To describe the style of a writer whose greatest body of work was done in collaboration is, to say the least, difficult. Three centuries of commentators have arrived at widely differing judgments of the contributions of John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont to the plays they are known to have written together. As nothing is known of their characteristic collaborative process, it is presumptuous to look at linguistic cues or at staging patterns as indicators of the dominant hand in certain plays or even in particular scenes. Moreover, because their collaboration produced works remarkably distinct in style from the few solo works by either man, one cannot say which characters or ideas seem typical of Beaumont and which of Fletcher.
What one can do is compare a typical work of the Beaumont-Fletcher collaboration with the single play, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, which is believed to be wholly Beaumont’s, in order to understand his work. In these different contexts, remarkably different pictures of Beaumont the playwright emerge.
The Woman Hater
Though the first version of The Woman Hater is considered to have been Beaumont’s alone, the only extant version of the play is that revised by Fletcher in 1607, the first year of their collaboration, and it well represents the typical features of the Beaumont-Fletcher plays. Acted early in 1606 by the Children of St. Paul’s, The Woman Hater was among those plays taken over by the King’s Men when the children’s company disbanded later that year. The play was acted periodically, to some acclaim, throughout the decades before the closing of the theaters in 1642. Its longevity is attested by the publication of two quartos, the first in 1607, the second in 1648-1649.
The 1607 prologue proclaims the play neither comedy nor tragedy: “A Play it is, which was meant to make you laugh, how it will please you, is not written in my part.” This vagueness about form is understandable: Though the play holds together, at least somewhat, as a satire of classes and mores, the trivial plot and superficial characters make it incoherent and formless as a complete play. The pleasure it gave its audiences derives primarily from the satire—and, perhaps, from its mildly titillating dialogue between Gondarino, the misogynist, and the coquettish, though technically virginal, Oriana. The satire bites broadly rather than deeply, cutting across the ranks and occupations of society rather than exploring the corruption of a few significant individuals. One reason for the thinness of the play is that both playwrights are satisfied to have all characters function as mere caricature of familiar court and city types: the officious minister, Lucio, a would-be Machiavel; the feckless nobleman, Count Valore, who whiles away his hours with petty practical jokes; a nameless mercer, representative of the London middle class, a man easily gulled by a pimp into marrying a prostitute. Skulking through the play are also two anonymous intelligencers, courtiers of the most base and vicious sort, who feed the appetite of a decadent court for scandals and plots.
Perhaps the most extreme caricatures are the principals, Gondarino and Oriana, who embody in almost grotesque form the essential pointlessness, in the playwrights’ view, of court life. In a Shakespearean comedy, the pair, a professed enemy of womankind and a clever, rich maiden, would gradually fall in love and, in the finale, marry. Beaumont and Fletcher continually tease the audience with this expectation, but the play ends with the two still mutual enemies and love nowhere to be found. At different points in the play, each professes eternal devotion to the other, but these exclamations are nothing more than tricks. There is, however, no real malice in their actions; the overwhelming impression one receives is that these deceptions are motivated merely by boredom.
The only genuine passion in The Woman Hater is that of the gluttonous courtier Lazarello, who gives his all in word and deed to win dinner invitations. His particular quest throughout the play is for the head of an umbrana fish, a rare delicacy, which is passed from courtier to courtier in return for favors. Though Lazarello’s interest is the basest, he sparks more interest than any other character, because he seems to be the only figure who clearly attaches value to anything.
Although many commentators consider The Woman Hater primarily the work of Beaumont, with relatively few scenes exhibiting characteristic Fletcherian diction, the play must be considered essentially a collaboration. Its tone of cynical ennui, besides its structural emphasis on the individual scene rather than on the architectonics of the whole play, makes it very similar to Philaster, A King and No King, and other Beaumont-Fletcher tragicomedies. It is also so different in every way from The...
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