Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher 1584-1616; 1579-1625
During the brief period of their collaboration, Beaumont and Fletcher were among the most successful playwrights of the Jacobean stage. Together they helped establish and define the dramatic genre of tragi-comedy, which became the most popular form of the period. Their partnership began around 1606-07 with the comedy The Woman Hater and ended when Beaumont retired from the theater in approximately 1613 or 1614. During that time they produced some dozen plays together, including Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding (c. 1609), The Maid's Tragedy (c. 1611), and A King and No King (c. 1611). Moreover, both dramatists engaged in solo efforts: Beaumont composing The Knight of the Burning Pestle (c. 1607) and Fletcher composing The Faithful Shepherdess (c. 1608). After Beaumont's retirement, Fletcher produced dozens of plays both independently and as a collaborator, most notably with Philip Massinger and William Shakespeare. Fletcher later succeeded Shakespeare as the principal playwright for the King's Men, the leading acting troupe in London.
Beaumont and Fletcher both had distinguished backgrounds. Fletcher was born in 1579 at Rye in Sussex, the son of Anne Holland Fletcher and Dr. Richard Fletcher, an Anglican minister. In the course of his career Dr. Fletcher became Chaplain to the Queen, Dean of Peterborough, Bishop of Bristol, Bishop of Worcester, and eventually Bishop of London. Fletcher's uncle Giles Fletcher was a diplomat and the author of a book on Russia (which the dramatist later drew upon for his 1618 play The Loyal Subject); his cousins Giles, Jr. and Phineas Fletcher were poets. Fletcher attended Cambridge University and earned a bachelor's degree in 1595 and a master's three years later. Beaumont was born in 1584 at Grace-Dieu in Leicester to Francis and Anne Pierrepoint Beaumont. The Beaumonts were connected to some the most prominent families in England, including the royal Plantagenet family. Their strong Catholic loyalties, however (in 1605 Beaumont's cousin Anne Vaux was implicated in the Gunpowder Plot, a Catholic attempt to assassinate King James), caused them to suffer greatly from the penalties against members of that faith. Beaumont's
father, a lawyer, judge, and member of Parliament, died when the dramatist was fourteen. Beaumont attended Oxford University and studied law at the Inner Temple in London. During his student years he composed a burlesque for the Inner Temple's Christmas revels and published the narrative poem Salmacis and Hermaphroditus in 1608.
By 1606 Beaumont and Fletcher were actively writing for the stage, and by 1609-10, with the production of Philaster, they were working for the King's Men—a remarkably rapid ascent to the top of their profession. In 1611, A King and No King was staged at Court before royalty. Despite his success, Beaumont left the theater sometime during 1613-14 when he married the heiress Ursula Isley. Since Beaumont and Fletcher collaborations continued to be produced as late as 1616, however, he either continued to write at his country estate, or these late works were composed before his retirement. Beaumont died in 1616 and was buried in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. Fletcher continued to write for the stage for another nine years, remaining highly productive until he died from the plague in 1625.
Beaumont and Fletcher were innovators in the dramatic form of tragicomedy, in which a potentially tragic plot results in a happy ending. Of their three finest collaborations, Philaster, A King and No King, and The Maid's Tragedy, the first two are examples of this new genre. Although not published until 1620, Philaster was almost certainly performed at least a decade earlier (it was mentioned by John Davies of Hereford in his 1610 work Scourge of Folly). The play concerns the actions of Philaster, a prince whose kingdom has been usurped, and his love for Arathusa, the daughter of the tyrant who displaced him. Philaster is attended by Bellario, a young girl who disguises herself as a male page in order to be near Philaster, who is the object of her love. Hearing rumors that Arathusa and Bellario are having an affair, Philaster attacks the supposed lovers in a jealous rage and wounds them both. At the end of the play, Bellario reveals that she is a woman, Philaster and Arathusa are united, and Philaster regains his kingdom. A King and No King centers on King Arbaces, an unstable and excessively proud ruler who, after an absence of many years, falls in love with his sister Panthaea, whom he had last seen as a child. Much of the action revolves around his wild vacillations between abhorrence of his incestuous desires and his urge to fulfill them. In the end it is revealed that Arbaces and Panthaea are not related after all: he is the son of Gobrias, the Lord Protector, and she is in fact the queen. Because Arbaces is not king, then, he is free to consummate his love. Unlike A King and No King, The Maid's Tragedy (1611) does not resolve happily. In this work, Amintor, despite his betrothal to Aspatia, is commanded by the King to marry another woman, Evadne. On their wedding night Evadne reveals that she is the King's mistress—a liaison she intends to continue—and the marriage is merely a device to protect her reputation. The play explores the various effects of this state of affairs: Amintor's humiliation, Aspatia's grief, and the rage of Evadne's brother Melantius, who convinces his sister of her degradation. Prompted by Melantius, she murders the King in his bed and then commits suicide. Aspatia, in her desolation, disguises herself as a man and provokes a fight with Amintor, during which she is killed. When he discovers the identity of the person he has slain, Amintor takes his own life.
