Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Rowley, William (1585?-1642?)

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Dates 1585? to 1626 in the ODNB.

693706Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 49 — Rowley, William (1585?-1642?)1897Thomas Seccombe (1866-1923)

ROWLEY, WILLIAM (1585?–1642?), dramatist, was born about 1585. Meres, in ‘Palladis Tamia’ (1598), credited ‘Master Rowley, once a rare scholar of learned Pembroke Hall in Cambridge’, with excellence in comedy. But the dates render impossible the identification of Meres's ‘Master Rowley’ with the dramatist which Wood adopted. Meres doubtless referred to Ralph Rowley (d. 1604?), afterwards rector of Chelmsford, who was the only student at Pembroke Hall of the name of Rowley during the second half of the sixteenth century (see Cooper, Athenæ Cantabr. ii. 388). The dramatist has also been confused with another Ralph Rowley who, like himself, was an actor in the Duke of York's company in 1610, and with Samuel Rowley [q. v.], who was possibly his brother. Previously to 1610 William Rowley seems to have acted in Queen Anne's company. In 1613 his company became known as the Prince of Wales's, and he is described as its leading comedian (note by Oldys in Langbaine, Dramatick Poets). In the same year he contributed verses to William Drummond's ‘Mausoleum’ in memory of Prince Henry. Poems by him appear in John Taylor the water poet's ‘Great Britaine all in Black,’ 1613, and the same writer's ‘Nipping and Snipping of Abuses,’ 1614. In 1614, too, he contributed to an edition of Jo. Cooke's ‘Greenes Tu Quoque, or the City Gallant,’ an epitaph on the actor Thomas Greene; the work had a preface by Thomas Heywood. But Rowley thenceforth confined his literary labours mainly to the drama. In April 1614 the temporary amalgamation of the Lady Elizabeth's company with that of Prince Charles brought him into contact with Thomas Middleton, in collaboration with whom his best remembered work was done. Their first joint play was ‘A Fair Quarrel’ (not printed until 1617). The united companies played for two years under Henslowe's management at the ‘Hope,’ on the site of Paris Garden. In 1616 the theatre was closed and bear-baiting resumed. After Henslowe's death the two companies separated, and Rowley for a time followed the Prince's to the ‘Curtain,’ but in 1621 he threw in his lot with the Lady Elizabeth's men at the ‘Cockpit,’ and in 1623 he joined the king's. In the following year he played in Beaumont and Fletcher's ‘Maid of the Mill.’ Soon after Middleton's death in July 1627, he seems to have retired from the boards as an actor. Between 1632 and 1638 he wrote four plays, which were issued as the unaided efforts of his pen. In 1637 his marriage is recorded at Cripplegate to Isabel Tooley (cf. Collier, Memoirs of Actors, p. 235). He is believed to have died before the outbreak of the civil war.

A tradition handed down by Langbaine records that Rowley was beloved by those great men, Shakespeare, Fletcher, and Jonson; while his partnership in so many plays by a variety of writers has been regarded as proof of the amiability of his character. As a useful and safe collaborator he seems to have been only less in demand than Dekker. His hand is often difficult to identify, though his verse may generally be detected by its metrical harshness and irregularity. His style is disfigured by a monotonously extravagant emphasis, and he is sadly wanting in artistic form and refinement. He had, however, a rare vein of whimsical humour (cf. the episode of Gnotho in the Old Law, iii. 1), and occasionally he shows an unexpected mastery of tragic pathos. Drake ranks him in the same class with Massinger, Middleton, Heywood, Ford, Dekker, and Webster, but puts him last in this category. With all these he was associated, and it was asserted that Shakespeare himself co-operated with him in ‘The Birth of Merlin’ (title-page of quarto, 1663); but this was a bookseller's fib, unsupported by any evidence external or internal (cf. Drake, ii. 570). That Rowley was in such request as a collaborator was probably owing to his well-known power to tickle the risibility of the ‘groundlings.’ Thus the madhouse scenes in the ‘Changeling,’ which the modern reader is apt to wish away, were just those which achieved popularity when produced upon the boards. His broadly comic effects were felt to be an indispensable relief to the gloomy backgrounds and improbable horrors of some of his greater contemporaries. As an actor-playwright he probably altered and edited a much larger proportion of those pieces which were presented by the companies he served than has been hitherto associated with his name.

