Return to index.

The Craft of Naming in Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed With Kindness

John Thompson

NDSTA Journal
Volume 16, 2003


In the play A Woman Killed With Kindness, the playwright, Thomas Heywood, names minor and comic roles with one-dimensional names that comment on their character--Spiggot, Sisly Milk-Pail, Jack Slime, Isbel Motley--but christens his six lead roles with everyday names--Anne and John Frankford, Charles and Susan Mountford, Francis Acton, and Wendoll. By investigating their everyday homophones and the meanings derived from the etymological roots of these six names and their single-syllable components, we find that they too yield authorial comments on character as well as action and theme within the play.

Keywords: names, Thomas Heywood, character

About the author.

“In literature, writers can take advantage of the peculiar relation of proper names to meaning: they can generalize what is habitually a fleeting fancy and turn it into a standard technique of the poetic process” (Grimaud, 1977, p. 890). Thomas Heywood (1985) in A Woman Killed With Kindness gives minor and comic characters, such as Spiggot, Sisly Milk-Pail, Jack Slime, and Isbel Motley, one-dimensional names that explicitly comment on character and inform both audience and actor as what to expect from these specific roles. None of the proper names of his six lead characters appear to be so contrived, leaving the actor to look elsewhere in the script for authorial comment. However, a close examination of these names reveals that they too yield not only comments on character useful for an actor but also comments on the play’s action and themes.

To examine Heywood’s lead-character names, four paths of investigation were followed to explore the possibility that they too were invested with commentary. The first path investigates the homonymic qualities--words that sound alike but have different meanings--exploited between the proper names and their everyday homophones. The second looks at the literal meanings of these everyday homophones. The third examines the etymological roots of the proper names. The fourth breaks down multisyllabic names to single-syllable components to explore both the literal and etymological definitions of each component. By researching the proper names of the six lead characters in these four ways we find a wellspring of authorial comment.

In A Woman Killed With Kindness, we find Anne and John Frankford, Charles and Susan Mountford, Francis Acton, and Wendoll, ordinary names that could have been culled from any 1600’s London register, except for the curious fact that they have been grafted onto characters in a play. Proper names are significant because they identify an individual, in literature they are said to “constitute the most memorable subset” (Grimaud, 1977, p. 890) of text. Heywood plays on the importance of names with his minor characters to inform the audience as to an individual’s character. Yet, he names his lead characters unobtrusively, and in doing so, reveals their first importance. Everyday names connect the play to the everyday reality of his audience and will not shatter this illusion and distract them with didactic commentary.

The importance of Heywood’s placement of this play and its characters in the everyday has been commented on by critics. Algernon Charles Swinburne (1908) states that A Woman Killed With Kindness is a “realistic tragedy” (p. 238) and T.S. Eliot (1932) states, “The sensibility is merely that of ordinary people in ordinary life” (p. 101). The play is repeatedly cited as the best example of a domestic tragedy, which, as defined by H.H. Adams (1943) in English Domestics or Homiletic Tragedy, establishes the genre’s terrain as “the domestic scene, dealing with personal and family relationships rather than with large affairs of state” (pp. 1-2), and presenting “commoners as their hero’s instead of men of royal or high estate” (p. 184). In other words, domestic tragedies are set within situations in which his audience, the “urban, middle-class” (McQuade, 2000, p. 232), could not only conceivably find themselves, but also star.

In his introduction to the New Mermaids edition of A Woman Killed With Kindness, Brian Scobie (1985) states: “Here is enough material to create high emotion and invite stylistic indulgence, yet the plainness of Heywood’s style well expresses the domestic nature of the story, and confirms its closeness to the contemporary world of the audience“ (p. ix). This connection to the contemporary world of the audience is also noted by Swinburne and Eliot. “Heywood’s characters, his country gentlemen, etc., are exactly what we see in life,” (p. 201) states Swinburne (1908). Eliot (1932) concurs with Swinburne, “Heywood’s is a drama of common life” (p. 116). Heywood himself states in An Apology for Actors, that all plays must be “the imitation of life, the glasse of custome, and the image of truth” (qted. in Baines, 1984, p. 157). In the selection of simple everyday names Heywood emphasizes their first importance as a connection to the contemporary world of his audience. On the surface this would seem to negate the use of these names to comment further on the play. However continued exploration reveals he didn’t abandon imbuing them with commentary in his quest to connect them to the everyday.

