Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Francis Beaumont (1584–1616) and John Fletcher (1579–1625)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Ashley Horace Thorndike (1871–1933)
THERE is a great deal that is extraordinary and almost nothing that is commonplace in the literary history of Beaumont and Fletcher. Just at the time that the Elizabethan drama was at its zenith, when Jonson and Chapman and Heywood and Dekker were at their best, when the London public was witnessing the first performances of ‘Othello’ and ‘Lear,’ two young poets made their way on the scene. They soon united in a close friendship and began to produce in collaboration a series of plays, distinguished at once by great theatrical effectiveness and by the appeal of their poetry. The young dramatists fascinated both the groundlings of the pit and the courtiers in the boxes, both the crowd and the critics, both play-goers and readers. It seems clear that they outdid Shakespeare in immediate popularity on the stage, and they at once took a leading part in those assemblies of the poets and wits at the Mermaid Tavern, already notable for the contests between Jonson and Shakespeare.  1
  When, little more than half-a-dozen years after his first appearance as a dramatist, Beaumont retired from the stage, no one’s fame seemed more secure. No play had appeared in print with his name, but the court and theatres were ringing with his applause, and the poets were uniting to praise him. He died when barely thirty, in the same year as Shakespeare, and a contemporary epigram adjures Chaucer, Spenser, and Beaumont to lie a little closer
                          “to make room
For Shakespeare in your threefold, fourfold tomb.”
  After Beaumont’s retirement Fletcher collaborated with Shakespeare on ‘Henry VIII.’ and the ‘Two Noble Kinsmen’ and succeeded Shakespeare as the chief writer for the King’s company of players. For the next dozen years he was unquestionably the king of the theatres. Play after play came from his facile pen, now often in collaboration with Massinger or another, and added to his long list of dramatic successes.  3
  The young writers imitated his style and dramatic methods. No one except the Puritans thought of offering a censure. Because of his deficiency in moral and artistic earnestness, however, modern critics have usually debited him with marking the decline of the drama. The drama, indeed, was bound to decline from the high estate to which Shakespeare had raised it; but the decline was by no means a mere deterioration. Fletcher helped to give the drama a new direction, but still preserved it as a vehicle for poetry, fancy, and wit. In the general development, or decline, from Shakespeare to Dryden, Otway, and Congreve, he was at all events the leading figure. Jonson and Shakespeare were still great influences, inspiring or overshadowing the efforts of the younger man; but, for bad and good, the dominating force in the drama from 1616 to 1642 was Fletcher.  4
  When at the restoration of Charles II., the theatres were reopened, the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher were again the favorites and again stimulated the invention and wit of contemporary dramatists. The tragedies of Shakespeare and a few of the comedies of Jonson were almost their only rivals in carrying on the great Elizabethan traditions across the break made by the Commonwealth, over to a new generation of theatregoers. Collected editions of their plays made them familiar to readers and for a time they held their own with their great contemporary, even in the opinion of the judicious. Dryden sums up the judgment of his day in the famous criticism which finds them worthy of comparison with Jonson and Shakespeare.  5
  But this new glory was short lived. One by one their plays ceased to please upon the stage. By the beginning of the eighteenth century there was a new taste in poetry which did not relish their extravagance and a new strictness in morality which frowned on their wit. Their romances came to be acted only rarely, though a few of their comedies kept the stage well into the nineteenth century.  6
  In the closet as on the stage they could not bear comparison with Shakespeare, but they did not lack readers. Their plays have been continually re-edited, and they shared in the fervor of appreciation which the Elizabethan drama received from Lamb, Leigh Hunt, and other of the romanticists. The fine edition of their works by Dyce in the middle of the nineteenth century placed them on the library shelves of all lovers of literature; and the twentieth century has already seen two new variorum editions and many reprints of individual plays.  7
  Beaumont and Fletcher were men of the theatre and they secured immediate and long-continued vogue on the stage. They took the theatres by storm as did Kotzebue, Scribe, or Sardou. But they were also poets who have delighted generation after generation. They are very vulnerable to serious assault by either moralist, realist, or dramaturgist; but they are nevertheless very readable. They do not represent the best and greatest in the thought and feeling of their own age, and they offer no profound criticism on life to arouse the reflection of the present. But he who reads for wit, for fancy, for verse that can mirror the play of varying sentiment and passion, will find their colors but little dimmed by time and their jewels still sparkling brilliantly. Perhaps no poetical drama, clearly not of the first rank, has withstood changes of time and taste better than the product of this famous collaboration.  8