The following plays are claimed on the title-pages as Rowley's unassisted work:

  1. ‘A new Wonder. A Woman never vexed,’ 1632, 4to. Dyce calls this Rowley's best piece. The old story of a wedding-ring being found in a fish's belly is utilised in the plot, but the whole drama is very probably no more than an adaptation of an old rhyming play. It was altered by Planché, and produced at Covent Garden in 1824. Extracts from both this play and No. 2 appear in Lamb's ‘Specimens’ (it is also in Dilke's Old English Plays, 1814, vol. v.; Cumberland's British Theatre, and Dodsley, ed. Hazlitt, xii. 85 seq.).
  2. ‘All's lost by Lust,’ 1633, 4to; based on a Spanish legend, containing some powerfully imagined scenes, it was acted at the Cockpit about 1622, and at the Phœnix in Drury Lane by Lady Elizabeth's men. On it Mrs. Pix based her ‘Conquest of Spain,’ 1705 (see Genest, i. 36, ii. 330).
  3. ‘A Match at Midnight. A pleasant Comedy as it had been acted by the Children of the Revels,’ 1633 (Dodsley, ed. Hazlitt, xiii. 1–98). Messrs. Fleay and Bullen hold that the ground-plan of this comedy was Middleton's work, but that it was more or less extensively altered by Rowley about 1622. Planché produced an adaptation of it and Jasper Mayne's ‘City Match,’ entitled ‘The Merchant's Wedding,’ in 1828.
  4. ‘A Shoomaker a Gentleman, with the Life and Death of the Cripple that stole the Weathercock at Paules,’ 1638, 4to; the plot was founded on ‘Crispin and Crispianus, or the History of the Gentle Craft’ (1598); it was acted at the Red Bull in 1609.

The plays in which Rowley collaborated are:

  1. ‘The Travailes of the Three English Brothers,’ 1607, 4to. This, a hurried production, written in partnership with George Wilkins and John Day (fl. 1606) [q. v.], was acted at the Curtain by Queen Anne's men in the summer of 1607. It describes the journey of Sir Thomas, Sir Anthony, and Robert Shirley to the court of Russia, and then to Rome and Venice (see Retrospective Review, ii. 379). The piece was reprinted in A. H. Bullen's edition of Day's ‘Works,’ vol. ii. (cf. Mr. Bullen's Introduction, i. 19 seq.).
  2. ‘A fair Quarrel, as it was acted before the king and divers times publikly by the prince his highness' servants,’ 1617, 4to. Unsold copies were reissued in the same year, with a fresh title and three additional pages of comic matter, ‘the bauds song,’ &c.; another edition, 1622 (Bullen, Middleton, vol. iv.). This was written in conjunction with Middleton, and contains some of Rowley's ‘strongest writing.’
  3. ‘A Courtly Masque; the deuice called the World Tost at Tennis. As it hath beene divers times presented by the Prince and his servants,’ 1620, 4to (Bullen, vol. vii.). Rowley wrote the first part of this ingenious invention in conjunction with Middleton.
  4. ‘The Changeling, as it was acted with great applause at the Private House in Drury Lane and Salisbury Court,’ 1653, 4to. The unsold copies were reissued with a new title-page in 1668. This was performed in 1621, and again by the Queen of Bohemia's company on 4 Jan. 1623 (Dyce and Bullen, vol. vi.) This is the finest of the plays written by Rowley and Middleton in collaboration. Rowley's contribution is defined by Mr. Fleay as i. 1, 2, iii. 3, iv. 3, v. 3. Hayley based upon the ‘Changeling’ his weak play of ‘Marcella,’ produced at Drury Lane on 7 Nov. 1789.
  5. ‘The Spanish Gipsy,’ 1653 and 1661, 4to, by Rowley and Middleton (Dodsley, Contin. vol. iv. Old English Plays; Dyce and Bullen, vol. vi.). Rowley's share in this comedy, which was performed at Whitehall in November 1623, was probably slight.
  6. ‘Fortune by Land and Sea,’ 1655, 4to, by Rowley and Heywood, who is responsible for the larger share. Based in part upon a ballad of Thomas Deloney [q. v.], commemorating the fate of the pirates Clinton and Thomas Watton, it was probably written in 1608–9. An edition was issued by the Shakespeare Society in 1846.
  7. ‘The Excellent Comedy called the Old Law, or a new way to please you, by Phil. Massinger, Tho. Middleton, William Rowley,’ 1656, 4to, acted before the king and queen at Salisbury House. The original draft was doubtless by Middleton. Some highly effective humorous business (esp. iii. 1 and v. 1) was added by Rowley about 1618, and the play was subsequently revised by Massinger (Dyce's and Bullen's Middleton).
  8. ‘The Witch of Edmonton; a known true story composed into a tragi-comedy by divers well esteemed poets, William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, John Ford,’ &c., 1658, 4to. This topical play was written hurriedly after the execution of the ‘notorious witch’ Elizabeth Sawyer in June 1621. Dekker appears to have the chief share, but Rowley supplied some acceptable buffoonery. It was acted at the Cockpit.
  9. ‘A Cure for a Cuckold,’ 1661, 4to, published as by Rowley and Webster, was played in 1618. Mr. Fleay is convinced from internal evidence that Rowley's collaborator in this piece was not Webster. It is quite possible that Massinger contributed the serious portions. Rowley's hand is conspicuous in the humorous scenes. Those traditionally assigned to Webster were reprinted at Mr. Daniel's private press at Oxford in 1885. Altered into ‘The City Bride, or the Merry Cuckold,’ it was given at Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1696 (cf. Genest, ii. 89).
  10. ‘The Thracian Wonder,’ 1661, 4to. This vile comedy, which is similarly attributed to Rowley and Webster, is believed by Mr. Fleay to be substantially identical with Heywood's lost play, entitled ‘War without Blows’ (1598). It is given in ‘Old English Plays,’ 1814.
  11. ‘The Birth of Merlin, or the Child has lost a Father,’ 1662, 4to, appears on the title-page as by Shakespeare and Rowley. The use of Shakespeare's name is manifestly unauthorised, and there is little doubt that this is an old play refashioned by Rowley, with fresh buffooneries, and possibly with some aid from Middleton. It is given in ‘Pseudo-Shakespearean Plays,’ No. iv. (Halle, 1887).

