Both Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher were products of the English upper class. The background of Beaumont, who was born in about 1584, was even more aristocratic. As a member of an old Anglo-Norman family, Beaumont was related by blood or marriage to a large portion of the English aristocracy. Many of these aristocratic connections came through his mother, Anne Pierrepoint. His father, a Court of Common Pleas judge and owner of Grace-Dieu Manor, was also named Francis. Francis the playwright was the third son of four children. The families of both Beaumont and Fletcher had a number of poets, including Beaumont’s older brother John and Fletcher’s younger first cousins, the Spenserian poets Phineas and Giles Fletcher.
Thus, the social circle—educated, urbane, and artistic—in which they were reared gave Beaumont and Fletcher a running start as Renaissance playwrights. They grew up with clever, informed talk and, unlike fellow playwright William Shakespeare, did not have to imagine how the upper classes who populated Renaissance drama lived. Their educations were rounded off at Cambridge and Oxford and at the London Inns of Court, England’s law school but also a center of literary and dramatic activity. Beaumont entered Broadgates Hall (now Pembroke College), Oxford, in 1597, left without receiving a degree, and enrolled at the Inns of Court in 1600.
Neither Beaumont nor Fletcher completed his legal studies. In Beaumont’s case, the record is uncertain. Possibly he was not interested in law and gradually drifted into literary and dramatic endeavors. Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, an Ovidian narrative poem published anonymously in 1602 and in 1639 attributed to Beaumont, offers some evidence for this possibility. The next sure record, however, is in 1606, when Beaumont and Fletcher were practicing playwrights.
At first, each of the two playwrights apparently practiced on his own, experiencing the kind of uneven success typical of apprentices. Both wrote for the private theaters, indoor playhouses that drew a more exclusive audience than the outdoor public theaters, and their first plays were acted by boys’ companies, then-popular offshoots of choir schools. Of the early plays attributed solely or mostly to Beaumont, The Woman Hater (c. 1606), a comedy, was fairly successful, but the masterful satire-burlesque The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607) was a flop when it was first performed. An early tragicomedy attributed solely or mostly to Fletcher, The Faithful Shepherdess (c. 1608-1609), was similarly unsuccessful. The two young playwrights might have overestimated the sophistication of their audiences or the child actors.
When and why Beaumont and Fletcher began collaborating are not exactly known, but the two were probably drawn together by similar backgrounds and common ties. As their commendatory verses to Ben Jonson’s Volpone: Or, The Fox (1606) make clear, both were “Sons of Ben.” Johnson’s satirical and critical inclinations undoubtedly influenced the two younger men; both socialized with Jonson’s famous circle at the Mermaid Tavern. In the poem “Mr. Francis Beaumont’s Letter to Ben Jonson,” Beaumont described the circle’s sparkling conversation:
What things have we seen
Done at the Mermaid! Heard words that have been
So nimble and so full of subtill flame,
As if that every one from whence they came,
Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,
And had resolv’d to live a foole the rest
Of his dull life . . . .
We left an aire behind us, which alone,
Was able to make the two next companies
Right witty; though but downright fools, more wise.
In this situation, the idea for collaboration was not far off.
Beaumont and Fletcher not only became collaborators but also lived with each other, according to seventeenth century biographer John Aubrey in Brief Lives (1898): “They lived together on the Banke-side, not far from the Play-house, both batchelors; lay together (from Sir James Hales, etc.); had one wench in the house between them, which they did so admire, the same cloaths and cloake, etc., between them.” It is uncertain how much of this colorful bohemian picture can be attributed generally to the Renaissance cult of friendship and specifically to the Castor and Pollux myth that grew up around the “twins of poetry.” As a matter of fact, however, Beaumont and Fletcher do look somewhat like twins in the extant portraits (which might have been created with the myth in mind or might reflect typical idealization); both are depicted as Van Dyck cavalier types with wide poetic eyes, large, slightly aquiline noses, and reddish or light brown hair (curly in some portraits), mustaches, and beards (Beaumont’s...