Proper names often have a history and meaning. In The Facts On File Dictionary of First Names, Leslie Dunkling and William Gosling (1983) tell us that the name Anne is the French form of the Hebrew for “Hannah.” It has been used freely in Britain since the fourteenth century and as a variation of Hannah means “grace” or “favor” (pp. 17 & 114). Yet this meaning and history is not necessarily common knowledge. Even if it were well known, the very familiarity of the name Anne would cause this definition to be “set aside” (Grimaud, 1977, p. 890). In everyday life, even a name with an obvious meaning, such as “Raven,” over time will become familiar and it’s meaning will be “set aside.” On stage, with the compression of time, any unusual name with an obvious meaning will not be allowed sufficient time for the name’s literal meaning to be set aside. Such a name will stand out and draw attention to it. Instead, Heywood selects names for his six lead characters that are common to his contemporary audience and whose meanings will be set aside because of their very familiarity. Yet if we listen to these familiar names and explore the meanings of what we hear, we will find comments hidden in their definitions regarding the play’s themes, action, and characters.

By listening to the character names for homonyms, we are immediately confronted with some clever and obvious analogs in A Woman Killed With Kindness. Though Anne and Susan are derived from different Hebrew roots, Anne from Hannah meaning “gracious” and Susan from Shoshona meaning “a rose’ or “a lily” (Kolatch, 1980, pp. 308, 475), both contain “an” which in C.T. Onions’ A Shakespeare Glossary (1986) is a conjunction, a clipped form of “and” (p. 7). Susan also contains “sues”, which means begs, entreats, petitions, makes a legal claim to, courts, or woos (Onions, 1986, p. 273), all various forms of pleadings. It would seem that Anne implies conjunction and Susan begs conjunction.

What then does A Woman Killed With Kindness and the genre of ‘domestic tragedy’ imagine about the sex/gender system in early modern England? In that system, as represented in the play, women function to bind men to one another, to cement kinship alliances in a teetering world where such alliances are threatened by a love of money dissociated from rank. (Bach, 1998, pp. 517-518)

Anne begins the play by marrying Frankford and in such unites him with her brother, Acton, making a familial alliance. She makes an illicit conjunction between her husband, Frankford, and his “good companion” (Heywood, 1985, p. 20), Wendoll, seemingly at her husbands request as seen in these line: ”Prithee Nan, use him with all thy loving’st courtesy” (Heywood, 1985, p. 22). Acquiescing to Wendoll's advances, Anne takes Wendoll to her and Frankford’s bed. In the final scene, as she reweds Frankford on her deathbed, she makes a spiritual conjunction, this time between Frankford and his better self, as he finds forgiveness in his heart.

Anne’s main action throughout the play is one of conjunction; she marries, beds, and reweds. This is the heart of her character, her willingness to serve this function of binding. All this speaks to Rebecca Bach’s (1998) suggested theme of the function of women as a collateral used to bind together men in this early modern society rather than the didactic theme of “the consequences of sin and immorality” (qted. in Scobie, 1985, p. xxi) as suggested by H.H. Adams. Heywood has given Anne a name that literally describes her duty, commenting, with that simple name, on action, character, and theme.

Heywood parallels the “an” of the main plot with an “an” in the subplot, that of Susan. Her name not only speaks to conjunction but it “begs” conjunction. True, at the end of the play Susan serves the same function as Anne did at the beginning, that of binding together two men, her brother Charles and the pursuing Acton, in a familial alliance through marriage. This process is a much longer though, making up the action of the subplot with the marriage its resolution. Acton’s early actions against Charles in the play--Acton’s refusal to honor his bet, the resulting melee and deaths, Charles’s imprisonment, and Acton’s continued pursuit of Charles’s financial ruin--impel Susan to beg help and alliance from family and friends, but there it is flatly refused. “Said that our kindred with our plenty died” (Heywood, 1985, p. 55). She is then courted by Acton who has miraculously fallen in love with her, and in hopes of winning her, he purchases Charles’s debt. This leaves Charles in debt to Acton, the man he hates and the root cause of his downfall, other than Charles’s own ego. Charles begs Susan to make an illicit conjunction with Acton so that his debt can be discharged. Susan woefully agrees, but both are surprised when Acton proposes marriage instead, settling the old debt but starting a new debt of familial conjunction.

This resolution is only possible because Charles has a sister, Susan, “who can be traded to form an alliance” (Bach, 1998, p. 518). Susan’s actions in the play are that of begging conjunction between her brother and various men. Her character too is defined in its devotion to her brother and her willingness to sacrifice her ethics to fulfill her perceived duty of conjunction. Again we see the theme of women as a collateral used to bind together men paralleled in the subplot.

