Francis Beaumont

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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...

(This entire section contains 1315 words.)

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earlier. (It was mentioned by John Davies of Hereford in his 1610 workScourge 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.

Principal Works

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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


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


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

Overviews And General Studies

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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 connections—who borrowed an antimasque from whom—but on the stylistic influence of the masque on the new tone of drama in the Jacobean period. From this viewpoint the contribution of Beaumont and Fletcher is central, particularly since they developed and popularized the other characteristic Jacobean form, tragicomedy.

Both masque and tragicomedy existed in England before the reign of James I, but they changed noticeably around 1605-8. For the sixth of January 1604/5 Ben Jonson produced The Masque of Blackness, the first of his series of great Jacobean masques. Shakespeare's Cymbeline and Beaumont and Fletcher's Philaster soon followed.

The simultaneous emergence of these two extravagant forms was not accidental. Both are romantic, even antirealistic. Laurels go to the poet who manipulates the situation most spectacularly, not, as in realistic drama, to the one who best conceals his controlling hand. Furthermore, the leading authors of Jacobean masques and tragicomedies knew each other's work. Beaumont and Fletcher were "sons of Ben," and in 1608 the King's Men may have hired both Jonson and the collaborators to write for the Blackfriars theater.

Under these conditions the Jacobean masque did not remain isolated at court, performed once or twice and forgotten. Increasingly it penetrated the plays of the time. But as the masque grew from a single entry of disguised visitors to a spectacular dramatic performance, the process of adaptation became more complex. The masque in The Tempest sufficiently indicates that a dramatist introducing Juno and Ceres, Nymphs and Sicklemen, faces a different problem from one introducing Romeo and some friends to dance. In one case the entry is an episode in a continuing drama; in the other, it is a complete shift of style and genre within the framework of a play.

Beaumont and Fletcher are usually thought to have worked masques into their plays in order to please their audience, and certainly, from their earliest works to The Fair Maid of the Inn, Fletcher's last play, specific connections to current court productions can be traced. The select audience in the private theater thus basked in reflected glory, feeling that they were in touch with spectacular, aristocratic entertainment. But—and this was long ignored or denied—there was also aesthetic logic to the collaborators' use of masques. Beaumont and Fletcher's chief contribution to Jacobean drama was their continued experimentation with the tragicomic form. As early as the preface "To the Reader" of The Faithful Shepherdess, Fletcher attempted to define tragicomedy, and, no matter what the inadequacies of his definition, it demonstrated a self-conscious awareness of innovation. As Beaumont and Fletcher slowly explored the possibilities of tragicomedy, they must have been struck by its similarities to the much-discussed masque.

In the typical Jacobean masque a set of masquers suffers harm, imprisonment, or enchantment by an evil force. When some higher power, usually a god or the King, overcomes this force, the masquers make their appearance. This pattern is already found in The Masque of Blackness (1604/ 5) and The Masque of Beauty (1607/8). In the first the masquers, to lose their black color, must find the right country, whose name ends in "Tania," where there is a "greater Light"; in the second the masquers cannot be seen until, with the aid of the moon, "Nights black charmes are flowne" and "the Scene discouer'd" (Jonson, 7:186). Late masques follow the same pattern. In Love Freed fromIgnorance and Folly (1611) the Sphinx imprisons the masquers; in Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue (1619) Hercules vanquishes Comus and the pigmies before the masquers can appear. The masquers are always romanticized figures like gods, goddesses, or knights.

This pattern is to some extent the pattern of comedy, for the audience at once understand that the virtuous force, the King or his substitute, will prove stronger than the evil. Northrop Frye [in The Anatomy of Criticism, 1957] describes masque as a subdivision of comedy:

The total mythos of comedy, only a small part of which is ordinarily presented, has regularly what in music is called a ternary form … the hero's society is a Saturnalia, a reversal of social standards which recalls a golden age in the past before the main action of the play begins. … Thus we have a stable and harmonious order disrupted by folly, obsession, forgetfulness, "pride and prejudice," or events not understood by the characters themselves, and then restored. … The Jacobean masque, with the antimasque in the middle, gives a highly conventionalized or "abstract" version of it.

In certain of the more solemn masques, however, the genre, insofar as masque has a genre explicable in dramatic terms, seems to be tragicomedy. The actors are always of high rank, as they must be in tragicomedy. In both forms the main characters usually come from a romantic, distant place. The danger, which may seem slight to us, is serious by implication, since only the intervention of a god or king can overcome it. A central problem of all tragicomedy is raising this danger to a level sufficient to distinguish the play from comedy; in masques this is often done by treating the danger as moral or psychological. In both masque and Fletcherian tragicomedy a disproportion exists between the difficulty and the effort required to overcome it. In masques the King appears and a great enchantress vanishes, or the mere mention of Nature and her true creations banishes alchemy and its imperfect creations; in tragicomedy someone repents and a seemingly insoluble dilemma collapses. The laws of necessity are no longer the laws of cause and effect.

