Francis Beaumont

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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...

(This entire section contains 2019 words.)

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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 Knight of the Burning Pestle that one has no reason to consider The Woman Hater substantially the work of Beaumont alone.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle

The differences in tone and structure between The Woman Hater and The Knight of the Burning Pestle are so great that they can hardly be overstated. Where the earlier play exemplifies the typical jadedness of court life in the Beaumont-Fletcher world, the play of one year later offers an optimistic, highly original vision of human harmony. The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a boldly imaginative play, unconventional in some startling ways, yet fruitfully adapting conventions of the Elizabethan comic stage to Beaumont’s fresh purpose. For example, the play features even more music and song than a typical Shakespearean comedy, with popular tunes and love lyrics helping to create and sustain an atmosphere of romance that would be for Beaumont’s audience both idyllic and familiar. From Jonson’s early comedies, such as Every Man in His Humour (pr. 1598, pb. 1601), Beaumont borrows a satiric perspective within which human foibles and pretensions are seen not as evil but as humbling and ironic. To Robert Greene, Thomas Dekker, and Thomas Heywood, he owes the ebullience of his middle-class characters, who carry his message of joy and harmony, even though his satire frequently makes sport of the outspoken citizen.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is clearly Beaumont’s work alone. The Beaumont-Fletcher plays have been frequently characterized as dominated by the sensational scene rather than moved forward by the plot. In plays such as Philaster and A King and No King, the plots often seem absurdly manipulated to bring certain volatile characters into confrontation; little thought seems to have been paid to the dramatic working out of a key idea or to the meaning of a conflict beyond the voltage that it can generate. In A King and No King, for example, the audience knows that the hero and heroine are brother and sister; the characters do not. The plot is constructed so that the two fall in love, are brought together in a passionate love scene, and then are shocked to discover the truth. There is no exploration of the moral alternatives, no facing up to the conflict between taboo and instinct; there is only the voyeuristic titillation of the audience. Conversely, The Knight of the Burning Pestle de-emphasizes the individual scene; all scenes are brief, with dialogues frequently interrupted by the surprising arrival of new characters. Emphasis is on movement toward resolution of the central conflict, which is nothing less than the open clash of two bourgeois ideas: romantic optimism and the virtues of industry. Through a plot that juggles two or three subplots simultaneously, so that even as one story progresses, the audience is aware of events occurring elsewhere, momentum builds to a romantic resolution that leaves all characters reconciled and the spirit of comedy triumphant.

A description of the play’s movement suggests some of the complexity of its structure. The players enter, purporting to present a play entitled The London Merchant, presumably a typically anti-middle-class vehicle suited to Blackfriars taste. From the audience, however, comes a “Citizen,” George the grocer, and his wife, Nell, who upbraid the players for their prejudice and demand that their apprentice, Rafe, be allowed to perform heroic scenes to honor the grocers of London. To humor the obstreperous pair, the players let Rafe give his speeches, similar to those that bourgeois audiences would have heard in the chivalric fantasies played at the outdoor theaters. At various points throughout the play, the intended performance is again interrupted by outbursts from the Citizens, so that Rafe can orate, sometimes alone but also in impromptu scenes hastily concocted between Rafe and one or two of the players. Surprisingly, Rafe turns out to be no ignorant blowhard, but a marvelously bright and multifaceted performer. Though the players never admit Rafe’s talents, the audience observes as the play proceeds how readily they adapt themselves to meet the histrionic whims of George and Nell.

Meanwhile, the intended play also proceeds. As George had suspected, it does make “girds at Citizens,” but, ironically, its hero and heroine are also middle-class; thus, the overall tone is not antibourgeois. Moreover, the satire always remains gentle. The play’s most amazing character, old Merrythought, displays an utterly joyful faith in Providence that allows romantic optimism always to dominate the urge to find fault.

Simply told, The London Merchant begins by presenting the plan of Venturewell—the London merchant of the title—to marry his daughter, Luce, to a loyal but dull apprentice, Humphrey. Luce, however, loves Jasper Merrythought, another apprentice, who has been discharged by the merchant for his outspokenness—and for his attentions to Luce. Jasper has also been exiled from his home by his mother, who has decided to take the family belongings and leave her husband, whose carefree ways she can no longer tolerate.

With no money and in fear of the merchant, Jasper and Luce run off to be married; they, like old Merrythought, believe that things will always turn out for the best, if one does not worry. They are right. Through a surprising set of coincidences and a clever stratagem engineered by Jasper, the couple eventually wins the father’s blessings, and the Merrythoughts, husband and wife, mother and son, are reconciled. Indeed, the sense of harmony is so pervasive that even the interludes by Rafe contribute to the overall effect. The players’ growing acceptance of Rafe as a performer parallels the merchant’s acceptance of Jasper and Luce and Mistress Merrythought’s return to her husband.

It is easy to see why The Knight of the Burning Pestle failed in its time. For one reason, Beaumont seems to have tried the play on the wrong audience. Romantic comedies about grocers (the pestle was the symbol of the grocers’ guild) and other members of the middle class were doomed at the Blackfriars, even if they satirized tradesmen and their wives for their bluntness, ignorance, greed, and gullibility. Beaumont and the players perhaps thought, wrongly, that the sparkling good fun of this play would make the audience forget its animosities.

An equally important reason for its contemporary failure was its unconventional structure, and this might have ruined it for an audience at the outdoor theaters as quickly as it did for the viewers at the Blackfriars. Other plays, such as John Marston’s The Malcontent (pr. 1604), include feigned confrontations between audiences and actors, but there are not any so fully instrumental to the play as those in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. No doubt the Blackfriars audience expected George and Nell to be harshly put down by the players when the couple first interrupted the action. When, however, their behavior was condoned and when, even worse, Rafe became a key performer, the audience was certainly confused, its dramatic expectations thoroughly thwarted. Though Elizabethan and Jacobean theatergoers tolerated many structural innovations, one does not find in this period any other play that so deeply questions the relationship between actor and spectator. One wonders indeed if Beaumont realized the originality of his venture before it was produced. Whatever the answer, one can speculate that the failure of this wonderful play led him to distrust his singular talents and to cultivate the partnership with Fletcher that won him popularity but not lasting fame.

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Beaumont, Francis