Study Guide

John Fletcher

John Fletcher Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111204881-Fletcher.jpgJohn Fletcher Published by Salem Press, Inc.

John Fletcher, the fourth son of Richard Fletcher, who rose through the ecclesiastical ranks by the grace of Queen Elizabeth I, initially followed in his father’s footsteps, beginning studies as a pensioner at Benét College, Cambridge, in 1591. Richard, who became bishop of London in 1595, fell from the queen’s grace after his hasty second marriage that year. His death in 1596 left his family severely in debt, and John Fletcher was too junior in the family to inherit any of the few assets. Little is known of his life between his father’s death and the mid-1600’s. The premiere of the first play he wrote alone, The Faithful Shepherdess, heralded Fletcher’s trademark use of the eleven-syllable line with a so-called feminine, or unaccented, ending. Although the title character is the wholesome Clorin, it is the licentious but clever Cloe, the first of Fletcher’s “clever maidens in love,” who with her pursuit of the chaste Daphnis enthralls or enrages audiences.

The 1609 quarto of this play sets forth Fletcher’s definition of the then-new form of theater that describes much of his work.[A] tragi-comedy is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants death, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy . . . so that a god is lawful in this as in a tragedy, and mean people as in a comedy.

Fletcher’s other early works were collaborations with Francis Beaumont, the son of a judge. The first evidence of their collaboration is revisions made by Fletcher to Beaumont’s The Woman Hater. Their earliest collaborations were staged by Paul’s Boys, a company of child actors, and by the Children of the Queen’s Revels at the Blackfriars Theatre. While at the Blackfriars, they came to the attention of the King’s Men. The pair continued to write for the Children of the Queen’s Revels, but Fletcher also began a fruitful relationship with William Shakespeare’s troupe.

The three major Beaumont and Fletcher dramas—Philaster: Or, Love Lies A-Bleeding, The Maid’s Tragedy, and A King and No King—are clearly joint efforts, in which most of the masques and moments of pure lyricism are certainly Fletcher’s. The three plays are notable also in challenging the idea of the divine right of kings, the...

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John Fletcher Biography (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

John Fletcher was born in Rye, Sussex, where he was baptized on December 20, 1579. His father, Richard, was a clergyman who attended Cambridge and was later made president of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, dean of Peterborough, and eventually bishop of London. Elizabeth I reportedly admired his talent as a scholar and bestowed special favor on him. John Fletcher’s uncles, Giles and Phineas Fletcher, were poets with respected reputations, and their successes added honors to the family name. These conditions of birth and social standing were somewhat unusual among playwrights of the age and doubtless helped to reinforce Fletcher’s reputation as an entertainer of gentlemen.

Although Fletcher no doubt attended lectures at his father’s alma mater, he may have been forced to leave Cambridge in 1596 when, perhaps in part because of an ill-advised second marriage, Bishop Fletcher was suspended by the queen. Later in that same year, he died, and Fletcher was probably taken under the wing of his uncle Giles, who may have helped to pay off the family’s large debts. Just when Fletcher began writing plays is not known, but it is certain that he was hard at work in collaboration with Beaumont early in the first decade of the seventeenth century. After Beaumont left the profession in 1613, Fletcher continued as the chief playwright for the King’s Men, working alone or with Philip Massinger, William Shakespeare (on The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII), and several others. Fletcher’s death in August, 1625, was caused by the plague; he was buried in St. Saviours Church, Southwark, the district in which he had resided throughout his career in London.

John Fletcher Biography (Renaissance Biographies, Revised Edition)

0111204881-Fletcher.jpgJohn Fletcher (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Early Life

Both Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher were products of the English upper class. Fletcher, born in 1579, was the second son (the fourth of nine children) of Richard Fletcher, a leading Anglican clergyman. His father served as president of Bene’t College (Corpus Christi), Cambridge; was dean of Peterborough, officiating at the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots; and was successively bishop of Bristol, Worcester, and London, this last position making him Queen Elizabeth’s chaplain. 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. Fletcher entered Bene’t College, Cambridge, in 1591 and probably moved on to the Inns of Court in 1594 or 1595, after his father became bishop of London. It is uncertain whether he received a Cambridge degree.

Neither Beaumont nor Fletcher completed his legal studies. In Fletcher’s case, there were financial reasons. His father lost Queen Elizabeth’s favor in 1595 and died in 1596, leaving the family in debt. Fletcher was forced to drop out, and there is no record of his activities for the next ten years. The next sure record, however, is in 1606, when Beaumont and Fletcher were practicing playwrights.

Life’s Work

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. An early tragicomedy attributed solely or mostly to Fletcher, The Faithful Shepherdess (c. 1608-1609), was unsuccessful. The young playwright might have overestimated the sophistication of audiences or of 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.

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 trimmed square, Fletcher’s pointed).

Some of the performances of their collaborative plays were by the Children of the Queen’s Revels, but most were by the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, with which Beaumont and Fletcher became associated when the company took over the private Blackfriars Theater in 1608. Their best collaborations are two tragicomedies, Philaster: Or, Love Lies A-Bleeding (c. 1609) and A King and No King (1611), and The Maid’s Tragedy (c. 1611), in all of which Beaumont’s hand predominates. Collaborative works in which Fletcher’s hand predominates include the uneven tragedy Cupid’s Revenge (1612) and three comedies, The Coxcomb (c. 1608-1610), The Captain (c. 1690-1612), and The Scornful Lady (c. 1615-1616). Other plays, such as The Tragedy of Thierry, King of France, and His Brother Theodoret (c. 1617), involved a third collaborator (or later, reviser), usually Philip Massinger.

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