John Heywood, England’s First Great Dramatist

john-heywood-english-writer.jpgWe know little of John Heywood’s life, other than the year of his birth, which was 1497. Likely, he was once served as a choir boy in the Chapel Royale and then studied at Oxford as a King’s Scholar. He was a ‘playwright whose short dramatic interludes helped put English drama on the road to the fully developed stage comedy of the Elizabethans. He replaced biblical allegory and the instruction of the morality play with a comedy of contemporary personal types that illustrate everyday life and manners. From 1519, Heywood was active at the court of Henry VIII as a singer and ‘player of the virginals,’ and later as master of an acting group of boy singers. He received periodic grants that indicate that he was in favour at court under Edward VI and Mary.” (Britannica) From 1528 to 1558, he served them as steward of the Royal Chamber. 

In 1529, he married the printer John Rastell’s daughter. They had five children, three of whom gained a certain notoriety of his/her own, but none outshone his/her father. Heywood’s daughter Elizabeth was the mother of Dr. John Donne, a leading poet of the metaphysical period. Elizabeth was the grand-niece of Catholic martyr Thomas More. Heywood’s son Jasper was an English Jesuit priest. He is known as the English translator of three Latin plays of Seneca, the Troas (1559), the Thyestes (1560) and Hercules Furens (1561). In Il Moro Heywood’s son Ellis  constructs a presumably imaginary debate about the nature of true happiness between his great-uncle Sir Thomas More and six of More’s friends.

Heywood’s works for the stage were interludes—entertainments popular in 15th- and 16th-century England, consisting of dialogues on a set subject. The four interludes to which Heywood’s name is attached are witty, satirical debates in verse, ending on a didactic note like others of their genre and reflecting some influence of French farce and of Geoffrey Chaucer. Heywood’s interlude, Pardon and the Friar, is dated as 1521. Heywood’s interludes were likely presented at court by the King’s Men. They also were likely performed upon the stage of John Rastell, his father-in-law, for the printer had a private stage at his home. Rastell was known not only to print plays, but to produce them. 

Between 1533 and 1534, Heywood’s brother-in-law printed four of Heywood’s plays: The Pardoner and the Friar; The Play of Love; The Play of the Weather; and John John, Tyb, and Sir John. 


Archbishop Cranmer via Wikipedia

 The rise of the Protestant reformation caused Heywood’s popularity to wan. However, in 1537, he appeared with the children of the Royal Chapel to present an Interlude before Princess Mary. The next year, he gave a Mask of Arthur’s Knights at Court. Even so, his Catholicism continued to come into play. In 1538, he was tried and convicted of treason in connection with a plot against Archbishop Cranmer. He was granted a pardon only after he made a public confession and a recantation. 

In the 1540s, The Four PP and the Dialogue of Proverbs Concerning Marriage were attributed to him, along with Thersites, a classical-based play. Next came a series of 600 Epigrams. In 1556, he published his long poem, The Spider and the Fly, a skillful adaptation of débat, an extended discussion, debate, or philosophical argument between two characters in a work of literature. (Cranmer was the “spider” in the poem.) 

On the death of Queen Mary in 1558, he gave up all his offices, but he assisted in putting together an entertainment for Elizabeth in 1559. His collected works appeared in print in 1562, but he fled England soon after that time. Some believe he was involved in some sort of Papist plot. He resided in Belgium and never returned to England. Along with his son Ellis, he entered the Jesuit College at Antwerp in 1576. However, in 1578, a Protestant mob overtook the college. He left for Louvain with the monks. Eventually, he died there. 

Heywood wrote in the medieval tradition of Chaucer and Skelton. He drew freely from Chaucer’s works. He took the crude estrifs and débats of an earlier period and reworked the form to the purpose of the interlude. Although most of his interludes are not remembered, Heywood earned the distinction of being the first English dramatist who stands out as an individual. His Interludes, The Four PP and John John, are his most memorable.

The Playe Called the Foure PP is fabliau rather than drama. In it, a Pardoner, a Palmer, a ‘Potecary and a Pedler meet. They decide to join together to promote their knavish talents, their leader to be the one who can speak the biggest lie. The Pardoner, for example, tells of his journey to Hell in order to rescue his former mistress. The devils suggest that in the future he should issue his pardons for those who service him and keep them out of Hell. 

I have seen women five hundred thousand/ Wives and widows, maids and married/ And oft with them have long time tarried/ Yet in all places where I have been/ Of all the women that I have seen/ I never saw nor knew, in my conscience/ Any one woman out of patience/ 

According to Parks and Beatty in The English Drama: An Anthology 900-1642 (page 81) tells us, “This is excellent comic drama of the vaudeville ‘wise-crack’ type, but unfortunately this is the only part of The Four PP which is very dramatic. The preceding tales are excessively long and not overly funny; the anti-climatic speeches which follow, particularly by the Pedler, make it clear that the Catholic Church must not be confused with the knaves here satirized.”

In John John, Heywood draws on the contemporary French comedy, the Farce de Pernet qui van au vin, but the play is chiefly Heywood’s invention. It draws largely upon physical action for the comedy. With John John, the human comedy has departed completely from the abstraction of the Morality play; it was a short piece which could be presented easily and informally, but within the narrow limits by the Interlude form.


John Heywood, Theatre History

John Heywood, English Writer, Britannica 

John Heywood Quotes 


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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