Frye does not anatomize tragicomedy as a separate mythos, but he does comment that in some masques, as "we move further away from comedy, the conflict becomes increasingly serious, and the antimasque figures less ridiculous and more sinister." While the masque was a subtype of romantic tragicomedy before the antimasque became prominent, the growing use of antimasque figures at White-hall provided further opportunities for the dramatists at Blackfriars. Since writers of tragicomedy sought to create what Miss Doran calls "the mixture … of tragic and comic episodes, and of feelings appropriate to these," those feelings which did not ultimately figure in the tragicomic synthesis could usefully be attached to antimasque figures [Madelaine Doran, Endeavors of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama, 1964]. Dangerous human propensities—disruptive social, moral, or psychological forces—were embodied, given force, and then transcended. The effect, escape from potential danger or tragedy, recalls modern psychological methods for dealing with such forces in the individual. Furthermore, the antimasque figures were inherently ambiguous. They represented dangerous forces, beastliness or false nature, but did so in a reassuringly comic manner. Yet the pattern of danger and escape was already basic to the masque before the antimasque became prominent, so that even when antimasque figures began to resemble types from city comedy, the general implications of masque for tragicomedy remained.

The masques in Beaumont and Fletcher's plays helped overcome another difficulty of tragicomedy: destroying conventional comic and tragic expectations. The concealed denouement is often considered the central and distinguishing characteristic of Beaumont and Fletcher's tragicomedy. The audience should have no idea how or whether the dilemma will be solved. Normally a play creates a set of tragic or comic expectations, but in tragicomedy both must be kept in uneasy balance. Beaumont and Fletcher abjured any helpful reference to the way things really happen, while their technique of surprise inhibited them from furnishing the audience decisive information unknown to the characters (as in Measure for Measure). They found another way to destroy comic or tragic expectations by shifting the entire play into a mode formal enough to be free of conventional logic. Their dramas are organized formally, as Mizener has illustrated, and within this formal organization constant shifts from the familiar to the fantastic disorient the audience [Arthur Mizener, "The High Design of A King and No King," Modern Philology 38, 1940].

Masques throughout the Beaumont and Fletcher canon create these shifts from real to unreal, remind us of the factitious nature of the performance, and destroy conventional comic or tragic expectations. A full masque was not essential for achieving these results, and in practice masques introduced into plays had to be abbreviated. A masque in a drama could not lead to one or two hours of reveling with the ladies, and its author could not hope for elaborate scenery or complex machinery. What remained, then, was a short, spectacular entertainment, normally including some music, dancing, and the entry of fabulous or exotic characters.

The abbreviation of the masque impelled by theatrical circumstances might suggest that isolated masque elements could occasionally be as effective as "full" masques. Thorndike, who did not differentiate masques from masque elements, counted "distinct masque elements occurring in eighteen of their plays" [A. H. Thorndike, The Influence of Beaumont and Fletcher on Shakspere, 1901]. These masque elements, isolated bits of the masque requiring less preparation than a full masque, help fashion the abrupt changes of mood and meaning in a Beaumont and Fletcher tragicomedy. They may appear alone or together with a full masque; in either case, such elements permit a particularly continuous and flexible penetration of the masque into the drama. Repeated shifts to the more formal style serve as reminders of the artifice of the play, constantly pulling the audience back from the brink of serious involvement. In this way masques and masque elements can resolve a critical difficulty of tragicomedy, and Beaumont and Fletcher exploit them with increasing frequency throughout their careers.

Three of Beaumont and Fletcher's best plays illustrate the uses of the masque just described. The masque in The Maid's Tragedy recalls specific productions of Ben Jonson; it also complicates the issue of whether the play is a tragedy. In Philaster suggestions of a masque act as a pivot in what becomes a standard method, turning the play toward a tragicomic conclusion. The Mad Lover contains an antimasque and masque elements; various parts of a conventional masque, distributed throughout the play, establish its tone. All three plays indicate that the masque was not intended merely to flatter an audience.

The Maid's Tragedy begins with a wedding masque, a "detailed reproduction of court entertainments" [David Laird, "The Inserted Masque in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama," 1955]. Beaumont and Fletcher borrow much of the material for this sea masque with its presiding moon goddess, hostile, personified Night, and final compliment to the greater sun, from Jonson's celebrated masques of Beauty and Blackness. But the masque in The Maid's Tragedy has a specific dramatic function, and details from Jonson are subordinated to the needs of the whole. Though the resemblances adequately indicate an awareness of masque successes of the time, the aesthetic implications of the masque for the drama remain the primary concern of the authors. The affinity between masque and tragicomedy is peculiarly apparent in this tragedy.

Many critics have noted how little difference there is between this tragedy and Beaumont and Fletcher's tragicomedies. For example, Miss Ellis-Fermor writes: "The plays which conform to Fletcher's definition of tragicomedy … are not essentially different in respect of mood, characterization or style from those, like The Maid's Tragedy … which, by reason they do not 'want deaths,' are classed as tragedies" [Una Ellis-Fermor, The Jacobean Drama, 4th ed., 1964]. Ashley Thorndike created a list of archetypal Beaumont and Fletcher characters, and The Maid's Tragedy contains the faithful friend, the poltroon, the self-sacrificing maiden, the lily-livered hero, and the evil woman, all typical of their tragicomedy. The play, then, is a tragedy leaning toward the tragicomic not in its conclusion but in its conduct.

