We 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.
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
Thanks, Simon. Theatre and theatre history is one of my secret passions.
Do you know about Richard Brome?
I should put something up there more about him rather than just the subject matter – but you may find the embedded links to HRI online interesting
I began this series of posts because I was revisiting my undergraduate degree after nearly 5 decades. I have been enjoying rediscovering the tales of those who developed drama. I admit not to knowing much of Brome.
Here are the posts I have completed in this series on English literature…
April 2015 ~ Early History of the English Language
April 2015 ~ Early Political History of England: The West Saxons
April 2015 ~ Life in Early Britain
May 2015 ~ Anglo-Saxon Literature: The Epic Poem, Beowulf
May 2015 ~ Anglo-Saxon Literature ~ Part I Early Epic Poems
May 2015 ~ Anglo-Saxon Literature – Part II: Charms and Riddles
May 2015 ~ Anglo-Saxon Poetry
June 2015 ~ Anglo-Saxon Christian Writings
June 2015 ~ The Anglo-Saxon World: King Alfred, William of Normandy, and the Doomsday Book
June 2015 ~ The Development of the English Language During the Anglo-Norman Period (1066-1350)
July 2015 ~ Political History of England Under the Normans
July 2015 ~ Early Anglo-Norman Literature
July 2015 ~ Anglo-Norman Literature: Part I ~ Introduction to Medieval Verse Romances
July 2015 ~ Anglo-Norman Literature: Part II ~ Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
August 2015 ~ Anglo-Norman Literature: Part III ~ Romantic Verse Beyond “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”
August 2015 ~ Anglo-Norman Literature: Part IV ~ Ballads
August 2015 ~ Anglo-Norman Literature: Ballads (Part 2)
September 2015 ~ Anglo-Norman Literature: The Pearl Poet
September 2015 ~ History of the Age of Chaucer and Life in England (1350 -1500): An Overview
October 2015 ~ Literature of the Age of Chaucer: Part I
November 2015 ~ Chaucer’s Influence (Part 2): The Canterbury Tales
December 2015 ~ John Gower, Medieval English Poet and Contemporary of William Langland and Geoffrey Chaucer
December 2015 ~ William Caxton, Publisher and Translator
January 2016 ~ A Primer for Books 1-2 of Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur”
January 2016 ~ Sir Thomas Malory, Knight-Prisoner, Author of “Le Morte Darthur,” and Criminal?
March 2016 ~ 14th Century Scottish Writers
March 2016 ~ An Introduction into Anglo-Norman Early Drama
April 2016 ~ Origin of the Drama – Everyman and The Second Shepherd’s Play
May 2016 ~ Overview: Life and Literature in the Era of the Reformation
May 2016 ~ A Brief History of The Reformation 1485 – 1580
June 2016 ~ John Skelton (1460 – 1529), Tudor Poet
June 2016 ~ Sir Thomas Wyatt (c. 1503 – 1542), 16th C English Ambassador and Lyrical Poet
July 2016 ~ Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey ~ Tudor Poet
August 2016 ~ Sir Philip Sidney, Author of the Finest Love Poems in English Before Shakespeare
September 2016 ~ Pre-Elizabethan Drama: Liturgical Drama
September 2016 ~ Robert Southwell, Jesuit Priest and Literary Contemporary of William Shakespeare
October 2016 ~ Pre-Elizabethan Drama: Morality Plays
November 2016 ~ Colorful (But Lesser Known) Contemporaries of William Shakespeare, Part II
December 2016 ~ Thomas More’s Life and Literature and Being a Reformation Martyr
January 2017 ~ Pre-Elizabethan Drama: Folk Plays
January 2017 ~ Pre-Elizabethan Drama: The Interlude
February 2017 ~ Roger Ascham, Serving Four Monarchs
March 2017 ~ Overview of the Elizabethan and Restoration Eras
March 2017 ~ An English Mystery Play: Abraham and Isaac, the Brome Non-Cycle Play
April 2017 ~ The Quem Quaeritis Trope, the Roots of Liturgical Drama
May 2017 ~ The Second Shepherd’s Play, England’s “First Comedy”
June 2017 ~ A Gest of Robyn Hode
July 2017 ~ Oxfordshire St. George Play