Although they were greatly admired throughout the seventeenth century, the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher have since fallen in critical estimation. Commentators have often viewed them as evidence of a decline in dramatic art, judging them to be degraded versions of the great tragedies and comedies of the Elizabethan period. They have also been characterized as skillful but highly artifical constructions designed to satisfy the increasingly decadent tastes of Jacobean and Caroline audiences. Today, they are of interest to scholars as transitional plays spanning the gap between the works of Shakespeare and Jonson and the dramas of such Restoration playwrights as John Dryden. Furthermore, numerous critics have argued that Beaumont and Fletcher exerted a significant influence on Shakespeare, noting that, in his late romances, the elder dramatist was following the lead of his younger contemporaries. Shakespeare and Fletcher are known to have collaborated on the romance The Two Noble Kinsmen, and, although there is much debate on the subject, many hold that Shakepeare's Cymbeline was patterned after Philaster. During the Restoration period, the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher were among the first works staged, and some commentators have contended that Dryden's form of "heroic tragedy" is indebted to the "extravagant passion" (as Robert Turner phrased it) depicted in Beaumont and Fletcher's tragicomedies. Modern critics also value the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher for what they tell of Jacobean social conditions and concerns. John Danby, for example, has analyzed them as productions designed for an aristocratic audience and therefore reflective of the views of that class. Mary Grace Muse Adkins, on the other hand, has detected in the sympathetic depiction of common people in Philaster a change in the political atmosphere of the period. Ronald Broude has explored the seventeenth-century conceptions of providence and the divine right of kings expressed in The Maid's Tragedy. And William C. Woodson has read A King and No King as a critique of Protestant beliefs in that time of great religious contention. Other topics addressed by critics include the presentation of ethics and morality in the plays and the influence of the highly popular masque form on the tragicomedies of Beaumont and Fletcher.
Plays By Beaumont And Fletcher
The Woman Hater c. 1606
Love's Cure, or The Martial Maid c. 1607
Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding c. 1609
The Coxcomb c. 1609
The Captain c. 1611
Cupid's Revenge c. 1611
A King and No King c. 1611
The Maid's Tragedy c. 1611
The Scornful Lady c.1615
Beggars' Bush (with Massinger) c. 1615
Thierry and Theodoret (with Philip Massinger) c. 1615
Love's Pilgrimage c. 1616
Plays By Beaumont
The Knight of the Burning Pestle c. 1607
The Noble Gentleman (later revised by Fletcher) c. 1607
The Masque of the Inner Temple and Gray's Inn 1613
Plays By Fletcher
The Faithful Shepherdess c. 1608
Bonduca c. 1611
The Night Walker, or The Little Thief c. 1611
The Woman's Prize, or The Tamer Tamed c. 1611
Four Plays, or Moral Representations in One (with Nathan Field) c. 1612
Monsieur Thomas, or Father's Own Son c. 1612
Valentinian c. 1612
Cardenio (with William Shakespeare) 1612-1613
Henry VIII (with Shakespeare) 1613
The Honest Man's Fortune (with Massinger and Field) c. 1613
Wit Without Money c. 1614
The Mad Lover c. 1616
The Jeweller of Amsterdam (with Massinger and Field) c. 1617
The Queen of Corinth (with Massinger and Field) c. 1617
The Knight of Malta (with Massinger and Field) c. 1618
The Loyal Subject 1618
The Humorous Lieutenant, or Demetrius and Enanthe c. 1619
The Bloody Brother, or Rollo Duke of Normandy (with Massinger and others) c. 1619
The Custom of the Country (with Massinger) c. 1619
Sir John van Olden Barnavelt (with Massinger) 1619
The False One (with Massinger) c. 1620
Women Pleased c. 1620
The Island Princess c. 1621
The Double Marriage (with Massinger) c. 1621
The Pilgrim c. 1621
The Wild Goose Chase c. 1621
The Prophetess (with Massinger) 1622
The Sea Voyage (with Massinger) 1622
The Spanish Curate (with Massinger) 1622
The Devil of Dowgate, or Usury Put to Use 1623
The Little French Lawyer (with Massinger) c. 1623
The Lovers' Progress 1623
The Maid in the Mill (with William Rowley) 1623
Rule a Wife and Have a Wife 1624
A Wife for a Month 1624
The Elder Brother (with Massinger) c. 1625
The Fair Maid of the Inn (with Massinger and others)
Ashley H. Thorndike (essay date 1901)
SOURCE: "General Characteristics of the Romances of Beaumont and Fletcher," in The Influence of Beaumont and Fletcher on Shakspere, 1901. Reprint by Russell & Russell, 1965, pp. 109-32.
[In the following essay, Thorndike provides an over-view of Beaumont and Fletcher's romances, considering their structure, characterization, style, and stagecraft.]
Six plays by Beaumont and Fletcher—Philaster, Four Plays in One, Thierry and Theodoret, The Maid's Tragedy, Cupid's Revenge, and A King and No King possess such marked resemblances that they may fairly be said to constitute a distinct type of...
(The entire section is 50733 words.)
Smith, Denzell S. "Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher." In The Later Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama, edited by Terence P. Logan and Denzell S. Smith, pp. 3-89. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978.
Comprehensive bibliographical survey.
Wells, Stanley. English Drama (Excluding Shakespeare): Select Bibliographical Guides. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975, 303 p.
Includes a brief bibliographical essay on Beaumont and Fletcher.
(The entire section is 1017 words.)