The Fair Maid of the West

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Title page of The Fair Maid of the West.

The Fair Maid of the West, or a Girl Worth Gold, Parts 1 and 2 is a work of English Renaissance drama, a two-part play written by Thomas Heywood that was first published in 1631.[1]


The dates of authorship of the two parts of The Fair Maid of the West are not known with certainty. Part 1 involves historical events of 1596 and 1597, and refers to Queen Elizabeth I in terms suggesting she was still alive at the time of its authorship; scholars therefore date Part 1 to the 1597–1603 period. Significant differences in tone between the two parts suggest that they were written separately, perhaps widely separately, in time: "What slight evidence there is...indicates that Heywood wrote Part II some twenty-five or thirty years after Part I."[2]


The drama was entered into the Stationers' Register on 16 June 1631; later that year, both parts were published together, in a quarto by the bookseller Richard Royston. The volume may have been typeset in the shop of Miles Flesher, a printer who worked repeatedly for Royston in the early 1630s.[3] The quarto bears Heywood's dedications of the two parts to two friends: Part 1 to John Othow and Part 2 to Thomas Hammon, both lawyers of Gray's Inn.

The 1631 quarto was the sole edition of the work prior to the 19th century.


The earliest production of Part 1 is unrecorded; but the play was revived c. 1630 by Queen Henrietta's Men. The plays are known to have been acted at Court in the winter of 1630–31.[4] In one reasonable hypothesis, Heywood wrote Part 2 at about the time Part 1 was being revived, or c. 1630.

It appears that in preparation for the Court performance, a manuscript fair copy of both parts of the play was prepared, and that this fair copy later served as the copy text for the compositors who set the 1631 printed text into type.[5][6]


Dramaturgically, The Fair Maid of the West is normally classed as a comedy,[7] rather than any of the other standard classifications; yet it is a comedy of a specific type. Part 1, at least, draws upon what were then current events or contemporary history, and belongs to a group of similar Elizabethan plays; George Peele's The Battle of Alcazar (c. 1588–89) and the anonymous Captain Thomas Stukeley (1596)[8] are two prominent examples of the type, though there are many others in what was a popular subgenre of the era. One modern editor has described the play as "adventure drama," characterized by "simple, straightforward emotions, black and white morality, absolute poetic justice, and, above all, violent rapidity of action."[9]

Heywood drew upon contemporary events for the atmosphere and ambience of his play.[10] For plot materials he relied mainly on the general folklore and ballad literature of his period, rather than on any more formal literary sources.[11]

To a significant degree, The Fair Maid of the West also partakes of melodrama; it is easily and naturally classed with several other "fair maid" plays of its era—The Fair Maid of the Exchange (c. 1602), often attributed to Heywood; and the anonymous The Fair Maid of Bristow (before 1604),[12] The Fair Maid of London, and The Fair Maid of Italy.


Only five cast lists survive for the whole history of Queen Henrietta's Men. (The others are for Hannibal and Scipio, King John and Matilda, The Renegado, and The Wedding.) The 1631 quarto is unusual in that it provides cast lists for the productions of both parts by Queen Henrietta's Men.[13] The actors and the parts they played were:

Actor Role, Pt. 1 Role, Pt. 2
Hugh Clark Bess Bridges Bess Bridges
Michael Bowyer Mr. Spencer Mr. Spencer
Richard Perkins Mr. Goodlack Mr. Goodlack
William Allen Mullisheg Mullisheg
William Robbins Clem Clem
William Shearlock Roughman Roughman
Robert Axell English Merchant Duke of Mantua
Anthony Turner Kitchenmaid Bashaw Alcade
Christopher Goad Forset; Spanish Captain Forset; Duke of Ferrara
Theophilus Bird ... Tota
John Sumner ... Duke of Florence
William Wilbraham Bashaw Alcade ...

