I totally want to see a modern revival of this play. It has cross-dressing, tavern brawls, pirates, bandits, a kick-ass heroine, a bed trick, castration jokes, and somebody saying "Off with his head!" twice in three pages. How can you go wrong?
Stuff that happens in Part One: Mr. Spencer, a gentleman, is in love with Bess Bridges, a tavern wench and a tanner's daughter. His friend Goodlack tries to talk him out of marrying her. Spencer gets into a tavern fight with a guy who casts aspersions on Bess's virtue and kills him. He flees the country, leaving Bess a lot of money, his picture, and a tavern in Cornwall. Bess becomes proprietor of the tavern, which comes with a comic apprentice named Clem, and starts making money hand-over-fist. A gallant named Roughman starts harrassing Bess, and she decides to teach him a lesson by dressing up as a man and threatening him with a sword. After a bit of humiliation, he becomes a reformed character and her friend. Meanwhile, Spencer is wounded in another fight. Believing himself to be dying, he sends Goodlack to inform Bess of his fate and execute his will, which leaves her five hundred pounds a year unless she's been unfaithful, in which case Goodlack gets the lot. Goodlack, sorely tempted, calls her a whore, and she tells him to wash his mouth out. Goodlack tries to take away the picture of Spencer; Bess kisses it and takes her leave of it at great length, and Goodlack is so moved he relents. Bess commandeers a ship to bring Spencer's body home and sails for the Azores with Roughman, Goodlack, and Clem. Spencer is in fact alive and has been captured by Spaniards; Bess and co. win a sea-fight against the Spaniards and release the prisoners. Spencer doesn't recognize Bess because she's still dressed as a man, and Bess thinks Spencer is a ghost. The ship puts ashore in Barbary, and Bess is summoned before Mullisheg, King of Fez, who has never seen an Englishwoman before and wants her to become his mistress. Spencer comes to court as a petitioner, and Bess recognizes him at last. She asks Mullisheg to "do him some grace for my sake," and he offers to make Spencer his chief eunuch. Bess protests. Clem, who apparently doesn't know what a eunuch is, volunteers instead. Poor kid. The lovers are reunited, and Mullisheg gives them his blessing and arranges for their marriage.
Part Two: Before the marriage can be consummated, Mullisheg decides that he still has the hots for Beth, and his wife Tota falls in love with Spencer. Goodlack and Roughman are enlisted as panders, but they secretly arrange to have Mullisheg and Tota sleep with each other instead. Spencer flees the court, and Bess plans to flee separately with Goodlack and Roughman. Spencer kills some watchmen and is arrested by a Moor named Joffer. He persuades Joffer to allow him to visit Bess on the ship so she'll know he's alive, and pledges to return. Mullisheg finds out, and is about to execute Joffer when Spencer returns, true to his word. Mullisheg is quite happy to execute Spencer instead, but then Bess, Goodlack, and Roughman return to plead for his life and confess all. Mullisheg has a change of heart and sets them all free. They sail away, but they're attacked by pirates and separated from one another in the ensuing fight. Spencer and Goodlack end up in Ferrara and Mantua, respectively, and make peace among the warring dukes of those cities. Bess, Roughman, and Clem are attacked by bandits. Roughman is beaten off and Clem flees; the bandits are about to rape Bess when the Duke of Florence rescues her. Turns out his intentions aren't so honorable either. A merchant who knows Bess from Barbary fills the Duke in on her story, and the Duke tries to make her his mistress. Clem, meanwhile, gets a job at a tavern, where he recognizes Spencer and Goodlack. They think Bess has been raped or murdered. Bess, passing by with the Duke, throws a jewel to Spencer. Spencer comes to court, and the Duke tries to make him his go-between and makes him swear not to speak any word of affection toward Bess. Bess thinks he's been unfaithful and swears to be revenged: "Tis my way; / I've power and I'll do it." She plays the role of Florence's mistress, frames Spencer for stealing the jewel, and persuades the Duke to deliver him into her power. After making him sweat a bit, she frees him and claims him as a husband. Joffer, meanwhile, has been brought to the Florentine court as a prisoner, but Spencer recognizes him as a friend and secures his release, after which he converts to Christianity.
Thoughts: A ton of interesting stuff going on here, much of it having to do with honor -- Spencer and Joffer offering up their lives in pledge of their honor; Goodlack and Roughman struggling between the false honor of esteem and worldly goods and the true honor of acting rightly (Roughman argues, back in his swaggering days, that "a disgrace not seen is held no shame," but, of course, it is shame); Clem offering up his testicles in exchange for honor at court and living to regret the bargain. (I have to admit I thought "WTF, Heywood didn't just go there!" when I got to that bit, but it seems to fit, thematically.)
Toward the end of Part One, in the scenes at the court of Fez, Heywood seems to be recycling some bits from the Edward IV plays; Bess, like Jane Shore, is approached by a number of petitioners who want her to use her influence with the king to do good, and eventually recognizes her former beloved among them. This time the story has a happy ending (due more to Bess's virtue than the king's -- as in Edward IV, the royal characters are capricious, willful, and mostly self-serving, though both Mullisheg and Florence have redeeming moments).
Spencer has a speech about the fickle and fragmentary nature of the world: "... in the same instant that one forfeits all his estate, another enters upon a rich possession. As one goes to the church to be married, another is hurried to the gallows to be hang'd, the last having no feeling of the first man's joy nor the first of the last man's misery. At the same time that one lies tortured upon the rack, another lies tumbling with his mistress in down and feathers. This when I truly consider, I cannot think why any fortune should make a man ecstasied." The editor of the Regents editions reads this as a set piece thrown in because Good Guys Are Stoics In Adversity; I think it's rather more, and in fact it seems like a nice commentary both on the play's gloriously episodic structure, and one of the thematic undercurrents. Spenser is wrong: the lives and fates of all of the characters are in fact intertwined, even if they don't see it at the time. Only by pulling together can they survive.