Francis Beaumont 1584-1616 & John Fletcher 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 tragicomedy, which became the most popular form of the period. Their partnership began around 1606-1607 with the comedy The Woman Hater and ended when Beaumont retired from the theater around 1613 or 1614. During that time they produced some dozen plays together, including Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding, The Maid's Tragedy, and A King and No King. In addition, they individually composed such plays as Beaumont's The Knight of the Burning Pestle and Fletcher's The Faithful Shepherdess. After Beaumont's retirement, Fletcher went on to produce dozens of plays both singly and jointly with several other writers, most notably Philip Massinger and William Shakespeare. He 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 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 GraceDieu in Leicester to Francis and Anne Pierrepoint Beaumont. The Beaumonts were connected to some of the most prominent families in England, including the royal Plantagenet family. They had strong Catholic loyalties, however (in 1605 Beaumont's cousin Anne Vaux was implicated in the Gunpowder Plot, a Catholic attempt to assassinate King James), and they suffered greatly from the penalties laid against members of that faith. Beaumont's father, a lawyer, judge, and member of Parliament, died when his son was fourteen. Beaumont attended Oxford University and subsequently 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 Hermaphrodites in 1608.
By 1606 Beaumont and Fletcher were actively writing for the stage, and by 1609-1610, 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 such success, Beaumont left the theater sometime during 1613 or 1614 when he married the heiress Ursula Isley. Since Beaumont and Fletcher collaborations continued to be produced as late as 1616, he may have continued to write at his country estate. (Or, these late works may simply have been composed but not staged before his retirement.) He 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 right up until his death of the plague in 1625.
Beaumont and Fletcher are acknowledged innovators of 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 is in love with him and disguises herself as a male page in order to be near him. 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 Panthea, 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 Panthea are not related after all: he is the son of Gobrias, the Lord Protector, while she is in actuality the queen. Thus, although he is not king, Arbaces is free to consummate his love. The Maid's Tragedy, like A King and No King, was written around 1611; unlike the other play, however, The Maid's Tragedy, as its title indicates, 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. At Melantius' instigation, 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 degraded versions of the great tragedies and comedies of the Elizabethan period. They have been characterized as skillful but highly artificial 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 Ben Jonson and the dramas of such Restoration playwrights as John Dryden. 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 have also scrutinized 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
Cupid's Revenge c. 1611
The Maid's Tragedy c. 1611
A King and No King c. 1611
The Captain c. 1611
The Scornful Lady c. 1615
Thierry and Theodoret (with Philip Massinger) c. 1615
Beggars' Bush (with 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
The Woman's Prize, or The Tamer Tamed c. 1611
The Night Walker, or The Little Thief c. 1611
Bonduca c. 1611
Valentinian c. 1612
Monsieur Thomas, or Father's Own Son c. 1612
Four Plays, or Moral Representations in One (with Nathan Field) c. 1612
Cardenlo (with William Shakespeare) 1612-1613
The Two Noble Kinsmen (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 Queen of Corinth (with Massinger and Field) c. 1617
The Jeweller of Amsterdam (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
Sir John van Olden Barnavelt (with Massinger) 1619
The Custom of the Country (with Massinger) c. 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 Little French Lawyer (with Massinger) c. 1623
The Maid in the Mill (with William Rowley) 1623
The Devil of Dow gate, or Usury Put to Use 1623
The Lovers' Progress 1623
A Wife for a Month 1624
Rule a Wife and Have a Wife 1624
The Elder Brother (with Massinger) c. 1625
The Fair Maid of the Inn (with Massinger and others) 1626
Suzanne Gossett (essay date 1971)
SOURCE: "Masque Influence on the Dramaturgy of Beaumont and Fletcher," in Modern Philology, Vol. 69, No. 1, August, 1971, pp. 199-208.
[In the essay below, Gossett examines how the tradition of court, masques influenced the tragicomedies of Beaumont and Fletcher.]
The masque has recently received new critical attention. Books on the subject have appeared, important masques have been reprinted, and the 1968 volume of Renaissance Drama dealt exclusively with this form. The relation of the masque to the Jacobean drama still needs reexamination, however, with emphasis not merely on mechanical...
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Mary Grace Muse Adkins (essay date 1946)
SOURCE: "The Citizens in Philaster: Their Function and Significance," in Studies in Philology, Vol. XLIII, No. 1, January, 1946, pp. 203-12.
[In the following essay Adkins regards Beaumont and Fletcher's treatment of the commons in Philaster as indicative of the "shifting political current" in the Jacobean period.]
The aristocratic sympathies of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher are a commonplace of criticism—sympathies derived naturally from their gentle birth and fostered by the demands of a drama which under royal patronage was becoming increasingly restricted in subject-matter and...
(The entire section is 19686 words.)
Michael Neill (essay date 1970)
SOURCE: '"The Simetry, which Gives a Poem Grace': Masque, Imagery, and the Fancy of The Maid's Tragedy," in Renaissance Drama, Vol. 3, 1970, pp. 111-35.
[In this essay, Neill contends that the wedding masque functions as a structural element in The Maid's Tragedy, involving the "ironic manipulation of running imagery, which links the masque not only to the wedding night, but to the action of the play as a whole."]
Masques are a commonplace feature of the drama written for the private playhouses of the Jacobean and Caroline periods. Their spectacular appeal to an audience, which (whatever the...
(The entire section is 14705 words.)
Arthur Mizener (essay date 1940)
SOURCE: "The High Design of A King and No King," in Modern Philology, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2, November, 1940, pp. 133-54.
[In this essay Mizener argues that rather than seeking to imbue A King and No King with moral significance, Beaumont and Fletcher simply aimed to "generate in the audience a patterned sequence of responses, a complex series of feelings and attitudes so stimulated and related as to give each its maximum effectiveness."]
It is A King and No King which [John] Dryden [in "The Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy"] described as "the best of [Beaumont and Fletcher's] designs,...
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OVERVIEWS AND GENERAL STUDIES
Andrews, Michael Cameron. "Beaumont and Fletcher." In his This Action of Our Death: The Performance of Death in English Renaissance Drama, pp. 72-90. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989.
Investigates the emphasis on the notion of the "exemplary death" depicted in Beaumont and Fletcher's plays.
Appleton, William W. Beaumont and Fletcher: A Critical Study. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1956, 131 p.
Broad survey of Beaumont and Fletcher's joint efforts, Fletcher's works alone and with other collaborators, and the history of their reception since the Restoration.
(The entire section is 713 words.)