The relation of the masque to the rest of The Maid's Tragedy has been repeatedly noted. Reyher, who praised the masque as "une des chefs-d'oeuvre du genre," thought nevertheless that "il ne se rattache que de très loin à l'action" [Paul Reyher, Les masques anglais, 1909]. Opinion has gradually changed. Miss Bradbrook remarks that the '"sudden storm' rising on the marriage night, is not entirely irrelevant" and finds a "felt fusion" between the masque and the play [M. C. Bradbrook, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy, I960]. Clifford Leech takes the escape of Boreas as a bad omen for the marriage being celebrated [The John Fletcher Plays, 1962]. Most recently Inga-Stina Ewbank has commented that the masque has "a peculiar, strongly ironical, bearing on the action of the play." She concentrates on the sharp contrast between the masque and the wedding night manqué which immediately follows. "In The Maid's Tragedy, then, the authors have seized on the assumptions of the traditional marriage masque—prenuptial chastity, bridal bliss and royal integrity—and contrasted them with a corrupt reality ['"These Pretty Devices': A Study of Masques in Plays," in A Book of Masques in Honour of Allardyce Nicoli, 1967]. This sort of analysis can be taken further; themes and figures of the opening masque reverberate throughout The Maid's Tragedy.

The masque opens as Night rises in mists, saying:

Our raign is come; for in the raging Sea
The Sun is drown'd, and with him fell the day.

The crucial actions of the play take place in Night's reign; all the movement of the plot is summarized in the change from Amintor's wedding night with Evadne to the night when Evadne murders the King her lover in his bed. Night defies and hates the sun and closes the masque by wishing to see "another wild-fire in his Axletree" (I, i). Cynthia then points out "a greater light, a greater Majestie" (I, i). This, like much of the commentary the masque provides, is ironic; the Kingsun is full of the wild fire of lust.

The masque is curiously inappropriate to a wedding. The titular goddess is Cynthia, cold and moonlike. She too reminds us of what the night brings and will bring to the characters:

Gaz'd on unto my setting from my rise
Almost of none, but of unquiet eyes.
                                                   [I, i]

Lovers, though expected to remain awake, are not usually called unquiet, and Evadne the next morning says ambiguously that she has had ill rest.

Neptune looses the winds, but unfortunately Boreas escapes and is not yet recaptured as the masque ends. Neptune is not afraid:

Let him alone, I'le take him up at sea;
He will not long be thence.
                                                [I, i]

Yet Eolus soon comes to tell him that Boreas has

      rais'd a storm; go and applie
Thy trident, else I prophesie, ere day
Many a tall ship will be cast away.
                                                [I, i]

This angry and unleashed force may prove more dangerous than its would-be controllers assume. Should we not see the application, it is stated for us in act IV as Melantius accosts his sister Evadne and describes the danger to anyone who would encourage her daring while he is alive:

      by my just Sword, h'ad safer
Bestride a Billow when the angry North
Plows up the Sea.
                                           [IV, i]

Melantius is the force unreckoned by the King, the cold north wind blowing on this wedding arrangement.

The three songs in the masque are ostensibly in accord with the marriage celebration, yet each represents an ironic comment on a major character. The first song tells the day not to steal night away:

Till the rites of love are ended,
And the lusty Bridegroom say,
Welcome light of all befriended.

                                                  [I, i]

Amintor's rites of love are nonexistent. The second song celebrates the blushes and coy denials of the bride in Spenserian terms. The irony is patent. Finally, the third song urges:

Bring in the Virgins every one
That grieve to lie alone:
That they may kiss while they may say, a maid.

                                              [I, i]

This anticipates the scene immediately following, in which Aspatia and Dula, the two virgins, express their reactions to the marriage. Dula, openly grieving to lie alone, is rebuked by the "maid," Evadne, and Aspatia expresses her grief by kissing not Evadne but Amintor, who consequently feels "her grief shoot suddenly through all my veins" (II, i).

The songs are ironic, while most of the masque action is anticipatory. The tone is decidedly threatening: in addition to the storm there is Night's curse, a "wild-fire in his Axletree; / And all false drencht" (I, i), only slightly alleviated by Cynthia's final compliment to the King. This compliment has been evaluated for us in the first dialogue, where Strato the poet says the masque will be "as well as Mask can be. … Yes, they must commend their King, and speak in praise of the Assembly, bless the Bride and Bridegroom, in person of some God; th'are tyed to rules of flattery" (I, i). Strato's comment makes us dubious, even cynical, before the masque begins.

The entire play is introduced against a ritual setting. The court wedding, patronized by the monarch, celebrated with a masque, was standard at the courts of Elizabeth and James. As the play continues, actions become less and less ritualistic, and presupposed normal conditions disappear. The King is the first to forego a ritual action:

We will not see you laid, good night Amintor,
We'l ease you of that tedious ceremony.
                                                [I. i]

Aspatia's willow song is a ritual of the abandoned lover, but when she promises to search for "some yet unpractis'd way to grieve and die" (II, i), she suggests a real passion. Most important, the central ritual, Amintor's wedding night, is destroyed. Even before he knows why, or quite believes that Evadne denies him, he says:

Hymen keep
This story (that will make succeeding youth
Neglect thy Ceremonies) from all ears.
                                           [II, i]

The destruction of this ritual, he fears, will destroy all future order in the world. Thus, in addition to commenting specifically on the action, the masque by its very formality establishes a background contrast to the increasingly frenzied play.

