John Fletcher Essay - Critical Essays


The rich legacy of John Fletcher’s work, and that of his collaborators, was warmly received in the Restoration. It appears that the complex and suddenly turning plots, remote but familiar settings, effectively imitated manners, and high-flown rhetoric of the tragicomedies accurately reflected the taste of the age. Fletcher was also skilled at capturing the rhythm and diction of elevated conversation, which clearly contributed to his talents as a writer of comedy. “Sophistication” is a word that recurs in critical commentary on the comedies and tragicomedies, while assessments of the tragedies written alone and in collaboration often employ the words “facile” or “extravagant.” That Fletcher was an innovator cannot be denied, but he (along with Beaumont and Massinger) was also an entertainer. He was to some extent lucky in sensing the taste of the age and in devising plays to indulge that taste. Even though one rarely finds a Fletcher play in theatrical repertories today, many of the comedies and some of the seriocomic pieces one sees on the modern stage feature scenes and characters that trace their lineage back to the theatrical genius of Fletcher.

The Faithful Shepherdess

Although only five plays in the tragicomic genre are accepted as bearing the stamp of the mutual authorship of Beaumont and Fletcher, their names are so closely linked with tragicomedy as to be nearly synonymous with the genre, and recent critical assessments have largely continued this association. Certainly, there are good reasons for the tenacity of the popular view, including the fact that Fletcher named and defined the genre in the preface to one of his earliest plays, The Faithful Shepherdess. They play may have been inspired by Battista Guarini’s Il pastor fido (pb. 1590, pr. 1596; The Faithful Shepherd, 1602), but it bears little resemblance to the realistic “sad shepherd” plays, marked by dancing and festivity, with which the English audience of that day was familiar. In fact, with its shepherd and shepherdess lovers poeticizing about passion and lust, The Faithful Shepherdess more nearly approximates the prose romances of Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney.

Set in Thessaly, the play introduces the virgin shepherdess Clorin who, having vowed to purge all passion from her heart in memory of her dead lover, lives beside his grave and dispenses healing herbs to those wounded by love or lust. This devotion sets the standard against which one is to judge the behavior of all the other characters—especially the central couple, Perigot and Amoret, pastoral lovers who vow to exchange only chaste kisses. The comedy of errors that develops tests this resolve, and their love. Amarillis, Amoret’s rival, wantonly pursues Perigot, who dutifully rejects her. She vows to gain revenge against Amoret by magically transforming herself into Amoret’s double. Despite her altered appearance and her use of every conceivable weapon of seduction, Amarillis finds Perigot unable to love in any but a chaste fashion. As might be expected, when Perigot next encounters the true Amoret, he is so incensed by what he believes is her blatant cynicism that he strikes her with his sword. Later, Amarillis takes pity on the grieving Perigot, who believes he has killed his true love. She admits to disguising herself as Amoret and offers to do so again to prove her case. When the real Amoret reappears, seeking to reassure Perigot of her love, he believes she is intentionally deceiving him and once again wounds her with his sword. Through the good offices of Clorin, however, the two lovers are finally reconciled and Amarillis, along with two other unchaste lovers, is cured of her affliction.

In the main plot and in subplots involving other pastoral characters (among them, a satyr, a river god, and the Caliban-like Sullen Shepherd), Fletcher sets up moral and ethical contrasts: He disguises vice as virtue and virtue as vice in an attempt to dramatize conflicts between essentially one-dimensional characters. Although the action is occasionally brought to the brink of tragedy only to be saved by some intervention of fortune, the plot depends on a kind of mechanical alteration of moods. Almost more an exercise in poetic composition—with impressive variations in sound effects and imagery, for example, used to indicate subtle differences between characters—the play’s style has been nicely characterized by Eugene Waith as “the product of refined sensationalism.” Whether because the contemporary audiences perceived this flaw or were simply unprepared to believe or care about the rather stylized figures delivering, in long poems of closely rhymed verse, explanations for their attitudes and desires, the play proved a failure on the stage.

Cupid’s Revenge

As did The Faithful Shepherdess, Cupid’s Revenge turns on the contrast between lust and love. Princess Hidaspes, a virtuous woman who recalls Clorin, is given one wish on her birthday, and she wishes for the destruction of Cupid’s altars. When this occurs, a vengeful Cupid forces Hidaspes to fall in love with the court dwarf, who is later killed by the king. Hidaspes then expires from a broken heart. In a second story, Prince Leucippus, Hidaspes’ brother, falls in love with Bacha, an unchaste woman who has wooed both the prince and the king (Leontius) by means of a mask of chastity. Thus, male and female members of the royal household are made to suffer because of love—degradation (in the case of Leucippus and Leontius) and death (Hidaspes). Like The Faithful Shepherdess, Cupid’s Revenge is filled not with well-motivated dramatic characterizations but rather with representations of the moral dimensions of love.


