Thomas Heywood

(1575-1650)

Biography of Thomas Heywood

Thomas Heywood (early 1570s— 16 August 1641) was a prominent English playwright, actor, and author whose peak period of activity falls between late Elizabethan and early Jacobean theatre.

Heywood's first play may have been The Four Prentises of London (printed 1615, but acted some fifteen years earlier). This tale of four apprentices who become knights and travel to Jerusalem may have been intended as a burlesque of the old romances, but it is more likely that it was meant seriously to attract the apprentice spectators to whom it was dedicated. Its popularity was satirized in Beaumont and Fletcher's travesty of the middle-class taste in drama, The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Heywood's two-part history plays Edward IV (printed 1600), and If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody, or, The Troubles of Queene Elizabeth (1605 and 1606) concern, respectively, The Wars of the Roses and the life of the Queen contrasted with that of the preeminent merchant and financier Thomas Gresham.

He wrote for the stage, and (perhaps disingenuously) protested against the printing of his works, saying he had no time to revise them. Johann Ludwig Tieck called him the "model of a light and rare talent", and Charles Lamb wrote that he was a "prose Shakespeare"; Professor Ward, one of Heywood's most sympathetic editors, pointed out that Heywood had a keen eye for dramatic situations and great constructive skill, but his powers of characterization were not on a par with his stagecraft. He delighted in what he called "merry accidents", that is, in coarse, broad farce; his fancy and invention were inexhaustible.

Heywood's best known plays are his domestic tragedies and comedies (plays set among the English middle classes); his masterpiece is generally considered to be A Woman Killed with Kindness (acted 1603; printed 1607), a domestic tragedy about an adulterous wife, and a widely admired Plautine farce The English Traveller (acted approximately 1627; printed 15 July 1633), which is also known for its informative "Preface", giving Heywood an opportunity to inform the reader about his prolific creative output. His citizen comedies are noteworthy because of their physicality and energy. They provide a psycho-geography of the sights, smells, and sounds of London's wharfs, markets, shops, and streets which contrasts with the more conventional generalisations about the sites of commerce, which are satirised in city comedies.

Heywood wrote numerous prose works, mostly pamphlets about contemporary subjects, of interest now primarily to historians studying the period. His best known long essay is An Apology for Actors, a moderately-toned and reasonable reply to Puritan attacks on the stage, which contains a wealth of detailed information on the actors and acting conditions of Heywood's day. It is in the "Epistle to the Printer" in this 1612 work that Heywood writes about William Jaggard's appropriation of two of Heywood's poems for the same year's edition of The Passionate Pilgrim.

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The Message

YE little birds that sit and sing
   Amidst the shady valleys,
And see how Phillis sweetly walks
   Within her garden-alleys;
Go, pretty birds, about her bower;
Sing, pretty birds, she may not lower;
Ah me! methinks I see her frown!
   Ye pretty wantons, warble.

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