Like the parallel meaning in their names, the plots of Anne and Susan also parallel, intersecting only in the final scene. The fact, that in marriage a husband and his wife’s brother are interpreted to be brothers, is never accorded its obvious parallel that a wife and her husband’s sister are sisters. Never mentioned or acknowledged is the fact that since Anne and Acton are sister and brother, Acton’s marriage to Susan makes Susan and Anne sisters. Not only is this never openly acknowledged, the final scene with Anne on her deathbed allows only one exchange between the two, and this is interrupted by Charles as he reinterprets Susan's question:

SUSAN: How is it with you?
CHARLES: How do you feel yourself?
ANNE: Not of this world. (Heywood, 1985, p. 90)

This exchange reinforces Bach’s interpretation of the function of the sex/gender system as that of women binding men together, not women binding women together. Heywood’s use of “an” in both female names underscores this position of conjunction and mirrors the fact that conjunctions rarely connect conjunctions.

Another analog becomes apparent with Acton’s actions. Acton will act on anyone in his way. It is he who proffers the hunting bet to Charles at the wedding that incites the action of the subplot, he also refuses to honor his bet when he loses, provokes the melee in which Charles kills two of his [Acton’s] men, sends the sheriff after Charles, pursues Charles’s downfall, and subsequently pursues Susan. Acton is a character of action.

The name Acton, like Mountford and Frankford, is a common English surname. Acton is derived from Old English “ac” meaning oak and “tun” meaning enclosure or settlement (Hanks & Hodges, 1989, p. 3). These mirror the character’s strength of an oak and his ultimate enclosing or settling that which he set out to conquer, namely Charles and Susan.

Acton’s first name is Francis, but in the play he is also called Frank. This phonetically ties him with Frankford, orally reinforcing their alliance. Francis and Frank have numerous meanings and derivations. Francis is from the Middle Latin name “Franciscus,” meaning “a freeman” (Kolatch, 1980, p. 108), tying it to the Norman given name Franc, an ethnic name for the Germanic Franks who invaded Gaul, where under Frankish rule only those of the Frankish race enjoyed the status of free men. Frank as “liberal” and “generous” is derived from the Middle English and Old French franc meaning “free” (Hanks & Hodges, 1989, p. 192). It may also be akin to the Germanic word for “javelin” speculated to be a possible root for the Germanic Franks--being a weapon that they used--of which the Old English form is franca. Rev. Isaac Taylor (1968) in Words and Places, states:

Again, when we remember how the soldier-like fidelity, and the self-reliant courage of the Franks enabled them with ease to subjugate the civilized but effeminate inhabitants of Northern Gaul, we can understand how the name of a rude Germanic tribe has come to denote the frank, bold, open, manly character of a soldier and a freeman (p.310).

In all these meanings we have further reinforcement of Francis [Frank] Acton’s character of action.

Due to his wealth, Frank Acton is a “freeman” in that he can do what he wants. He reneges on the bet in the third scene that he obviously lost--a major impetus for the subplot--and gets away with it. Unlike the other characters who pay for their transgressions, Charles with the loss of his wealth and freedom, Wendoll with his exile, Frankford with the loss of his wife, Susan with the compromise of her ethics, and Anne with her death, Acton’s only payment is financial and this buys him what he wants. He sees to Charles’s downfall, purchases his debt, which leads to his engagement and marriage to Charles’s sister, Susan. Frank Acton freely acts on his aggressive tendencies throughout the play.

Acton is generous and liberal in his actions to undermine Charles, commenting after Charles’s second arrest, “No, no, yet I am not thoroughly revenged“ (Heywood, 1985, p. 37). In pursuing Susan he states:

Well I will fasten such a kindness on her as shall o’ercome her hate and conquer it. Sir Charles, her brother lies in execution for a great sum of money, and besides, the appeal is sued still for my huntsmen’s death, which only I have power to reverse. (Heywood, 1985, p. 52)

Like a javelin, he arrows forward attempting to hit his mark, sparing nothing. All of this reinforces the character’s rude and determined posture whether destroying an enemy or wooing a woman. It represents the masculine forces, bound amiably to Frankford through Acton’s sister Anne, but left unchecked, reeking havoc upon Charles. These masculine forces, used against Charles, are only reined in when finally bound in marriage to Susan. Thematically, he is one of those who must be joined by a feminine conjunction to stabilize their world. Frankford and Acton are united by Anne at the beginning of the play creating a stable relationship between the two men. Charles and Acton, in the subplot, act out the possible problems and volatility of masculine relationships that once out of sorts, destabilize the environment.