By 1611, then, Beaumont and Fletcher's methods of working with a masque encompassed complex commentary on the play and continual reverberation. Partly because The Maid's Tragedy starts with a masque we are unable to tell from the tone whether it will prove a tragedy or a tragicomedy. The gods seem to have things in control, just as Neptune, the king figure, expects to capture Boreas. All is formal and ritual; the press of evil need not lead the action to an inevitably tragic conclusion. We are deceived in terms of death and destruction, but not radically wrong in terms of mood. Moreover, the play opens at one remove, with the stage audience standing between us and the masque. Thus in content and in form the masque inhibits tragic involvement and is largely responsible for the classification of this play with Philaster and other tragicomedies. Whether Beaumont and Fletcher originally intended this effect, they understood how to use it profitably thereafter.

In The Maid's Tragedy a formal masque, more appropriate to the tone of tragicomedy, obscures ultimate tragedy. In Philaster the tragicomic outcome is enhanced by an enormously suggestive masquelike moment, suggestive because it shows the young dramatists' awareness of their own technique and implies that the Jacobean audience were expected to catch brief hints of masque out of their usual context.

The crucial point of the play occurs at the beginning of the fifth act. Though Arethusa the princess, Bellario the page, and Philaster the dispossessed heir are reconciled, the latter two are prisoners and can expect nothing but death. Arethusa has convinced the King to assign the captives to her, and there is some expectation of a turn in events, much obscured by a pathetic prison scene. Finally the King bids the prisoners brought forth:

Enter Phil. Are. and Bell, in a Robe and Garland.King. How now, what Mask is this?
Bell. Right Royal Sir, I should
Sing you an Epithalamium of these lovers,
But having lost my best ayres with my fortunes,
And wanting a celestial Harp to strike
This blessed union on; thus in glad story
I give you all. These two fair Cedar-branches,
The noblest of the Mountain, where they grew
Straightest and tallest, under whose still shades
The worthier beasts have made their layers, and

Till never pleas'd fortune shot up shrubs,
Base under brambles to divorce these branches;
And for a while they did so, and did raign
Over the Mountain, and choakt up his beauty
With Brakes, rude Thornes and Thistles, till thy Sun
Scorcht them even to the roots, and dried them
And now a gentle gale hath blown again
That made these branches meet, and twine together,
Never to be divided: The god that sings
His holy numbers over marriage beds,
Hath knit their noble hearts, and here they stand
Your Children mighty King, and I have done.
King. How, how?
Are. Sir, if you love it in plain truth,
For there is no Masking in't; This Gentleman
The prisoner that you gave me is become
My keeper, and through all the bitter throws
Your jealousies and his ill fate have wrought him,
Thus nobly hath he strangled [sic], and at length
Arriv'd here my dear Husband.
King. Your dear Husband! call in
The Captain of the Cittadel; There you shall keep
Your wedding. I'le provide a Mask shall make
Your Hymen turn his Saffron into a sullen Coat,
And sing sad Requiems to your departing souls:
Bloud shall put out your Torches, and instead
Of gaudy flowers about your wanton necks,
An Ax shall hang like a prodigious Meteor
Ready to crop your loves sweets.
                                            [V, i]

This little scene provides one of the most interesting examples of the technique of using aspects of a masque to shift a play from tragedy to tragicomedy. It is based on the assumption that the audience would be fully aware of masques, aware of their basic ingredients and of their appropriateness to weddings. Only with such a background can the counterpoint irony of the passage be appreciated. As soon as he sees the three young people, the King's question alerts us to these implications. Bellario may have been dressed as Hymen, as the passage suggests, but the evidence is insufficient. The first quarto does not mention the robe at all, merely the "Boy, with a garland of flowers on's head." However, his speech is the "presenter's" speech with which most brief masques begin, and the allegorical nature of it, abstracting the general situation from Arethusa's and Philaster's predicaments, emphasizes the division between this section and the straightforward dramatic action of the rest of the play. Though the two protagonists are not treated as gods, they become allegorical figures, representatives of their positions in life and society, as members of the English royal family became symbols of themselves when they took part in masques (e.g., Prince Henry's role in Jonson's Masque of Oberon). Of course the comparison of the King to the sun was a standard masque formula.

Though Arethusa, afraid of further irritating her father by this extensive make-believe, reasserts the reality with "there is no Masking in't," it is the King who concludes the scene with the reelaboration of each masque element. He attempts to deny the presence of a masque and, by implication, the possibility of a tragicomic conclusion to the lovers' trials. He enumerates each element: the conventional nuptial occasion for the masque, with Hymen as chief actor, the epithalamium which he desires to transform into a requiem, the ever-present torches, the flowers. The last lines, "An Ax shall hang like a prodigious Meteor / Ready to crop your loves sweets," replace the references in wedding masques to the love rites to follow. Hymenaei (1606), which contains all of these elements, ends with an epithalamium which contains references to the "fayre and gentle strife / Which louers call their life" The entire scene is viewed in perspective, with a backdrop of the conventional giving poignant irony to the situation of the royal lovers.

