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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

§ 7. His Plays

It seems to agree best with Heywood’ method of production to name his numerous dramatic works in their chronological sequence, so far as this can be ascertained or, with more or less probability, surmised, without, however, adhering to it with absolute rigidity. A classification of his plays could be attempted without much difficulty, if it were worth while; but he, at least, would certainly not have thought it so.

Priority of mention may, accordingly, be given to The Foure Prentises of London. With the Conquest of Jerusalem, though, possibly, it was preceded on the stage by one or both parts of Edward IV. In the earliest extant edition, which is dated 1615, the preface states the play to have been in the fashion “some fifteene or sixteene yeares agoe”; but Fleay has shown that there must have been an earlier edition in, or not long after, 1610, and that Heywood’ play, probably, was the Godfrey of Bulloigne performed by the Admiral’ men as early as July, 1594. And, though Heywood certainly did not take the story of his play direct from Tasso, it must be considered a curious coincidence that, in 1594, Richard Carew’ translation of five cantos of Gerusalemme appeared in print. Whatever its immediate source, this play, which combines the crude compiling method of the early chronicle history with the violently symmetrical improbabilities of the popular romance, is primitive to the last degree. The four heroes of the piece, whom their sire, the “olde Earl of Bulloign” had, under stress of misfortune, apprenticed in London city, after taking service for the holy wars pass through divers strange adventures in divers lands till they meet at last before the “high wals of Hierusalem.” Their sister, whose spirit equals theirs, follows her star to the same spot, disguised as a page; and a French lady, in love with one of the brothers, accompanies him in similar gear. After the victory has been won (to the cries of “A Syon! A Jerusalem!”) each of the brothers obtains a crown—Godfrey preferring one of thorns—and the story ends in an accumulation of happiness. Presenter and dumbshow have helped on the epic movement of the action, hardly any attempt being made by the author to soar into poetry, though he abounds in classical allusions. But the simplicity of Godfrey’ enthusiasm on beholding the

  • sacred path our Saviour trod
  • When he came riding to Hierusalem
  • is impressive; and the whole play must have told irresistibly upon “the Honest and High-spirited Prentises” to whom it was afterwards dedicated, and to whom Godfrey’ accurate description of his own and his brother’ military functions, which has a strong smack of the Artillery Garden, must have specially appealed.

    In the amusing farce, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, in which Beaumont and Fletcher ridiculed those very civic tastes which Heywood’ play had sought to gratify, fun is incidentally made of The Foure Prentises, as well as of the plays which will be noted next, and of a drama entitled The Bold Beachams (Beauchamps), which, without good authority, has been attributed to Heywood.

    In the two plays, each of them in two parts, which next come under consideration, Heywood worked on the model of the old chronicle history pure and simple. Though doubt has been thrown on Heywood’ authorship of the earlier of these plays, King Edward IV, on the ground of its superiority to the rest of the dramatist’ earlier work, it may confidently be accepted as his, in view of the general unevenness in the relative merits of his plays, and of the fact that, in its sentimental as well as its humorous scenes, the piece is in a vein thoroughly his own. Edward IV. which, after the full title had been entered in the Stationers’ register in 1599, was printed in the following year, makes no attempt at dramatic unity—for it can hardly be said to derive this from the personality of the city’ favourite king, Edward of the “gadding eye.” As has been pointed out by Schelling, the two parts of the play contain “not less than five stories indifferently connected together by personages that fill rôles in two or more”—viz. the story of the bastard Falconbridge’ siege of London, in which were possibly incorporated reminiscences of The Siege of London, a play revived by the Admiral’ men in December, 1594, and in which the gallant flatcaps are not forgotten, while we meet with an original humorous figure in the person of the well-meaning but unintelligible Maister Josselin; the diverting episode of Hobs the tanner of Tamworth, a figure borrowed from an old ballad, who accurately represents the indifference of the populace towards the question at issue in the wars of the Roses; the futile expedition of king Edward to France (in which Louis XI makes his first appearance on the English stage); the murder of the little princes in the Tower, a tragic tale told with homely pathos; and, lastly, the story of Jane Shore, which alone stretches from the first into the second part of the play. The long-lived popularity of this story, which, also, was taken from an old ballad, and which found its way again and again into English dramatic and epic literature, needs no explanation. Heywood’ treatment of the figure of the erring wife, whose goodness of heart is attested by her openness to melting charity, and by her sorrow for her sin, as well as that of the high-minded and forgiving husband, is full of fine feeling; and it is to be regretted that, near its close, the episode should be marred by the unnecessary fool’ play of Jockie and Jeffrey, with which the dramatist thought it his duty to gratify his patrons. The minor character of Mistress Blague, Jane Shore’ sunshine friend, is admirably drawn. As for the death of husband and wife, it is sentimental drama of the purest water, but none the less in its place for that.

