Graduate student contribution

William Rowley

William Rowley was one of the most prolific playwright-collaborators of the Jacobean period, co-authoring plays with John Day, George Wilkins, Thomas Heywood, John Fletcher, John Webster, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Middleton, and possibly even William Shakespeare, although this last collaboration is widely contested. Gerard Langbaine (1656-1692) famously recounted Rowley’s intimate relationship with the prime poets of the age: He was not only beloved by those Great Men, Shakespear, Fletcher, and Johnson; but likewise writ with the former, The Birth of Merlin (Langbaine 428). However, Shakespeare’s contribution to this play has been ruled out by the evidence of records produced by Sir Henry Herbert, Master of the Revels, licensing the play under its alternate title The Child hath Founde his Fathe. He calls it a New Play, acted by the Princes Servants at the Curtayne, 1622 (Gunby qtd. in Bawcutt 136). Shakespeare died in 1616. The true contributor remains unknown at this time.
Rowley produced four plays without collaborators: A Shoemaker, a Gentleman (c. 1608), A New Wonder, A Woman Never Vexed (c. 1610), All’s Lost by Lust (c. 1619), and A Match at Midnight (c. 1622-1623). Langbaine relates the following about the plot of A New Wonder in his Account of the English Dramatick Poets:
That passage of the Widows finding her Wedding-Ring, which she dropp’d in crossing the Thames, in the Belly of Fish which her Maid bought accidentally in the Market, is founded either upon the Story of Polycrates of Samos, as the Author may read at large in Herodotus, Lib. 3. five Thalia; or upon the like Story related of one Anderson of Newcastle, by Doctor Fuller, in his Worthies of England. (Langbaine 429)
Rowley’s name first appeared in 1607 as co-author of a mediocre adventure play, The Travels of the Three English Brothers (Holdsworth xii), which he wrote with Day and Wilkins. Our first record of Rowley as an actor is a 1609 costume purchase, made by five leading Duke of York’s men from John Heminges (1566-1630) (Gunby; Bentley 555-556). He seems to have made his career primarily as an actor. As a member of the Duke of York’s Company—which formed in 1608 but was not licensed to perform in London until 1610Rowley was acting in their daily performances by 1609 (outside of London), and handling much of their business (Chambers 242). A player of increasing importance, Rowley was leader of the company by 1616 (Holdsworth xii). The company was first called the Duke of York’s Men and later named Prince Charles’ Men, or simply the Prince’s Men (the exact date of this renaming is uncertain). For the last two or three years of his life, however, Rowley was a member of the King’s Men (Bentley 555). He most likely joined by 1623, when he is listed as cast member in The Maid of the Mill, which was licensed for the King’s Men by the Master of the Revels on 22 August 1623 (Bawcutt xxii). However, one point of contention is that he attended James I’s funeral in the livery of the Prince’s Men (wearing black cloth), which was held on 7 May 1625 (Bawcutt xxiii). Bentley has suggested that he was not yet sworn in as a member of the King’s Men, and was thus included as part of his former company rather than being omitted from the ceremony altogether. He appears four times on the lists of the King’s Men before his death in 1626 (Bentley 556). It may also be possible that he was earlier a member of Queen Anne’s Men owing to some collaborations licensed under that company of players (Gunby 1-6).
At various times and by numerous scholars, Rowley has been reported as colloborater, part-author, or reviser of over 50 works (Holdsworth xii). The following are the plays most commonly attributed to him (Robb qtd. in Bawcutt xxiv):
  • The Travels of the Three English Brothers (1607) (with Day and Wilkins)
  • A Shoemaker, a Gentleman (c. 1608)
  • Fortune by Land and Sea (c. 1608-1609) (with Heywood)
  • A New Wonder, a Woman Never Vexed (c. 1610)
  • The Old Law (c. 1615) (with Middleton and Massinger)
  • A Fair Quarrel (1615-1616) (with Middleton)
  • All’s Lost by Lust (c. 1619)
  • The World Tossed at Tennis (early 1620) (with Middleton)
  • The Birth of Merlin (c. 1620) (collaborator uncertain)
  • The Witch of Edmonton (1621) (with Dekker and Ford)
  • The Changeling (1622) (with Middleton)
  • A Match at Midnight (c. 1622-1623)
  • The Spanish Gipsie (1623) (with Middleton)
  • The Maid in the Mill (1623) (with Fletcher)
  • A Cure for the Cuckold (1625) (with Webster)
However, in his biographical essay in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Gunby disputes the dates of The Old Law (1618, not 1615), A Fair Quarrel (1617, not 1615-1616), and The World Tossed at Tennis (1622 specifically, not early 1620), and also asserts that Massinger’s contribution to The Old Law is minimal at best, and highly contested. Another of Rowley’s plays entitled Hymen’s Holiday, or Cupid’s Vagaries, has not survived, but was reportedly performed at court on 24 February 1612 (Chambers 3.473; Bawcutt xxii).
Rowley’s non-dramatic works include an elegy on the death of fellow Prince’s Men company member Hugh Atwell (1621), another elegy for Prince Henry (1612), and a prose pamphlet, A Search for Money (1609) (Bawcutt xxiii-xxiv). Gunby notes that [h]e also contributed commendatory verses to John Taylor’s Nipping or Snipping of Abuses (1614) and to the 1623 quarto of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (Gunby 1-6).
Rowley was best known for his fat clown roles, which he seems to have mastered both in writing and performance, suggesting he was likely a man of large physical stature. His character in Middleton’s Inner Temple Masque (c. 1619), Plumporridge, is said to have moved like one of the great porridge-tubs going to the counter (qtd in Bentley 556). He also played a clown in his own All’s Lost by Lust (1619) and a fat bishop in Middleton’s A Game at Chess (1624). He appeared in the following full-figured roles: One of his most celebrated collaborations, The Changeling (1622), co-authored with Middleton, offers a fine example of his talent at writing clown characters, in the portrayal of Lollio (Daalder xii).
Rowley was most likely the householder buried in February 1625/1626 (Bentley 556), for on 16 February 1625/1626 Grace, relict (I.e., widow) of William Rowley, appeared before a public notary and renounced administration of his estate (Bawcutt xxiii). He is remembered as a collaborator of some of the finest works of the period, but has been largely devalued by critics who champion the isolated genius of the true poet, a romantic notion that is becoming increasingly outdated (Daalder xxiii). As academics grow to appreciate collaborators and co-authored texts for their literary value, figures like William Rowley will likely begin to receive the attention they deserve.


Cite this page

MLA citation

Collins, Amy. William Rowley. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 05 May 2022,

Chicago citation

Collins, Amy. William Rowley. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed May 05, 2022.

APA citation

Collins, A. 2022. William Rowley. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 7.0). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from

RIS file (for RefMan, RefWorks, EndNote etc.)

Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
Content: text/plain; charset="utf-8"

A1  - Collins, Amy
ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - William Rowley
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
ET  - 7.0
PY  - 2022
DA  - 2022/05/05
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  -
UR  -
ER  - 

TEI citation

<bibl type="mla"><author><name ref="#COLL4"><surname>Collins</surname>, <forename>Amy</forename></name></author>. <title level="a">William Rowley</title>. <title level="m">The Map of Early Modern London</title>, Edition <edition>7.0</edition>, edited by <editor><name ref="#JENS1"><forename>Janelle</forename> <surname>Jenstad</surname></name></editor>, <publisher>U of Victoria</publisher>, <date when="2022-05-05">05 May 2022</date>, <ref target=""></ref>.</bibl>