In this early experimental play Beaumont and Fletcher establish the procedures which govern their exploitation of the masque in conjunction with tragicomedy. Masque elements occur at the play's moment of greatest tension. The three young people assert that they are indeed presenting a wedding masque; the King tries to deny it and to reimpose the tragic sequence of events. He is not successful. As he orders the masquers removed, messengers announce that Prince Pharamond has been captured by the citizens. The city mutinies, the court rallies to Philaster, and the King must first beg Philaster to quiet the rebels and then accept him as son and heir. The intervening scene of the citizens with Pharamond is comic, anticipating Fletcher's later use of comic characters as a contrast to solemn masquers. The masque thus becomes a watershed in the play; the action stops and turns upon itself. Style and tempo shift, and the audience lose the deep involvement of the pathetic fourth act. This shift ensures the triumph of tragicomedy.

The two early plays adumbrate most of the significant effects of masques on Beaumont and Fletcher's dramaturgy. Only the antimasque was not yet fully operative. In The Mad Lover, one of Fletcher's most successful later tragicomedies, masque and antimasque both enter completely into the play, until it is difficult to separate play and masque. The masque resembles Jonson's Lovers Made Men, which appeared a month later. This reversal of normal indebtedness suggests that Fletcher had become so adept at creating masque material for his plays that Jonson was not above borrowing from him.

The play concerns the warrior Memmon, who falls so in love with the princess Calis on first sight that he agrees to her teasing suggestion that he send her his heart as a proof of love. At once he begins to contemplate the other world, instructing his lieutenant Chilax to die and meet him in Elysium two days later. As he tries to convince himself that the joys of love are as great or greater after death, Memmon attacks the flesh and yearns for

                   Pure Love,
That, that the soul affects, and cannot purchase
While she is loaden with our flesh.
                                            [II, i]

He is, however, increasingly mad and beastlike, resembling "a Dog / Run mad o'th' tooth-ache" (II, i). Stremon, one of his soldiers, arranges a show in the hope of curing Memmon. The idea is taken from his mad ravings:

                   h'as divers times
Been calling upon Orpheus to appear
And shew the joyes: now I will be that Orpheus,
And as I play and sing, like beasts and trees
I wou'd have you shap't and enter.
                                                        [III, i]

Act IV opens as Memmon begins to face the possibility that Calis may not love him in the other world either. Orpheus enters announcing that he has come not the joys but "the plagues of love to show." As Eumenes says, "This Song / Was rarely form'd to fit him" (IV, i). Memmon is threatened with plagues in Hell if he dies with his love unreturned. When he doubts that his passage to Elysium could be denied after his sacrifice, Charon arrives to corroborate Orpheus, singing that " 'tis too foul a sin. He must not come aboard" (IV, i). Orpheus then presents a "masque" of beasts, and explains that each one died of a foolish love: "This Ape with daily hugging of a glove, / Forgot to eat and died" (IV, i).

The beasts are basic antimasque figures. Here they represent Memmon's beastlike inner state. In fact, they repre-sent the beast-like state of most of the lovers in the play. Syphax, who also falls in love with the princess, is scorned by his sister: "Fye beast" (II, i). Chilax's wanton love for Venus's priestess leads him into a scrape in which he finally appears disguised as a woman in the oracle's box. These transformations are epitomized in the antimasque.

The presentation by Stremon ends simply enough with the adjuration "O love no more, O love no more" (IV, i). In the fifth act a spectacle of true love occurs which is, effectively, the masque or formal show corresponding to the antimasque. The princess Calis, who has fallen in love with Memmon's brother, goes to the temple and sings a prayer to Venus. Meanwhile Chilax and the priestess, caught unprepared, decide to send Chilax to impersonate the oracle. After their hurried conversation Calis speaks, or perhaps even sings, her second supplication, "O Divine Star of Heaven," which is in the same rhythm as her first. As Chilax begins "I have heard thy prayers," there is thunder and music, "the temple shakes and totters," and Venus descends (V, i). The unforeseen appearance of a real goddess had occurred previously in plays as well as in masques. But the presence of a masque earlier in the play, and the balance created between the disorder of beasts and the order of goddesses, makes the provenance more likely to be the masque. We find ourselves in an almost indefinable position vis-á-vis the reality of the play. Orpheus was Stremon, but this appears to be Venus; the unreal is as real as the real. This effect prepares us to see all difficulties removed, to have the tragicomic experience forced upon us. Laws of expectation are no longer operative. We rest in a state of pleasurable, formal anticipation, waiting to see how Calis, as Venus promised, will be pleased with the dead.

Like Philaster, The Mad Lover pivots on the masque moments, though now there are several of them. There is no dance or transformation scene in the literal masque sense, yet all the characters are transformed after Venus's appearance. The dead Polybius lives; the mad Memmon is once again the glorious warrior; the "princess" Chilax married is retransformed into Chloe his whore. The movement of the play thus approximates the movement of a masque with its transformation scene after the intervention of a god.

Act V, which substitutes for the masque, depends noticeably upon song and rhymed, clearly metered poetry. After Calis's song and prayer Venus speaks in the same tetrameter. Memmon meets Chilax disguised in the priestess's robes, takes him for a slain warrior, and demands a song of his death. Memmon's friends reply with a battle song intended to show him what he must once again become, in a retransformation.

The masque and masquelike elements of The Mad Lover repeat the action of the play and elaborate it. They are not necessary to the plot. Even Venus merely prophesies, does not act. Nevertheless, the masque does more than please the audience. The play moves between formal episodes which qualify its tone, clarify its themes, and point out its contrasts. The movement and structure are perfectly controlled, so that those who did not just enjoy watching the ape wave his tail could see in the beasts and in Venus simple but visually effective symbols of the main theme.