  During their lifetimes no attempt was made to separate the work of the two collaborators. That task was left to modern criticism and has engaged the labors of many scholars. Fletcher’s blank verse is marked by very definite mannerisms, especially the unprecedented combination of a very large proportion of double or feminine endings with an almost equally large proportion of end stopt lines. These traits render its cadences easily recognizable to any one familiar with Elizabethan verse and also susceptible of analysis by verse tests. His share in the plays collected under the names of Beaumont and Fletcher has now been rather closely defined. The share of Massinger who collaborated with Fletcher in many of the later plays can also be set off with some distinctness because of the contrast which it offers to the distinctively Fletcherian portions.  9
  Of the two chief collaborators, Beaumont’s is a somewhat shadowy figure. There is no single play that can be indisputably assigned to his sole authorship, and probably only about a dozen plays in which he had any part. In consequence we are far from having any sure canon by which to judge of his qualities of style and invention. Modern criticism, however, has been eager and acute in its attempts to define and value both his personality and his poetry. The difficulty with such analysis is that it must rest on a negative basis, and Beaumont is made the opposite and the negation of Fletcher. Moreover, Fletcher exhibits his faults so openly, that there is a temptation to assign all the opposite virtues to his collaborator. Beaumont is held to be graver, more critical, more moral, more Shakespearian; but the comparatives cannot be said to result in any very positive definition. Both men were in the twenties when they began their collaboration, which is marked by an audacity and prodigality of talent. About all that can be said surely of Beaumont is that he had a large share in the few plays that must be ranked as the masterpieces of their collaboration.  10
  Apart from their plays, there are few records of the lives of the two dramatists, and these may be briefly summarized.  11
  Francis Beaumont, third son of Sir Francis Beaumont of Grace Dieu in Leicestershire, one of the Justices of Common Pleas, was born about 1584 and died March 6th, 1616. He was admitted gentleman commoner at Broadgates Hall, Oxford, in 1597, and was entered at the Inner Temple, London, November 3d, 1600. In addition to his plays, very little of his writing has survived. His ‘Masque of the Inner Temple’ was given an elaborate performance on March 1st, 1613; and Beaumont seems to have ceased writing for the public theatres before that date. He was married to Ursula, daughter of Henry Isley of Sundridge, Kent, probably in 1613, and left two daughters (one a posthumous child). He was buried in Westminster Abbey.  12
  John Fletcher, son of Richard Fletcher, Bishop of London, was baptized at Rye in Sussex, where his father was then minister, December 20th, 1579, and died of the plague in August, 1625. He was entered as a pensioner at Benedict College, Cambridge, 1591. His father as Dean of Peterborough attended Mary Queen of Scots at Fotheringay, and was later rapidly promoted to the sees of Bristol, Worcester, and London. Handsome of person and eloquent of speech, he was a successful courtier and a favorite of the Queen, though he suffered a loss of favor shortly before his death in 1596. The dramatist received by bequest a share in his father’s books, but apparently little other property. Frequent references to his poetry occur in contemporary plays and verses, but very little information has survived concerning his personality or circumstances. He was evidently busily occupied in writing for the theatres for some twenty years. He was buried August 29th, 1625, in Saint Saviour’s, Southwark.  13
  The following list gives all the plays in which either Beaumont or Fletcher had a part. They are arranged in groups and in a conjecturally chronological order, the exact dates of performance being rarely determinable. Beaumont’s share is confined largely to the first group. Fletcher had a share in all the plays of the second and third groups. The initials indicate some of the surer ascriptions to Beaumont, Fletcher, Massinger, and Shakespeare.

      First Period
Woman’s Prize; or, The Tamer Tamed.  F.    1604?
Wit at Several Weapons. First version.    1605?
The Woman Hater.  B.    1606?
Love’s Cure, or, The Martial Maid.    1606?
Thierry and Theodoret.    1607?
Monsieur Thomas.  F.    1607–8?
The Knight of the Burning Pestle.  B.    1607–8?
Four Plays in One.  B. and F.    1608?
The Faithful Shepherdess.  F.    1608?
Philaster; or, Love lies a-bleeding.  B. and F.    1608?
The Coxcomb.    1609?
The Maid’s Tragedy.  B. and F.    1609?
Cupid’s Revenge.  B. and F.    1609–10?
The Scornful Lady.  B. and F.    1610–11?