The other half of the masculine pairing in the subplot is Charles. His name does not contain any homonymic revelations, but does carry an ironic comment with its traditional meaning. Charles is the French form from the Anglo-Saxon “ceorl” and the English “churl” meaning “manly,” “strong,” or literally, “full grown” (Kolatch, 1980, p. 55). The “manly” Charles responds to Acton’s refusal to acknowledge his rightful winning of the bet with a youthful rashness that results in two deaths by his sword, his imprisonment, and impoverishment. He naively accepts financial help, only to be maneuvered into a new position of defenselessness. Finally he and his debt are bought by his most hated enemy, Acton, leaving him so diminished by the action of the play he asks his sister to prostitute herself, rather than lose his house. His “full grown” character is defined by the actions of immaturity: rashness, naiveté, and ultimately asking someone else to assume responsibility for the consequences of his actions. Thematically he is the other masculinity, immature and bumbling but with a sister “who can be traded to form an alliance” (Bach, 1998, p. 518). Susan’s marriage to Acton unites Charles and Acton in a familial alliance and brings a return to stability.

This stability is reached only after an arduous journey, and this journey is commented on in surnames of four of the lead characters. Charles and Susan’s surname of Mountford breaks down to mount, the topographic meaning of hill, and ford, which is from Old English meaning “a road”, akin to German furt, meaning “passage”, generally referring to a shallow part of a stream or river where crossing is possible (Kolatch, 1980, p. 107). Susan and Charles are tied together phonetically with Anne and John Frankford by the “ford.” “Frank” has the same meanings discussed earlier, that of the Germanic people, javelin, liberal, generous, and open, but it is the “ford” that underscores the journey they are all on. The “ford” emphasizes the fact that each makes a significant crossing: Charles from leisure to poverty to family, Susan from family to abandonment to security, John from surety to passion to forgiveness, and Anne from innocence to abandonment to duty and death.

Frankford’s first name, John, also contains no homonymic revelations, but it too carries an ironic comment with its traditional meaning. John is from the Hebrew meaning “God is gracious; God is merciful” (Kolatch, 1980, p. 153), yet John is anything but merciful or gracious in his judgment of his wife’s adultery. He is the gracious host at his wedding and at home until he is informed of the affair between Anne and Wendoll. He attempts to keep up the facade of graciousness that is finally broken with the discovery of the two of them together in his bed. It is only in the final scene where Anne is able to connect John to his better self that John finds his grace and mercy again, but here it is too late to save Anne from her death.

Absent from the final scene is Wendoll, the character who spurred along the action in the main plot. The first thing one notes about Wendoll’s name is its unusual spelling. Research turned up only the traditional Wendel and Wendell, which interestingly are derived from Old German with the ultimate meaning of “one who wanders” (Dunkling & Gosling, 1983, p. 290). Here we have the only one of the six names that uses its historical definition to comment on the character’s ultimate destiny, “And I must now go wander like a Cain” (Heywood, 1985, p. 84), but it also speaks of his path through the play, one of wandering, not a lost wandering but a purposeful one pursuing whatever fancy catches his interest. One must wonder how he got invited to the Frankford’s wedding, or did he just “wander in”? He describes himself as “a mere stranger, a poor gentleman, a man by whom in no kind he [Frankford] could gain” (Heywood, 1985, p. 28). Wendoll goes on the hunt, loses his bet, sides with Acton [the richer] against Charles in the ensuing fight, escapes with his life and flees to Frankford’s house, where Wendoll goes on the hunt [seduces Anne], loses his bet [is found out by Frankford], escapes a fight with his life, and flees “to France” (Heywood, 1985, p. 84). After spurring the action along, he alone is finally and completely spurned.

Of the six main characters, Wendoll is the only one without a surname. He is also the only male character without a female relative “who can be traded to form an alliance” (Bach, 1998, p. 518). Both of these establish his poverty and set him as a singular character in this web of relations. It also speaks to his poverty of character as he misconstrues “Anne’s position in his social but not kinship alliance with her husband” (Bach, 1998, p. 518) and he fails to “respect all homosocial bonds above heteroerotic desire” (Bach, 1998, p. 518).

The unusual spelling of Wendoll’s name breaks down to two words “wen” and “doll.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines wen as a lump or protuberance on the body, a knot, or a wart (OED, 1989, Vol. 20, pp. 151-152). Doll is the shortened pet-form of Dorothy--Dor being modified to Dol--and given generically to any female pet. It is also a name used for a mistress or the smallest or pet pig in a litter (OED, 1989, Vol. 4, pp. 937-938). Doll thus describes something or someone that is kept. Wendoll is kept by Frankford, as Frankford offered: “Choose of my men which shall attend on you, and he is yours. I will allow you, sir, your man, your gelding, and your table, all at my own charge” (Heywood, 1985, p. 22).