Thus, in all three of these plays by Beaumont and Fletcher, artistic logic united masque with tragicomedy. Eventually Fletcher's plays began to follow a formula, but he deserves credit for its creation. The influence of the court masque on Beaumont and Fletcher was deep. By its inherently tragicomic nature and its abrupt romanticizing of a situation threatening to become simply tragic or comic, the masque proved a major asset in the search for the difficult balance which creates tragicomedy. This tragicomedy, in turn, became more and more masquelike. Once the relationship is seen as aesthetically sound and not merely fortuitous, we can better understand why Beaumont and Fletcher, now often slighted, were so highly esteemed in their own time.

Arthur Kirsch (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Beaumont and Fletcher," in Jacobean Dramatic Perspectives, The University Press of Virginia, 1972, pp. 38-51.

[In the essay that follows, Kirsch examines the artificiality of the characters and situations in Beaumont and Fletcher's work.]

Indebted to both [Giovanni Battista] Guarini and [Ben] Jonson, the theatrical style which Beaumont and Fletcher and their collaborators created at once encompasses and dilutes the polarities of romance and satire. Fletcher's actual definition of tragicomedy reads very much like Guarini's, from which it was clearly borrowed. "A tragie-comedie," he wrote in the preface to The Faithful Shepherdess (1608), "is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants deaths, which is inough to make it no tragedie, yet brings some neere it, which is inough to make it no comedie: which must be a representation of familiar people, with such kinde of trouble as no life be questioned; so that a God is as lawful in this as in a tragedie, and meane people as in a comedy." As in the case of Guarini, among the natural consequences of such a conception of a play is a self-conscious emphasis upon plot and style, and like Guarini, Beaumont and Fletcher have an exceptional interest in declamatory rhetoric—in their case directly derived from Senecan declamations—and in copious and intricate plots organized less on causal than on spatial principles. Where their practice diverges significantly from Guarini's is in their lack of interest in an overall providential pattern. [Guarini's] The Pastor Fido … is designed to culminate in a recognition scene which verifies the comic dispensation of the art both of the Creator and the dramatist; The Faithful Shepherdess, as all of Beaumont and Fletcher's subsequent plays, though nominally devoted to providential precepts, in fact makes little use of them to organize the action.

Beaumont and Fletcher's debt to satirical comedy leads in a similar direction. As Eugene Waith has shown [in The Pattern of Tragicomedy in Beaumont and Fletcher, 1952], many of the most notable characteristics of Fletcherian tragicomedy have roots in Jonson's and [John] Marston's practice: the atmosphere of evil, Protean characterizations, extreme and schematic oppositions of emotions as well as characters, moral dilemmas that are acute but disengaging, and kaleidoscopic plots. In Jonson and Marston, however, these features are at least intended to serve the purposes of satire. In Beaumont and Fletcher, though a detritus of satire remains, there is no comparable sense of purpose, and the same characteristics receive an abstracted and more formal emphasis. As with the debt to Guarini, the net result is frequently less meaning and more art, plays with effects of unusual virtuosity but also unusual self-consciousness.

This stress upon artifice for its own sake is confirmed by the testimony of Beaumont and Fletcher's contemporaries. James Shirley, who was perhaps their best critic as well as a devoted disciple, wrote in the preface to the 1647 collection of their works [Comedies and Tragedies Written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher Gentlemen]:

You may here find passions raised to that excellent pitch and by such insinuating degrees that you shall not chuse but consent, & go along with them, finding your self at last grown insensibly the very same person you read, and then stand admiring the subtile Trackes of your engagement. Fall on a Scene of love and you will never believe the writers could have the least roome left in their soules for another passion, peruse a Scene of manly Rage, and you would sweare they cannot be exprest by the same hands, but both are so excellently wrought, you must confesse none, but the same hands, could worke them.

Would thy Melancholy have a cure? thou shalt laugh at Democritus himselfe, and but reading one piece of this Comick variety, finde thy exalted fancie in Elizium; And when thou art sick of this cure, (for excesse of delight may too much dilate thy soule) thou shalt meete almost in every leafe a soft purling passion or spring of sorrow so powerfully wrought high by the teares of innocence, and wronged Lovers, it shall perswade thy eyes to weepe into the streame, and yet smile when they contribute to their owne ruines.

Here is theatrical plenty, and Shirley's description reveals not only the variety of passions which Beaumont and Fletcher were able to exploit, but also the unusual sophistication of their effects. The insistence in this description upon the recognition of artifice goes beyond the traditional capacity of Elizabethan drama to be simultaneously realistic and symbolic, to make us aware of the analogies between the stage and the world, and to involve us in the action and at the same time to keep us detached enough to make judgments about it. Shirley places decisive stress upon detachment, upon the constant recognition of the play as a play, as the work of an artist. It is a matter of emphasis, but a crucial one. To Shirley, as to virtually all of their contemporaries, the excellence of Beaumont and Fletcher rested not simply in their ability to capture an audience, but in their capacity to do so with an elegance that was self-revealing.