In the ‘Biographia Dramatica’ (1812) are enumerated, in addition to the above, five unprinted plays by Rowley:

  1. ‘The Fool without Book.’
  2. ‘A Knave in print, or One for Another.’
  3. ‘The Nonesuch.’
  4. ‘The Booke of the four honoured Lives.’
  5. ‘The Parliament of Love;’ it is stated that the last three were destroyed by Warburton's cook, but No. 20 may be identical with Massinger's extant, although unfinished, ‘Parliament of Love.’

Apart from his dramatic work Rowley wrote a pamphlet (now scarce), in Dekker's vein, entitled ‘A Search for Money; or the lamentable complaint for the losse of the Wandring Knight, Mounsieur l'Argent, or Come along with me, I know thou lovest Money,’ 1609, 4to (Brit. Mus.; reprinted in Percy Soc. ii. and extracted in ‘Brit. Bibl.’ iv.), dedicated to a fellow-actor of the author, one ‘Maister Thos. Hobbs.’ The quest for money leads the characters through queer byways of metropolitan life, and the descriptions are marked by humour and fidelity. Rowley wrote ‘For a Farewell Elegie on the Death of Hugh Atwell, Seruant to Prince Charles’—a broadsheet in possession of the Society of Antiquaries (see Collier's History of Early Dramatic Poetry, i. 423).

[Mr. A. H. Bullen's edition of Middleton's Works contains frequent allusions to Rowley and valuable criticism. See also Dyce's edition of Middleton; Mr. Fleay's Hist. of the Stage and Biographical Chron. of the English Drama, s.v. ‘Middleton;’ Cunningham's Revels Account vol. xlii.; Rowley's Fortune by Land and Sea (Shakespeare Soc.), Introduction; Ward's Hist. of Engl. Dram. Lit.; Rapps's Englisches Theater; Langbaine's Hist. of the Dramatic Poets, and notes by Oldys and Haslewood; Hunter's Chorus Vatum (Add. MS. 24487, f. 263); Brydges's Censura Lit. ix. 49; Chetwood's British Theatre; Baker's Biogr. Dramatica, ed. 1812; Allibone's Dict. of English Lit.; Lamb's Dramatic Essays, 1891, pp. 208–10; Mr. Swinburne in Nineteenth Century, January 1886; Brit. Mus. Cat.; cf. arts. Dekker, Thomas, and Middleton, Thomas.]

T. S.