Wendoll becomes Frankford’s pet, “He [Frankford] hath placed me in the height of all his thoughts, made me companion with the best and chiefest in Yorkshire” (Heywood, 1985, p. 28), while “wen” as a growth or wart also implies, as does the single name, that he is not meant to be there. As a wart, he is out of place, a growth that deforms the beauty upon which it has attached itself. Again we see the function of a name to reveal authorial comment.

In “The Function of Names in the Stories of Alas,” John W. Kronik states:

The names of a few of the most original and memorable characters of national literatures have passed into the world’s languages as part of their vocabulary. These are the rare cases where an artist through his genius arrived with unprecedented success at the awareness and formulation of a universally symbolic aspect of human nature. The creators of these beings thus helped to enrich their cultures in a manner they could not have begun to envision. More frequently, thoroughly self-conscious, and in most cases less transcendent is the reverse of this phenomenon: the assignment to a character of a name built on already established semantic forms. The success or failure of a character portrayal is unlikely ever to depend on this lexical device. Rather, in a notable portrayal the device is rendered unobtrusive. (Kronik, 2001,
p. 260)

Anne and Susan are conjunctions for the men in A Woman Killed With Kindness. Acton acts on and Wendoll wanders. Charles and John cannot live up to their manly and merciful names. They each ford this passage. This is important information, but unobtrusively rendered in these everyday names.

In A Woman Killed With Kindness, Thomas Heywood helps to create an atmosphere with names that intersects the lives of his audience, yet subtly crafts comment and commentary within these names as they ground his stage creations and carry their reality beyond that stage. He successfully grafts thematic and character germs as well as seeds of action with simple names that do not disrupt the play with didactic moralizing, but rather present subtle puzzles to be explored in leisure or glimpsed in fleeting inspirations by an unassuming audience. The craft of naming, this most universal of endeavors, enriches the text with meaning from beyond signification to metaphor, and what a gift when undertaken so thoughtfully, with such artistry and simple elegance.

FRANKFORD: Entreat him to alight; I will attend him. Knowest thou him, Nick?
NICK: I know him, his name’s...
(Heywood, 1985, p. 20)



Adams, H.H. (1943). English domestic or homiletic tragedy 1575 to 1642.
New York: Columbia University Press.

Bach, Rebecca Ann. (1998). The homosocial imaginary of A woman killed with kindness [Play]. Textual Practices, 12, 503-24.

Baines, Barbara J. (1984). Thomas Heywood. Boston: Twayne Publishers.
Dunkling, Leslie & Gosling, William. (1983). The facts on file dictionary of first names. New York: Facts On File Publications.

Eliot, T.S. (1956). Essays on Elizabethan drama. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. (Original work published 1932)

Grimaud, Michel. (1977). The hermeneutics, onomastics and poetics in English and French literature [Electronic version]. MLN, 92, 881-921.

Hanks, Patrick & Hodges, Flavia. (1989). A dictionary of surnames. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heywood, Thomas. (1985). A woman killed with kindness. Ed. Brian Scobie. New York: W.W. Norton.

Kolatch, Alfred J. (1980). Dictionary of first names. Middle Village, NJ: Jonathan David Publications, Inc.

Kronik, John W. (1965). The functions of names in the stories of Alas [Electronic version]. MLN, 80, 260-65.

McQuade, Paula. (2000). A labyrinth of sin. Modern Philology, 98, 231-250.Onions, C.T. (1986).

A Shakespeare glossary (Rev. ed.). Ed. Robert D. Eagleson. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Oxford English dictionary (2nd ed., 20 vols.). (1989). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Scobie, Brian. (1985). Introduction. In Brian Scobie (Ed.), A woman killed with kindness. By Thomas Heywood. (pp. vi-xxvii). New York: W.W. Norton.

Swinburne, Algernon Charles. (1908). The age of Shakespeare. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers.

Taylor, M.A., Rev. Isaac. (1968). Word and places. Detroit, MI: Gale Research Company, Book Tower. (Original work published 1909).

About the author
John Thompson is pursuing his M.A. in Theatre Arts at the University of North Dakota. He is a Graduate Teaching Assistant in Department of Theatre Arts at the University of North Dakota.

Go back.