A King and No King.  B. and F.    1611
The Captain.    1611?
    Second Period
The Nice Valour; or, The Passionate Madman.    1612?
The Night Walker; or, the Little Thief    1612?
The Beggar’s Bush.    1612?
Cardenio. (non-extant)    1612–13?
The Mask of the Inner Temple.  B.    1612
The Two Noble Kinsmen.  F. and Sh.    1613?
Henry VIII.  F. and Sh.    1613?
The Honest Man’s Fortune.    1613
Wit Without Money.  F.    1614?
Love’s Pilgrimage.    1614?
The Faithful Friends.    1614?
The Chances.  F.    1615?
Bonduca.  F.    1615?
Valentinian.  F.    1615–16?
The Jeweller of Amsterdam. (non-extant)    1616–17?
The Bloody Brother; or, Rollo, Duke of Normandy.    1617?
The Queen of Corinth.  F. and M.    c1617
The Loyal Subject.  F.    1618
The Mad Lover.  F.    c1618
The Knight of Malta.    c1618
    Third Period
The Humorous Lieutenant.  F.    c1619?
Sir John van Olden Barnaveldt.  F. and M.    1619?
The Custom of the Country.  F. and M.    c1619
The Double Marriage.  F. and M.    c1619
The Laws of Candy.    c1619
The Little French Lawyer.  F. and M.    c1620
The False One.  F. and M.    c1620
Woman Pleased.  F.    c1620
The Island Princess.  F.    c1620
The Pilgrim.  F.    c1621
The Wild Goose Chase.  F.    c1621
The Prophetess.    1622
The Sea Voyage.    1622
The Spanish Curate.    1622
The Maid in The Mill.    1622
The Lover’s Progress (The Wandering Lovers).    1623
The Fair Maid of The Inn.    1623–4
A Wife for a Month.  F.    1624
Rule a Wife and Have a Wife.    1624
The Noble Gentleman.    1625?
Coronation.    1625?
The Elder Brother.    1625?
  Among the plays of the first period are the charming pastoral the ‘Faithful Shepherdess’ by Fletcher, and the ‘Knight of the Burning Pestle,’ probably mainly by Beaumont. The three best of the other plays of this group, ‘The Maid’s Tragedy,’ ‘Philaster,’ and ‘A King and No King’ are the best representatives of the collaboration. They owed much to the contemporary and the preceding drama, but they brought a new tone and a new method to the stage. They are melodramatic with highly colored and sharply contrasting situations and with a marked variation of tragic and idyllic emotions. Their tone is that of the artificial, courtly romance destined to prevail for nearly a century, and their method is that of an alternation of surprise and suspense leading to a highly developed dénouement.  15
  Other plays in the group have corresponding qualities, and aid in fixing a type which was conspicuous in tragedy and tragicomedy until the close of the theatres. The plots, largely invented, are ingenious and complicated. They deal with royal persons, heroic actions, foreign localities, and passions that ruin kingdoms and torture the heart. Usually contrasting a story of gross sexual passion with one of idyllic love, they introduce sensational incidents and aim at producing a succession of thrills. The dramatis personæ belong to the impossible and romantic situations rather than to life, and are usually of certain fixed types—the sentimental heroine, the evil woman, the poltroon, the violent or sentimental hero, and his faithful, blunt soldier-friend. The clever construction that carries the interest from one surprise to another is supported by the vigor and felicity of the poetry which rises to emotion after emotion without effort or turgidity. This style of romance was especially suited to tragicomedy, where the tragic and idyllic could be heightened and contrasted, and where the suspense might be finally relieved through a happy ending.  16
  In the second and third period the influence of this type of play is manifest, but Fletcher’s practice is, of course, not confined to any single type. It would be possible to arrange his many plays in a sort of emotional scale—tragedies, tragi-comedies, romantic comedies, comedies of manners, farces. The prevailing note is still that of extravagant romance and the prevailing method that of the construction of effective theatrical situations with a large use of the element of surprise. New types of character, however, appear, as notably the scapegrace, sower of wild oats, as the hero, and the saucy and self-reliant young woman as the heroine.  17
  Fletcher was at his best when he was collaborating with Beaumont or with Shakespeare. As he goes on he rises less often to noble poetry and he loses rather than gains in artistic sincerity. But throughout his work there is the same prodigality of talent. He has no profound thought, no searching interpretation of life, no great emotion to reveal, but his Pegasus is fleet-footed and ready for any leap within his master’s hunting ground.  18

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.