Authors: John Heywood

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English playwright and poet

Identity: Catholic

Author Works


The Play of Love, pr. c. 1528–1529

Witty and Witless, wr. c. 1533, pb. 1846 (abridged), 1909 (also known as A Dialogue on Wit and Folly)

The Pardoner and the Friar, pb. 1533 (possibly based on Farce nouvelle d’un pardonneur, d’un triacleur, et d’une tavernière)

Johan Johan the Husband, Tyb His Wife, and Sir Johan the Priest, pb. 1533 (commonly known as Johan Johan; adaptation of Farce nouvelle et fort joyeuse du pasté)

The Play of the Weather, pb. 1533

Gentleness and Nobility, pb. 1535 (attributed to Heywood)

The Playe of the Foure P.P.: A Newe and a Very Mery Enterlude of a Palmer, a Pardoner, a Potycary, a Pedler, pb. 1541–1547 (commonly known as The Four P.P.; possibly based on Farce nouvelle d’un pardonneur, d’un triacleur, et d’une tavernière)

The Dramatic Writings of John Heywood, pb. 1905 (John S. Farmer, editor)


A Dialogue of Proverbs, 1546, 1963 (Rudolph E. Habenicht, editor)

The Spider and the Fly, 1556


Works, 1562 (epigrams and poems)

Works and Miscellaneous Short Poems, 1956 (Burton A. Milligan, editor)


John Heywood, an English dramatist and poet, was possibly born in London. A staunch, but by no means pedantic Catholic, the events of his life would largely be determined by his commitment to that faith. He was friends with Sir Thomas More, and was familiar at court with Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I. Once Elizabeth I came to power in 1558, he fell out of favor. The Protestantism advocated during that reign left little room for Heywood’s outspoken theological position. His beliefs were clearly illustrated in his long poem The Spider and the Fly, where he cast Roman Catholics as flies and Protestants as the spiders with Queen Mary as the heroine destroying the spiders under the direction of a benevolent God. As a result of this change in the state of religion in England, Heywood moved to Belgium where he spent the rest of his life. This move, while not legislated, allowed him to continue to practice his faith more freely.{$I[A]Heywood, John}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Heywood, John}{$I[geo]BELGIUM;Heywood, John}{$I[geo]CATHOLIC;Heywood, John}{$I[tim]1497;Heywood, John}

Heywood began his artistic career as a paid singer at court, working as a servant to King Henry VIII. During this time, he was designated one of the king’s singers and later was a member of the royal choir. His career began to show signs of dramatic emphasis with his focus on Interludes. The Interlude form developed out of medieval morality plays and became the impetus for much of what would later be termed Comedy in the Elizabethan theater tradition. The form was short, appearing during breaks in larger works. While they often contained lessons that were socially significant, they were most often presented in light or witty tone. Heywood’s contributions to the genre are central. Also of note is the fact that, though he was a committed Catholic, he did not spare his own church in his dramatic writing, with pieces such as The Pardoner and the Friar taking a satirical look at the behavior of church officials. In his work, Heywood fell into the group known as the Christian Humanists who incorporated their faith with the new explorations in humanistic learning that was popularized during the Renaissance.

There is much confusion over the middle part of Heywood’s life. He married Eliza Rastell, who was the niece of Thomas More. Their daughter Elizabeth would marry a man named John Donne. Their son, named for his father, is the famed poet of the “Metaphysical” group in seventeenth century British poetry. Two sons, Ellis and Jasper, would become Jesuits, with Ellis joining his father in exile in Belgium and Jasper becoming famous for his translation into English of classic Latin texts (particularly those of Seneca).

Heywood’s career involved many roles including player of virginals and player of interludes for children. In each of these cases, records show him being paid handsomely for his services at court. He was a particular favorite of the Catholic Mary, for whose coronation he delivered a glowing Latin oration. He got into trouble for these same views during the reign of Edward the VI. While Heywood did eventually leave England, there is some evidence to suggest that he tried to maintain his position by recanting his faith. Scholars disagree on this point, though they agree he continued his life as a Catholic once in the Spanish Netherlands (now in Belgium).

As a result of his falling out with the increasingly Protestant ruling class in England, Heywood’s dramatic work also suffered. Thus, while he is famous as a dramatist, it is significant that all of his known dramatic work was completed while he was relatively young. Given the time and support to create while living and working at court, Heywood was able to produce some very influential work. After his departure to the Continent his labor became significantly more pedantic.

BibliographyBevington, David. From Mankind to Marlowe. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962. Traces the development of drama throughout the period, placing Heywood in context with his contemporaries, as they experimented with the various forms that founded the English public theater.Bolwell, Robert G. W. The Life and Works of John Heywood. 1921. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1966. An early biography of Heywood written with extensive reference to his works and including transcriptions of several important texts from Heywood and the court of Henry VIII.Chambers, E. K. The Medieval Stage. 2 vols. Cambridge, England: Oxford University Press, 1903. Examines the development of medieval theatre and provides a detailed analysis of the development of the interlude, the genre that was Heywood’s specialty.Foxe, John. Acts and Monuments. London: R. B. Seeley, 1938. Foxe records Heywood’s recantation and the details of his part in the plot against Archbishop Cranmer that led to it.Fraser, Russell A., and Norman C. Rabkin, eds. The Tudor Period. Vol. 1 in Drama of the English Renaissance. New York: Macmillan, 1976. This large, scholarly, critical source text includes works of a number of dramatists of the period. Also contains a detailed introduction to the period and the form as well as supplying notes to the reprinted works and an index.Gassner, John. Medieval and Tudor Drama. New York: Applause Theatre Books, 1988. An overview of the developments of English drama from the Middle Ages to the early Renaissance, including a chapter on the Interlude as a genre that uses Heywood’s The Four P’s as exemplar.Henderson, Judith Rice. “John Heywood’s The Spider and the Flie: Educating Queen and Country.” Studies in Philology 96, no. 3 (Summer, 1999): 241-274. Heywood’s The Spider and the Flie has been one of the least appreciated of many neglected poems of mid-Tudor England. Henderson claims that Heywood’s purpose for writing the poem was not only to instruct but also to exhort commoners, professionals, magistrates, and the monarch to fulfill their obligations to the commonwealth.Johnson, Robert Carl. John Heywood. New York: Twayne, 1970. A critical biography of the author including a chronology, list of publications, details about his life and career, as well as an index and an annotated bibliography.Walker, Greg. The Politics of Performance in Early Renaissance Drama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Interesting for its insights into Heywood in the context of the sociopolitical culture of Elizabethan England, this study examines the relationship between politics and drama in Heywood’s day, exploring the complex relationships among politics, court culture, dramatic composition, performance, and publication. Heywood is addressed in a chapter titled “John Heywood and the Politics of Contentment.”
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