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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

§ 3. His life: London and Court associations

Thomas Heywood was born, somewhere about the year 1572, in Lincolnshire, where his family must have been of good standing and repute. We have it on his own authority that he was at one time a resident member of the university of Cambridge, where he saw “tragedyes, comedyes, historyes, pastorals and shewes, publicly acted,” and “the graduates of good place and reputation specially parted” in these performances. The time-honoured tradition, which unfortunately it is impossible to corroborate with the aid of either college or university records, that he was a fellow of Peterhouse, rests on an explicit statement made by the bookseller and actor William Cartwright not more than ten years after Heywood’ death. But it is practically certain that he never held a fellowship at Peterhouse, and, among the few incidental references to Cambridge scattered through his writings, there is but one which introduces the name of the college to which he is said to have belonged—and that, it must be confessed, in no very helpful way.

By 1596, Heywood is mentioned in Henslowe’ diary as writing, or having written, a play; but as to the time and circumstances of his talking up the twofold vocation of actor and playwright we know nothing. No link of any sort can have existed between him and the “university wits,” whose academical experiences and entrance into London life belong to the preceding decade, and from whose arrogance and affectations he was equally free. He became connected in turn with several companies of players—probably beginning with the Admiral’ men at the Rose, and, in 1634, becoming a servant of the king (Charles I). While a sound patriot, Heywood seems to have had no love for courts; though he celebrated the glories of the great queen in one of his early plays as well as in a history of the trials of her youth, indited the praises of Anne of Denmark five years after he had attended her funeral and hailed queen Henrietta Maria’ hopes of motherhood in more than one loyal prologue. On the other hand, his attachment to the city of London, though not, so far as we know, due to any official or hereditary tie, was very strong and enduring, and comprehended both the town and its inhabitants. He celebrated the erection of the Royal Exchange, whose interior is admirably described in a comedy generally attributed to him, and of “Crosbie House”; he wrote, as we shall see, a series of mayoralty pageants for divers city companies and immortalised their coats of arms as blazoned on the shields borne at the siege of Jerusalem; he commemorated the labours of the docks. He held up to honour the name of a princely merchant like Sir Thomas Gresham, and, for the flos juventutis, the prentices of the city, he always kept a warm corner in his heart. In short, he was a Londoner every inch of him; and, though few of our Elizabethan dramatists have better pictured the freshness of rural life, and the jollity of its sports and pastimes, he recognised the perennial superiority of the vicinity of St. Paul’, and was capable of contrasting, in a daring paradox,

  • the toil and travell of the country
  • And quiet gaine of cities blessednesse.
  • It may be added that the moral code of the citizens of London was not one with which Heywood can have been naturally inclined to quarrel; though, of course, in his latter days, he was obliged by his “quality” to retort upon “that most horrible Histriomastix and the bitter juice of that Coloquintida and Hemlocke, which can neither relish the peace of the Church nor Common-weale.” There is little to be found in his plays against puritans or puritanism, and even in his Apology he abstains from those Satirica Dictaeria and Comica Scommata, which he declares to be contrary to his practice.

    Heywood’ industry as a playwright was, beyond all doubt, extraordinary, though far from unparalleled. His often quoted statement, made in 1633, that he had “either an entire hand, or at least a main finger” in two hundred and twenty plays, Fleay, rather perversely, has sought to interpret in the sense which the words assuredly will not bear, that this total included all the plays in which Heywood had acted during the thirty years (or thereabouts) in question—inasmuch as in most of these plays he had, no doubt, inserted “gag,” while many of them had been altered by him. This, in Fleay’ opinion, would warrant the conclusion that only about twoscore plays were actually written by Heywood, who is not known to have been a frequent collaborator with other playwrights. In 1633, however, Heywood’ connection with the theatre had extended over at least thirty-seven years, and an average of half-a-dozen plays per annum, in which he was concerned as sole or joint author, or as reviser, is not inconceivable, if, together with the general character of his dramatic writings, which will be considered immediately, the spirit in which he composed them and the little care which he took of them, after their appearance on the stage, be taken into account.