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

IV. Thomas Heywood

§ 13. Heywood’s picture of English country life

A Woman Kilde with Kindnesse, which deservedly holds a foremost rank among the classics of domestic drama, derived its title, like several other of its author’ plays, from a proverb or proverbial phrase. The expression “to kill a wife with kindness” occurs in The Taming of the Shrew, which must have been produced on the stage some six or seven years before the performance, by Worcester’ men, early in 1603 (N. S.), of Heywood’ play. It was first printed, without having been entered in the register, in 1607; the third edition of the play, “as it hath been oftentimes acted by the Queen’” men, appeared in 1617. This popularity was due to no adventitious attractions; and the author was perfectly conscious of the simplicity of the means by which the desired dramatic effect had been achieved; in the words of his prologue it was

  • a barren subject, a bare scene
  • which he presented—nothing more than a sad experience of everyday life, redeemed from the dreariness of its melancholy only, so far as the erring wife is concerned, by the pity of it, and by the nobility of soul which, in the very depth of his grief, the wronged husband proves capable of revealing. In the strength of its sentiment and the directness of its appeal to a more than fleeting sympathy lie the main causes of the effect which this play produces; but the skill with which its action is contructed and the chief situations are devised should not he overlooked. While the seducer falters long on the threshold of his crime, but, when he has once crossed it, drags on his victim relentlessly from transgression to transgression, she is caught in the toils half unawares, and, with an “O Master Wendoll O,” is lost—to awake to bitter remorse even before the hour of discovery has come. The nocturnal return of the betrayed husband to his closed door is presented with admirable theatrical effect—it might, as has been said, almost be described as a “prose” reproduction of some of the terrors of Macbeth. The magnanimity of the husband—prefigured by that of Master Shore in the chronicle play—might, conceivably, have failed to come home to an Elizabethan audience, but for the picture of the broken-hearted and penitent woman in the last act, which wins over all hearts to an acknowledgment of her husband’ kindness, and of the Power which overrules both human sorrow and human sin. The scene of the play is laid in the midst of English country life, characteristic features of which—fresh air and hawking in the morning, and a game at cards o’ nights—are reproduced without an effort, but with a realistic effect which materially helps to bring home the story of the tragedy enacted thus amidst familiar surroundings.

    While a criticism of certain details in the main action of A Woman Kilde with Kindnesse seems unnecessary here, it cannot be ignored that, in this as in several other of his plays, Heywood should have felt himself obliged to contrive a by-plot which, instead of relieving tension, offends judgment. In the present instance, though we would not willingly lose the hawking scene out of which the subsidiary plot arises, we have to accept a pedestrian version of the story of Measure for Measure, with a solution such as might, possibly, have commended itself to the author of Pamela.

    If Heywood wrote The Wise-woman Of Hogsdon, a comedy which, though not printed, with his name, till 1638 cannot have been produced at a date much later than 1604, no more striking instance is to be found of his versatility. It is true that this play opens with a gambling scene as true to life as the hawking scene in A Woman Kilde with Kindness, and that, later, it suddenly changes its manner into that of domestic drama—of the comédie larmoyante, variety—so as to make the reckless young libertine who is the hero of the action exclaim:

  • Here’s such wetting of Handkerchers, hee weepes to thinke of his Wife, shee weepes to see her Father cry. Peace foole, wee shall else have thee claime kindred of the Woman Kill’d with Kindnesse.
  • But Heywood is hardly likely to have introduced this half sarcastic allusion into a play of his own, and the general character of this comedy of manners is such as to make his authorship doubtful, notwithstanding the mention in it, noted above, of his Cambridge college. The Wise-woman Of Hogsdon is, at the same time, a play full of life and spirit, with a plot very well managed in spite of its complications, between the two Luces and a third young lady and the gay Young Chartley who flutters round the trio, depending on the services of the evil old intermediary, the avowed rival of Mother Bombie, Mother Phillips of Bankside, and half a dozen other wise women and procuresses. Much fuller of humorously grotesque characters than any known play of Heywood’, this play, at the same time, exaggerates all the blemishes which elsewhere he shows no similar eagerness to parade—a profusion of doggerel, of bad puns and equivoques and of unequivocal obscenity.

    The case is different with The Fayre Mayde of the Exchange. With The pleasaunt Humours of the Cripple of Fanchurch, which, though printed anonymously in 1607 and later, has been usually attributed to Heywood, and upon which, treating it as his, Charles Lamb bestowed high praise. The present writer, without accepting Fleay’ conjecture that the play was written by Machin, cannot persuade himself that Heywood was its author. Though the comedy offers a very lively picture of the Royal Exchange (from a shop front point of view), there is little else to convey the sense of freshness and originality which few of Heywood’ dramatic productions fail, in some respect, to leave upon the reader. The heroine Phillis fails to charm, and her repartees exhibit her as a very second-rate Beatrice, while her passion for the “noble” Cripple, who is magnanimous enough to reject it, is not so much unpleasing as unconvincing. Apart from the Cripple’ loyalty to the city and the virtue of its shopwomen (a touch of characteristic directness) there is little to suggest Heywood; the wittiness of some of the passages of the play, and the cleverly symmetrical construction of its plot, are merits not common in his dramas.