that he had even so much as that to do with Fortune by Land and Sea, published, in 1655, as by Heywood and Rowley, or with The Thracian Wonder, attributed to Webster and Rowley by Kirkman in 1661. There is little more probability in the same publisher’s attribution to the same writers of A Cure for a Cuckold, which he brought out in the same year. Kirkman’s word is valueless as evidence, and there is nothing in the play of which we can say with much probability that it is by either Webster or Rowley. Only the slow and thoughtful quality of some of the verse gives any real suggestion of Webster; and verse of Webster’s kind is quite possible to imitate. The drearily comic prose is done after the pattern of the time, and there is nothing in it distinguishable from similar hackwork, whether done by Rowley or by others for the day’s wage.

In The Travailes of The three English Brothers, published in 1607, with a dedication signed “John Day, William Rowley, George Wilkins,” it is easy, but not very profitable, to trace the share of Rowley. He probably put in Zaripha, the Shylock of the play, and wrote some of the more pompous blank verse and of the coarser verbal fooling. In The Maid in the Mill, licensed to Fletcher and Rowley on 29 August, 1623, and played at the Globe with Rowley as one of the actors, his share and Fletcher’s are quite distinct, and they are divided pretty equally. Rowley’s verse, by the side of the winged verse of Fletcher, seems somewhat crabbed and abstract, and the prose (interspersed with Fletcher’s songs) somewhat cold and laboured. In The Witch of Edmonton, published in 1658 as “a Tragi-Comedy By divers well-esteemed Poets; William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, John Ford, etc.,” where Dekker and Ford are both equally evident, in their direction of the two main currents, the share of Rowley is difficult to make out, and could hardly have been considerable. There remains The Birth of Merlin, which was published in 1662 as by Shakespeare and Rowley. Langbaine tells us that “William Rowley was not only beloved by those great men, Shakespeare, Fletcher, and Jonson, but likewise writ, with the former, The Birth of Merlin.” The share of Shakespeare need not be discussed here; the play is crude and lumpish; it is stilted and monotonous in the verse, gross and tame in the prose. It would be pleasant to think that Rowley had no more to do with it than Shakespeare; but it is difficult to be positive in the matter after reading A Shoo-maker a Gentleman.

This incongruous and incoherent piece is a tragic farce, which has never been reprinted from the execrable first edition of 1638, where the printer, in his address to “the honest and high-spirited gentlemen of the never decaying art, called the gentle craft,” admits with some candour: “I know it may come short of that accurateness both in plot and style that this witty age doth with greater curiosity require”; yet excuses it, on the ground “that as plays were then, some twenty years ago, it was in the fashion.” It is a sad jumble of cobblers, kings, “a wise virgin in Wales” and a Juliet’s nurse; at one moment, “an angel ascends out of the well and after descends again,” at another, there is drinking of blood, and we hear in detail of tortures endured in war; the language varies from “Moulting tyrant, stop thy scandalous breath,” used by quarrelling kings, to “Clapperdudgeon” and “Knipperdolin,” flung as pet names by the cobbler at his wife. The few good lines which we come across at rare intervals are almost cruelly wasted; the farce which submerges them is a mere desperate attempt at comic realism.