    As it stands, Heywood’ other chronicle play, If you know not me, You know no bodie: Or, The troubles of Queene Elizabeth, surreptitiously printed from a stenographic copy in 1605, and revived in 1631, near the time of the publication of the author’ England’ Elizabeth, is, so far as Part I is concerned, little better than a jumble of misprinted fragments. It is clear, at the same time, that this portion of the work must, at best, have been a crude ad captandum treatment of Elizabeth’ experiences before her accession, following its text-book, Heywood’ own monograph England’ Elizabeth, in depicting the martyr-like rectitude of the Protestant princess who suffered tanquam ovis in adversity, and who, after her fortune had turned, received from the hands of the lord mayor her prize and palladium—an English Bible. What availed the double-dyed animosity of the ruthless Gardiner against a fortitude so innocent that even king Philip was loth to be unkind? Repeated dumb-shows and some very unsophisticated clownery helps on the action. Part II, which is much better preserved, was not better worth preserving. After a long and tedious treatment of the magnificence of Sir Thomas Gresham, and the reckless prodigality of his nephew Jack, we have, as a sudden episode, the attempt against the queen’ life by William Parry (which was plotted in 1583–4); whereupon, a chorus, professing to bridge the interval between 1585 and 1588, brings us to the year of the Armada. But nothing follows except a rather bald account of this climax of Elizabethan glories, finishing with a succession of this climax of “posts,” recalling with a difference, the [char] of the Persae. No doubt the whole of this production was brought out hurriedly soon after the death of the great queen, having to serve its purpose tant bien que mal; and, though it is not without details of interest and contains at least one passage of real poetic feeling, it bears the fatal mark of haste.

    A third dramatic composition of the same class which has been ascribed to Heywood is the play entitled No-Body, and Some-Body. With the true Chronicle Historie of Elydure, which was entered in the Stationers’ register in 1606, and must have been performed before 1604. But, though Heywood’ authorship seemed unquestionable to Fleay, stronger evidence than that which satisfied him seems requisite before we burden the dramatist’ reputation with this ascription. The main plot, taken from Geoffrey of Monmouth, of king Elidure’ threefold accession to the British throne, is of the antique cast of The True Chronicle History of King Leir, the by-plot which gives its name to the play is an elaborate development of the grim old jest of Ov[char], which savours of the personifications familiar to the moralities and, like them, has a satirico-didactic aim.

    To the same early period in his career in which Heywood produced examples of a species soon to become all but obsolete belongs a series of plays from his hand which in subject seem to associate themselves with the tastes of more learned audiences than those for which he had thus early shown himself ready to cater. But, in the preface to The Iron Age—the last of The Four Ages in which he dramatised a long series of classical myths from Saturn and Jupiter down to Ulysses, who, alone among the Greek kings banded against Troy, survives to speak the epilogue—he expressly tells us that these plays were

  • often (and not with the least applause) Publickely Acted by two Companies uppon one Stage at once, and have at sundry times thronged three severall Theaters, with numerous and mighty Auditories.
  • There is every reason for believing that Parts I and II of Hercules, performed by the Admiral’ men as new plays from May, 1595, are, respectively, The Silver Age and The Brazen Age and Heywood’ series; but Fleay’ daring identification of Selio and Olimpio (Caelo et Olympo?), performed by the same company in 1594, with The Golden Age, and his conjecture that Troye, performed by them in 1596, is Part I, or an earlier and shorter edition of both parts, of The Iron Age, must remain questionable. In any case, these plays are more invertebrate than the most loosely constructed of chronicle histories; and not only is the number of characters very great, but it might seem as if, to any audience far away from Cam or Isis, even the indefatigable exertions of “old Homer” as presenter and chorus, aided by occasional dumb-shows, would have proved inadequate. There is, no doubt, a good deal of life and stir in the action—the amorous scenes, indeed, are often very highly coloured—quite apart from the stimulus of occasional unexpected parallels and a large amount of clowning. But it is incontestable that these plays offer a significant measure of the imaginative powers on which an Elizabethan dramatist could reckon in his audience. Homer might safely venture in Heywood’ phrase, to unlock the casket of which the learned kept the key; and there is something contagious in the opening boast of the poet-magician, that he had “raised out of the earth” the gods who served the playwright as his puppets.