Hugh Clark, the actor who played the title character, specialized in female roles as a youth—he played the female lead in the company's production of James Shirley's The Wedding c. 1626—before graduating to adult male roles, a transition common for boy actors of the period. His age at the time he played Bess Bridges is unknown, though apparently he had already been married for several years by that point in his career.


Part 1[edit]

The first part of The Fair Maid of the West opens in Plymouth, between two key events of the Anglo-Spanish War—after the English raid on Cádiz in 1596 and before the so-called "Islands Voyage," the English raid on the Azores in 1597. At the play's start, Bess Bridges is a young woman who works as a tapster in a Plymouth tavern; her beauty and charm and her reputation for chastity, "her modesty and fair demeanor," have made her a focus of attention for many male patrons. In particular, one Master Spencer has fallen in love with her, and she reciprocates his feelings—though Spencer's friend Master Goodlack cautions Spencer over Bess's low birth and her occupation.

The early scenes portray the rough and tumble atmosphere of Bess's social millieu, as the town fills up with soldiers and sailors in preparation for the raid on the Azores. A man named Carroll insults and abuses Bess in the tavern; Spencer quarrels with him, fights him, and kills him. To avoid prosecution, Spencer and Goodlack leave with the departing fleet. Spencer sends Bess to a tavern he owns at Fowey in Cornwall (spelled "Foy" in the play); there she encounters Clem, the play's clown, who provides the comic relief of both parts.

The tavern society in Fowey is as rough as that in Plymouth; in particular, a bully called Roughman disrupts the business at Bess's tavern. In the belief that bullies are generally cowards, Bess disguises herself as a man to confront and humiliate Roughman; in response, he reforms and becomes her brave and loyal follower. Goodlack returns from the Azores, in the false belief that Spencer has been killed in action. Spencer has named Bess his heir in his last will and testament—providing she has maintained her honor; otherwise the estate goes to Goodlack. With a strong financial motive to prove her unchaste, Goodlack tests Bess, insults and humiliates her; but she behaves with dignified restraint, winning his admiration. Under the mistaken impression of Spencer's death, Bess turns privateer: she uses her wealth to equip a ship, and leads Goodlack, Roughman, Clem and her crew in attacking Spanish and Turkish shipping.

Spencer, meanwhile, has escaped the Spanish in the Azores and has made his way to Morocco. Bess and her crew stop in Mamorah, then the port city of Fez, for provisions; Mullisheg, the king of Fez, hears of her beauty and invites her party to his court. ("Mullisheg" is a corruption of Mulai Sheik, the title of three Moroccan rulers in Heywood's historical era.)[14] Mullisheg is taken with Bess, but she retains her virtue and inspires Mullisheg to more noble and honorable behavior. Spencer meets his old friends; he and Bess marry under Mullisheg's sponsorship.

Part 2[edit]

The second part opens with a new character, Tota, Mullisheg's wife. She resents the English guests and feels slighted in the current court society. Mullisheg, too, is unhappy in his noble forbearance, and experiences a renewal of his attraction for Bess. Both try to subvert members of the English party to help them in their schemes. The English realize their danger, and arrange proposed sexual liaisons for both Mullisheg and Tota; but they work a double version of the bed trick that is so common in English Renaissance drama. Mullisheg thinks he is going to have sex with Bess, and Tota with Spencer, but in the dark they actually sleep with each other.

The English try to sneak away from the now-dangerous court, and almost succeed, though Spencer is caught. Bess and the others return to the court rather than abandon Spencer; in what amounts to a contest of noble behavior, the English overawe the Moroccans, and Mullisheg releases them to go their way.