Perhaps the most transparent example of this artfulness occurs in Philaster, in the scene which gave the play its subtitle, "Love lies a Bleeding." Philaster has come upon Arathusa in the woods. She is attended by Bellario, his own page. Unaware that Bellario is Euphrasia in disguise (and in love with him), Philaster misinterprets the meeting and launches a passionate diatribe against faithlessness:

Let me love lightning, let me be embrac't
And kist by Scorpions, or adore the eyes
Of Basalisks, rather then trust the tongues
Of hell-bred women. Some good god looke downe
And shrinke these veines up; sticke me here a stone
Lasting to ages, in the memory
Of this damned act.

At a word from Arathusa, however, he quickly reverses his mood:

                   I have done;
Forgive my passion: Not the calmed sea,
When Eolus locks up his windy brood,
Is lesse disturb'd then I; I'le make you know't.

In a replay of a scene in The Faithful Shepherdess, he then offers his sword to Arathusa and Bellario to kill him. Both of course refuse and Philaster, in a counterturn, prepares to use the sword to "perforine a peece of Justice" upon Arathusa. At that moment, however, a "countrey fellow" enters and the situation becomes quite remarkable:

Countrey Fellow. There's a Courtier with his sword
               drawne, by this hand upon a woman, I
Philaster.        Are you at peace?
Arathusa.         With heaven and earth.
Philaster.        May they divide thy soule and body.
                                        [Philaster wounds her.]
Countrey Fellow. Hold dastard, strike a woman! th'art
               a craven: I warrant thee, thou wouldst
               be loth to play halfe a dozen venies at
               wasters with a good fellow for a
               broken head.
Philaster.        Leave us good friend.
Arathusa.         What ill-bred man art thou, to intrude
                         thy selfe
                         Upon our private sports, our
Countrey Fellow. God uds me, I understand you not; but
                       I know the rogue has hurt you.
Philaster.      Persue thy owne affaires; it will be ill
                       To multiply blood upon my head,
                        which thou
                       Wilt force me to.
Countrey Fellow. I know not your rethoricke, but I can lay
                       it on if you touch the woman.
                                             [They fight.]

Philaster is wounded and, hearing the court party approaching, runs off. The country fellow demands a kiss from Arathusa, and only after he learns that she is a princess does he lose his fine uncouth country poise. His last words are: "If I get cleare of this, I'le goe to see no more gay sights" (IV.v.80-97, 142-43).

The scene was evidently very popular—it is not only referred to in the subtitle of the play but pictured in a woodcut on the title page of the first edition (1620)—and it constitutes a paradigm of Fletcherian dramaturgy. It is entirely contrived to allow for striking if not sensational contrasts of emotion. The whole situation is false and improbable, and since we know it is, we consciously follow the ebb and flow of Philaster's passion, responding to his diatribes and laments as declamatory exercises. The intervention of the country fellow italicizes the wholly self-regarding theatricality of the scene even further. In the peculiar dialectic of Fletcherian dramaturgy the country fellow would seem to represent a popular ideal of honor which Philaster at that point lacks, but at the same time his emphatic outlandishness serves to qualify any serious apprehensions we might develop about Philaster and Arathusa and thus to preserve the mood of tragicomedy. His honorable uncouthness is finally an urbane joke, a conceit which paradoxically insulates the boundaries of Beaumont and Fletcher's world of gay sights and protects its private sports and recreations. His appearance not only assures us that any wound Arathusa receives has been made with a pasteboard sword, but absolutely compels us to become conscious of the preciousness of the entire scene.

The scene is an extreme instance, but it is nonetheless typical of the play as well as of much of Beaumont and Fletcher's subsequent work. Their later tragicomedies and tragedies are more carefully modulated, more versatile, more elegant, but not fundamentally different in kind. They rarely employ so stark a device to define and emphasize their theatrical conceits: the juxtapositions of characters and scenes, or of contrasting emotions within a character, are more integrated with one another and more graceful; but their essential purposes and effects remain the same as Philaster's. The Maid's Tragedy, the play which is usually acknowledged as their masterpiece and which certainly exhibits their resources to great effect, is a case in point, and an especially important one, I think, both beca-use a few critics have been inclined to see a different kind of accomplishment in it and because an understanding of the effect of Beaumont and Fletcher's characteristic tragicomic patterning upon an ostensive tragedy is very suggestive in interpreting plays of other seventeenth-century dramatists.

Three scenes in The Maid's Tragedy were especially celebrated by contemporary audiences and may stand as typical examples of its dramaturgy: Amintor's and Evadne's wedding night (II.i), Aspatia mourning with her maids (II.ii), and the quarrel between Amintor and Melantius (III.ii). The first scene, the wedding night, is a typical Fletcherian dramatic conceit—an outrageous and multiple inversion of conventional expectations. The scene is set in bed-chamber and begins, traditionally enough, with a maid making bawdy comments which apparently embarrass Evadne. A pathetic melody is counterpointed to the bawdy by the presence of Aspatia, the maid whom Amintor was supposed to marry until the King ordered him to marry Evadne. Amintor meets Aspatia outside the chamber and asks Evadne to come to bed: "Come, come, my love, / And let us loose our selves to one another" (II.i. 149-50). But she protests, and after a protracted discussion Amintor assures her that she could preserve her maidenhead one more night by other means if she wished. She answers, "A maidenhead Amintor at my yeares" (11. 198-99). The scene continues with a number of similarly sensational turns. Evadne swears that she will never sleep with him, not because she is coy but because she does already "enjoy the best" of men, with whom she has "sworne to stand or die" (11. 301-02). Amintor furiously demands to know who the man is so that he may "cut his body into motes" (1. 304). Evadne obligingly informs him that "'tis the King" (1. 309), and that the King had ordered their marriage to mask his own affair with her. Amintor responds to his cuckoldom by turning royalist:

