Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481
John Fletcher’s first complete play, The Faithful Shepherdess, was available in an undated quarto probably in 1609, although it may have been performed by a company of boy actors as early as 1608. In his dedicatory verse to Sir Walter Aston, Fletcher acknowledges the failure of the drama on stage, but he defends its virtues as a poetic “interlude”; in his introduction to the reader, he remarks upon the originality of its concept. A “pastoral tragicomedy,” the play is, according to the author’s famous definition of the new type, “not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants deaths.” Although the play comes close to tragedy, “which is enough to make it no comedy,” its conclusion for the characters concerned is sober but not dreadful. As a model of tragicomedy, The Faithful Shepherdess is the first in a line of Jacobean dramas that became popular after Francis Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster (c. 1609) and William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (pr. c. 1609-1610, pb. 1623).
From a historical point of view, The Faithful Shepherdess is interesting as a forerunner of the courtly masque during the period of Caroline (Cavalier) verse drama, 1625-1642. Unlike the more robust Elizabethan masques, notable for their lavish entertainments, rambling forms, and splendid pageantry, Fletcher’s play established a more nearly classical model, formally elegant, artificial, and finely structured. Based on Giambattista Guarini’s Pastor Fido (1589) and Giambattista Giraldi Cinthio’s Egle (1545), The Faithful Shepherdess reduces many of the complicated subplots from the sources to a symmetry of design: the conflict between chaste love and lust.
Fletcher’s elaborate presentation of this conflict may appear strained to later audiences. The play celebrates the chief virtue of virginity, and the characters, either virtuous or lewd, become stereotypes either of sexual restraint or of license. Clorin, who has renounced love to preserve her chastity, acts as the agent of redemption for the wanton Cloe and Amarillis, heals Amoret’s wounds, teaches Perigot to recognize Amoret’s fidelity, and pronounces sentence upon the unrepentant, lascivious Sullen Shepherd. She even tames the satyr, and he becomes her servant in the cause of sexual continence.
Fletcher’s emphasis on the theme of virginity as a test of moral conduct may be explained as a retrospective nod to the cult of Queen Elizabeth’s chastity, or it may be understood historically as a defense against mounting Puritan attacks on the lechery of the theater. Another and more satisfactory explanation is that the subject is treated with such exaggeration that it is intended, for sophisticated patrons of the stage, as a satire. As Helen C. Gilde ably demonstrated in her studies on Elizabethan erotic verse romances, a tradition of that genre is, at least partly, satiric and comic. Read in this light, The Faithful Shepherdess is an elegant, static, but witty play that explores with sly delicacy the comedy of sexual pursuit.