An incident inserted in Cupid’s Revenge primarily to play on the sympathies of the viewers concerns Urania, daughter to Bacha, who loves Leucippus and disguises herself as a page in order to be near him after his banishment. She is murdered when she rushes between her lover and a messenger sent by Bacha to kill him. Leucippus’s discovery of Urania’s true identity provides the occasion for a melodramatic statement on the fortunes of true love. This situation was repeated by Fletcher and Beaumont in the popular and dramatically fresh Philaster. The hero, a disinterested prince who has been compared by many critics to Hamlet, finds himself living in the court of an evil king, usurper of his throne. Philaster falls in love with Arethusa, the king’s daughter, but is informed by Megra, a scheming, lascivious lady of the court, that his beloved has deceived him with Bellario, a young page who has served as their messenger. Aroused to a sudden anger, Philaster attacks Bellario and Arethusa but is quickly arrested by the usurping king. After a revolt by the people helps Philaster win back his throne, his marriage to Arethusa is made public. Megra revives the old charge against Arethusa, and Philaster orders Bellario stripped and beaten. Only then is the page revealed to be Euphrasia, a noble’s daughter who is hopelessly in love with Philaster; the revelation results in the banishment of Megra. Hero and heroine live happily ever after, although the continued presence of Philaster’s “loyal” servant (often compared to Viola in Twelfth Night) seems to strike a melancholy note.

Philaster carries on the debates about love and lust, loyalty and deceit, that were a part of Fletcher’s earlier work. By setting the action in a distant time not associated with the pastoral, Beaumont and Fletcher managed to avoid much of the confusion that resulted from a pastoral setting. The characters here are types—the lover, the lustful lady, the usurper—whose actions are not carefully motivated; they behave in a manner required by the situation. There can be little doubt that the poetry spoken by these characters, which is often refined and beautiful, helped considerably in holding the contemporary playgoer’s attention. More than any other element, however, the scenes depicting Philaster striking his loyal servant and Bellario disclosing her true identity are typical of Beaumont and Fletcher’s successful plays. They are suspenseful and surprising; they wrench potentially tragic situations into the realm of romantic happiness, usually at the last possible moment.

A King and No King

A somewhat different, more serious tone prevails in A King and No King. As in Philaster, King Arbaces faces a romantic dilemma, but unlike Philaster, he falls in love with his sister—when they meet after a long separation. Although promised to Arbaces’ rival Tigranes, the captured king of Armenia, Panthea returns her brother’s love, thereby setting the stage for what appears to be an incestuous affair. The shock of this situation is created through dubious maneuvering, but one can readily see that it is the type of dilemma requiring the radical, even sensational resolution typical of Beaumont and Fletcher’s tragicomic style.

Just as Arbaces concludes that the only course for a sinner like him is suicide, he learns that his real father is the Lord-Protector, who had helped the queen “produce” an heir, allowing her to present his newborn infant as her own son. Panthea emerges as the true heir to the throne, thereby legitimating Arbaces’ love for her. The two are married, Tigranes finds Spaconia to be his true love, and the terrible atmosphere of evil that dominates the play in its earlier stages seems banished like a bad dream. The audience has followed the hero and heroine to the brink of tragedy, but once again, through a miraculous discovery, a happy ending has been imposed. What gives this play greater weight than even Philaster is the way in which Arbaces’ struggle with his emotions has been thoroughly explored. He emerges as more than a type, although his flaws, which have seemed so real throughout the body of the play, seem to disappear with the discovery and resolution. Arbaces emerges in this regard as a “problem” character similar to Shakespeare’s Angelo (Measure for Measure, pr. 1604) and Bertram (All’s Well That Ends Well, pr. c. 1602-1603).

The Maid’s Tragedy

Although the central dilemma of The Maid’s Tragedy—what a worthy man should do after learning that his bride is the king’s mistress—could have been resolved through the devices of tragicomedy, Beaumont and Fletcher chose instead to make the play into a tragedy. The result is a compelling, artful play. Amintor is persuaded to marry Evadne by the predictably evil king; in order to do so, Amintor breaks off his engagement with Aspatia—and breaks her heart. When Evadne informs Amintor that their marriage is only a cover-up, he swears vengeance, but when he learns he has been cuckolded by the king, he decides against taking revenge because of his strong feeling of loyalty toward the throne. Amintor does divulge his awful...

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