At sea, the English are attacked by French pirates; in the sea fight, the English party is separated. They land in Italy, Spencer in Ferrara, Goodlack in Mantua, and Bess and the others in Florence. The English win the regard and approval of the rulers of the three states; like so many other men, The Duke of Florence becomes infatuated with Bess. Eventually the English party re-assembles in Florence. The Duke plays upon Spencer's sense of honor to make it appear that he has abandoned Bess and is indifferent to her. Now a married woman, Bess reacts with apparent rage; she wins the Duke's permission to punish Spencer, and the other members of their party regard her as a "shrew" and a "Medusa." Her rage, however, is only pretended, and the couple are re-united happily with their friends at the play's end.

(Critics have noted the differences in tone between the two parts. In the first, Bess is vigorous and active, disguising herself as a man and pursuing a privateer's career; in the second, she's largely passive. In the first part, she is emotionally honest, candid, and forthright; in the second, she feigns emotions she does not feel. Part 1 shows the freshness of Elizabethan drama, while Part 2 has more of the mannered feeling of a Caroline era play.)

Critical responses[edit]

The play's picture of the role of women in society, and its treatment of cross-cultural issues (West versus Near East and Christian versus Muslim), have attracted the attention of interested modern critics.[15][16][17][18]

Modern productions[edit]

The Royal Shakespeare Company mounted Trevor Nunn's rollicking, well-received production in the 1986–7 season; it was the inaugural production of Stratford-on-Avon's Swan Theatre in December 1986, then played Newcastle upon Tyne before transferring to the Mermaid Theatre in London. It starred Sean Bean as Spencer, Imelda Staunton as Bess, and Pete Postlethwaite as Roughman. Sample reviews of the production can be seen at

A condensation and adaptation of The Fair Maid of the West by Kevin Theis was staged by the CT20 Ensemble in Chicago in November 1994. The script is available through Dramatic Publishing at

The American Shakespeare Center's 2010 Fall Season includes a production of the first part of The Fair Maid of the West. Performances run between 6 October and 27 November 2010.

The Philadelphia Artist's Collective put the first part of The Fair Maid of the West on from April 1st 2015 through April 18th 2015.


  1. ^ Thomas Heywood, The Fair Maid of the West Parts I and II, edited by Robert K. Turner Jr.; Regents Renaissance Drama series, Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 1967.
  2. ^ Turner's Introduction to his edition of the play, pp. xi–xiii.
  3. ^ Turner, pp. xviii–xix.
  4. ^ Turner, p. xix.
  5. ^ Turner, p. xviii–xx.
  6. ^ Robert K. Turner Jr., "The Text of Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West", The Library Vol. 22 (1967), pp. 299–325.
  7. ^ Terence P. Logan and Denzell S. Smith, eds., The Popular School: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama, Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 1975; p. 112.
  8. ^ E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 Volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923; Vol. 3, p. 459, Vol. 4, p. 47.
  9. ^ Turner, p. xv.
  10. ^ Warren G. Rice, "The Moroccan Episode in Thomas Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West", Philological Quarterly Vol. 9 (1930). p. 134.
  11. ^ Warren E. Roberts, "Ballad Themes in The Fair Maid of the West", Journal of American Folklore Vol. 68 (1955), pp. 19–23.
  12. ^ Chambers, Vol. 4, pp. 12–13.
  13. ^ Turner, pp. 200–202.
  14. ^ Turner, pp. xi–xii.
  15. ^ Jean E. Howard, "An English Lass Amid the Moors: Gender, race, sexuality, and national identity in Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West", in: Women, "Race," and Writing in the Early Modern Period, edited by Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker, London, Routledge, 1994; pp. 101–17.
  16. ^ Claire Jowitt, Voyage Drama and Gender Politics, 1589–1642: Real and Imagined Worlds, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2003; pp. 39–54.
  17. ^ Jonathan Burton, Traffic and Turning: Islam and English Drama, 1579–1624, Dover, DE, University of Delaware Press, 2005; pp. 20, 43, 76 and ff.
  18. ^ Daniel J. Vitkus, Turning Turk: English Theater and the Multicultural Mediterranean, 1570–1630, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003; pp. 128–36, 141–3.