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Resisting tyranny with humor: Timely lessons from the 1500s


Stanford Humanities Center international visitor Greg Walker
International visitor Greg Walker fields questions from the audience after giving a talk at Stanford's Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies.

Greg Walker is the Bliss Carnochan International Visitor and a professor of English literature at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He studies late medieval and early Tudor literature and drama. His numerous books include, most recently, Imagining Spectatorship: From the Mysteries to the Shakespearian Stage (Oxford, 2016), co-authored with John J. McGavin and Textual Distortion: Essays and Studies (Brewer, 2017), co-edited with Stanford English Professor Elaine Treharne.
Walker is currently writing a biography of John Heywood, the Tudor playwright and musician. While at the Center, Walker completed a paper on Heywood’s play “The Pardoner and the Friar,” and he gave a public talk on Heywood at Stanford’s Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Walker also co-taught three weeks of an undergraduate course with Treharne, and he met with graduate students and postdoctoral scholars working in early modern studies.

Q. Who was John Heywood? 

Heywood lived through the reigns of four Tudor monarchs, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. He was a professional singer and a player of keyboard instruments like the virginals and the regals, and he seems to have taught Queen Mary how to play when she was a young woman. He was a joker and a wit, remembered long after his death as “merry John Heywood” for his humor and amiability. He wrote idiosyncratic plays for performance at the royal court and other venues, wrote poems, collected a huge corpus of popular proverbs and epigrams, which he published in six volumes, and produced a monumentally long allegorical epic called “The Spider and the Fly.” He was also the poet John Donne’s grandfather. 

Perhaps more importantly for historians, he was also a committed Catholic, a nephew of Sir Thomas More, who lived close to the center of power through the early English Reformation under Henry and Edward, the Counter-Reformation under Mary, and the Elizabethan return to Protestantism. And he never really hid his opposition to religious change, or his horror at the persecution of people like Thomas More who died resisting it. He hid his views in plain sight in plays and songs that celebrated religious toleration, moderation, and traditional religious values, loosely disguised as discussions of seemingly inoffensive topics such as singing styles, the problems of being in love, or the vagaries of the English weather. And everyone seems to have liked him, even people on the other side of the religious debate such as Archbishop Cranmer, the architect of the English Reformation, for whose household he put on a play in the 1540s. 

Q. What drew you to write a biography of him?

In part, it was his ability to write about serious political issues humorously and to speak a voice of (relative) reason and moderation at a time of increasing sectarian violence and social division. I have always been interested in how writers and artists have found ways to “talk back,” or speak truth to political power and resist the demands of repressive regimes through their work, especially in political cultures where resistance to authority is circumscribed or difficult. And Heywood offers a good example of this, as he lived through remarkable changes in English political and religious life, moving from a culture that was relatively open and tolerant, in which discussion and debate were (within limits) encouraged, to an intolerant and tyrannical state in the space of twenty years. These issues seem particularly important now, given the current political climate in both the U.S. and the U.K.

Q. How do you conduct your research?

I have been reading Heywood’s plays and contemporary literary texts alongside the historical records of the period. I’ve also been reading ambassadors’ reports, Parliamentary debates, chronicles, and private letters written by Heywood’s family and friends to add detail to my sense of the events to which he was reacting in his work. I’ve been listening hard to pick up on the vocabulary that people were using to describe their situations and relating that to Heywood’s vocabulary in the plays. It’s exciting when you find that the recurrence of a word in a particular play actually echoes something that was of pressing importance in Parliament or on the London streets. One such word was ‘enormities,’ which seems to have gained a brief notoriety in late 1529, when More used it to describe the crimes and misdemeanors which the Reformation Parliament was summoned to address. It is interesting to see Heywood using it in two of the plays he wrote around this time to describe the state of the nation – one of them in the context of a meeting of Parliament.

While I’ve been at Stanford, I have also started to look closely at Heywood’s songs and their musical contexts, a field in which I’m a total novice. It has been great to meet and talk to scholars like the musicologist and current Humanities Center fellow Kate van Orden, who has generously taught me a huge amount about Tudor polyphonic composition in a very short time. It really demonstrates the value of an interdisciplinary center like the Humanities Center for bringing together researchers from across the disciplines. 

Q. What would people be surprised to learn about your research? 

Many of the same issues that face us in the modern world were also preoccupying folk in the early Tudor period, and Tudor writers responded to them in similar ways. People are often surprised too about the things that a writer like Heywood could get away with when writing for performance before the court of Henry VIII. It took a brave man to joke about suddenly having too many heads at a time when the king had controversially declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England, or to jest about secret marriages when Henry VIII had secretly married Anne Boleyn only weeks before. I wonder at times quite how he got away with it.

People would also be surprised at how innovative and creative Heywood and his contemporaries were as playwrights. We tend to think of the 20th century as the age of radical innovation in the theater, inspired by Brechtian political radicalism or playful postmodernism. But it was Heywood who hit on the idea of signifying religious discord in the early 1530s by having two actors simultaneously shout their lines over the top of each other before ending up fighting, in “The Pardoner and the Friar.” It wasn’t until Caryl Churchill wrote “Top Girls” (1982) that anyone dared to try that experiment again on the professional stage.  

Q. Why study John Heywood?

I believe it is valuable because it gives us intimate and unexpected access to a world that is both very different from our own, yet also very similar. Heywood shows how it was possible for a reasonable, decent human being to respond to unreasonable, inhuman events through his art, and to speak up and challenge the government of the day. He also provides a case study of the limits of satire and comedy as a means of challenging tyranny. No matter how incisively he lampooned Henry VIII’s claims, or spoke up for the embattled communities for which he wrote, the government still prevailed, the practices that embodied his faith were swept away, many of his co-religionists, including his uncle Thomas More, were executed, and he himself finally had to leave the country for exile in the Catholic Netherlands. Was his attempt to speak truth to power a failure, then? What else could he have done? What does a liberal man or woman do when living through illiberal times? These are questions that have never been more relevant.