Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Thomas Heywood and the classical tradition

Reviewed by Chloe Renwick

Tania Demetriou and Janice Valls-Russell (eds), Thomas Heywood and the classical tradition (Manchester University Press, 2021), ISBN 9781526140234, 344 pp., £80.00 HB.

Book cover image[1] While much has been written on the classicism of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, the writings of Thomas Heywood have received little comparable attention. Although it has long been recognised that Heywood was an avid classicist, until the appearance of Thomas Heywood and the classical tradition there had been no prolonged study on the subject. Despite appearing in many studies of his works, discussions of Heywood’s classicism have, until now, been diffuse and disconnected – much like the publication history of his canon. With this edited collection, though, the subject is united by twelve chapters that illustrate the complexities in Heywood’s use of the classical tradition, particularly regarding women and how Heywood combines source texts. The volume approaches a wide variety of Heywood’s writing, with the essays reading across genres and addressing some of his more neglected works. In so doing, this collection not only consolidates previous research on Heywood’s classicism, but establishes its importance across many of his texts, even those where we may least expect it.

[2] Janice Valls-Russell and Tania Demetriou’s introduction draws upon Heywood’s most celebrated play, A Woman Killed with Kindness, to illustrate how even his non-classical plays can shape and be shaped by the classical tradition. The analysis of Anne Frankford captures how ‘women are often at the centre of Heywood’s traffic with the classics’ (4), setting the stage for the following essays. In chapter one, Katherine Heavey focuses on another of Heywood’s women to show how in Oenone and Paris, Heywood destabilises both classical and contemporary source texts to create a ‘sensitive treatment’ of Oenone by granting the ‘traditionally marginalised figure a new kind of power’ (33). A similar effect is found in the third chapter, as Valls-Russell demonstrates that Heywood dramatised Callisto and Lucrece (in The Golden Age and The Rape of Lucrece respectively) in a way that invited ‘audiences to discover the two women unmediated’ (85). Valls-Russell examines how Heywood utilised various source texts in order to give the women ‘a voice and physical immediacy’ (85). It is not only Heywood’s verse or drama that contains such treatments of women, as M.L. Stapleton argues that Heywood’s translation Loves Schoole ‘strove to present an Ovid relieved of his misogynist reputation’ (54). Even where we may expect to find misogyny, as in The Brazen Age’s treatment of Hercules’s affair with Omphale, instead we see women who contribute to the ‘troubling’ (124) depiction of the hero, as explored by Richard Rowland.

[3] What these treatments of women demonstrate is a calculated use of diverse classical texts, tropes and themes within Heywood’s writing. Yves Peyré, in chapter four, assesses how such elements come together in Heywood’s treatment of the story of Jupiter and Alcmene in The Silver Age. Peyré finds a ‘coherent poetic design’ (101) which ‘reveals its cohesion by not attempting to hide the seams’ (102), as Heywood amplifies his disparate source texts. The multiplicity in Heywood’s works is expanded upon by Charlotte Coffin who highlights the necessity of a more ‘inclusive definition of the classical tradition’ (142). Coffin calls for medieval sources to be recognised as part of the ‘chain made of multiple intermediary links’ (139) that she believes constitutes the classical tradition. Tania Demetriou illuminates another neglected link in this chain, as her reading of Heywood’s Gynaikeion reveals how the Roman poet Ausonius ‘becomes [Heywood’s] route to Homer’ (186). Similarly, Camilla Temple reads The Hierarchie of Blessed Angells, Pleasant Dialogues and The Silver Age to chart Lucian’s influence on Heywood. Temple proposes that Lucian’s style, which ‘brings different genres and models together’ (210), provided Heywood with a pattern to create ‘productive dissonance’ and devise scenes ‘that he shapes for his own dramatic purposes’ (224). The analysis supports Peyré’s assertion in chapter seven, that Heywood ‘trained himself to gather a multiplicity of texts’ and was ‘alert’ to their ‘difference in emphasis and contrariety’ (168). It is elements such as these which comprise the ‘porousness’ (12) that is so characteristic of Heywood’s use of the classical tradition.

[4] These aspects also provided Heywood with a way to assimilate the past and present, particularly in the realm of acting and performance. In chapter ten, Tanya Pollard studies Heywood’s ‘distinct perspective’ (232) in An Apology for Actors. While it is not unusual to connect the history of drama with Greece, Pollard explores how Heywood aligns these elements with popular playhouses through his focus on the ‘ephemeral arena of acting’ (232) and its ‘transformative’ potential (237). Chloe Preedy subsequently draws upon the alignment between classical past and contemporary present, too, when she investigates the presence of ‘spatial markers of continuity’ in both the treatise and the Ages plays. Preedy discusses how Heywood considered performance more authentic than publication, which led to his ‘innovative deployment of spatial, temporal and even elemental coordinates to theorise present-day theatrical experience’ (249). The final chapter also emphasises the significance of physicality in Heywood’s classical works, as Valls-Russell investigates Heywood’s ‘three-dimensional engagement with the classics’ (268) through a study of A True Description of his Majesties Royall Ship. The work, an ‘iconological programme’ (266) of Charles I’s ship, the Sovereign of the Seas, captures ‘Heywood’s drive to mythologise and emblematise power by reconnecting with classical material’ (286) – an impulse evident throughout the volume and his canon.

[5] This edited collection revitalises research on Heywood by drawing together studies which elucidate important themes and practices that inform all his many writings. Alongside these significant findings are intricate details and close readings that illuminate neglected works and highlight their sophistication. Such a focus, though, does not limit the scope of the volume; rather, it testifies to the pervasiveness and complexity of his classicism. In doing so, Thomas Heywood and the classical tradition establishes itself as an indispensable resource for anyone who studies Heywood or the reception of classical literature and culture in early modern England, and provides a firm base for future research.

Northumbria University, October 2021

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