Oh thou has nam'd a word that wipes away
All thoughts revengefull, in that sacred word,
The King, there lies a terror, what fraile man
Dares lift his hand against it, let the Gods
Speake to him when they please: till when let us
Suffer, and waite.
                                        (11. 313-18)

In a final turn, Amintor begs Evadne that for the benefit of his honor they may pretend before the court to have fulfilled the rites of a wedding night. She agrees and he coaches her on how she should behave in front of morning visitors:

And prethee smile upon me when they come,
And seeme to toy as if thou hadst been pleas'd
With what I did. …
Come let us practise, and as wantonly
As ever longing bride and bridegroome met,
Lets laugh and enter here.
                                        (11. 360-62, 63-65)

The scene, as John F. Danby has shown [in Poets on Fortune's Hill, 1952] is like a dramatized metaphysical conceit, a rich exploration of progressively inverted Petrarchan images culminating in a demand that the lover either literally kill himself for his mistress or serve her as a pandar and a cuckold (which he does). In dramatizing this conceit, however, the scene exhibits many of the usual trademarks of Fletcherian tragicomedy: the constant peripeties, the discontinuous characterization (Evadne appears alternately as virgin and whore), the systematic betrayal of conventional expectations; and despite the apparent burden of "metaphysical meaning," the emphasis is still upon display and expertise. The scene's outrageousness, like that of the country fellow's in Philaster, points finally to itself, at once insulating the action from belief as well as ridicule and italicizing its artifice. It is entirely appropriate that the final turn should show us two actors preparing themselves to "act" the "scene" which we had expected them to act in the first place.

Immediately following this episode, and in counterpoint to it, is the scene showing Aspatia in mourning with her maids. It has no witty turns and its pace is deliberately measured, designed to depict a static tableau of Aspatia's grief. Typically, we are conscious of the scene as a tab leau since one of Aspatia's maids is embroidering a picture of the wronged Ariadne on the island of Naxos, and Aspatia, applying the scene to herself, tells the maid how a grief-stricken woman should really appear:

Fie, you have mist it there Antiphila,
You are much mistaken wench:
These colours are not dull and pale enough,
To show a soule so full of miserie
As this poore Ladies was, doe it by me,
Doe it againe, by me the lost Aspatia,
And you will find all true but the wilde Hand,
Suppose I stand upon the Sea breach now
Mine armes thus, and mine haire blowne with the wind,
Wilde as the place she was in, let all about me
Be teares of my story, doe my face
If thou hadst ever feeling of a sorrow,
Thus, thus, Antiphila make me looke good girle
Like sorrowes mount, and the trees about me,
Let them be dry and leaveless, let the rocks
Groane with continuall surges, and behind me,
Make all a desolation, see, see wenches,
A miserable life of this poore picture.

Charles Lamb remarked in Specimens of English Dramatic Poets [1808] that, in contrast to Shakespeare, the finest scenes in Fletcher are "slow and languid. [Their] motion is circular, not progressive. Each line resolves on itself in a sort of separate orbit. They do not join into one another like a running hand. Every step that we go we are stopped to admire some single object, like walking in beautiful scenery with a guide." This description captures perfectly the statuesque and self-regarding quality of the scene with Aspatia. The setting of that scene is the island of grief which Aspatia at once describes and represents. She is the guide to the scenery as well as its emblem, and because she is both, the pathos she elicits calls for a sophisticated response: we are meant to feel her grief, but even more to admire it as a virtuoso example of passionate theater portraiture. There are comparable portraits everywhere in Fletcher's plays, though those which occur in scenes marked by witty turns of speech and action are more changeable and less sustained. The distinction of Aspatia's scene is its static emphasis, an emphasis that became increasingly important in the plays of [John] Webster and [John] Ford.

The third of the scenes in The Maid's Tragedy that were especially admired in the seventeenth century is the one dealing with the quarrel between Amintor and Melantius (III.ii). The scene is particularly important because it reveals so transparently the dynamics of the Fletcherian patterning of action. It is composed entirely of the kinds of turns and counterturns of love, honor, friendship, &c. which were to become the staples of Caroline and Restoration drama. The scene begins with Melantius questioning Amintor about the strangeness of his behavior. Amintor refuses to explain until Melantius threatens to dissolve their friendship, at which point Amintor confesses that Evadne, who is Melantius' sister,

Is much to blame,
And to the King has given her honour up,
And lives in whoredome with him.
                                        (III.ii. 128-30)

Melantius responds by drawing his sword:

           shall the name of friend
Blot all our family, and stick the brand
Of whore upon my sister unreveng'd.
                                         (11. 139-41)

Amintor, however, welcomes death as a relief from his sorrows and in any case refuses to draw upon his friend, but after Melantius calls him a coward, he does draw his sword. Melantius immediately reflects that "The name of friend, is more then familie, / Or all the world besides" (11. 172-73), and sheaths his sword. When Amintor does likewise, they are reconciled; but Melantius threatens to kill the King, and Amintor then draws his sword, both because he is opposed to regicide and because he does not wish his cuckoldom to become known. Melantius draws his sword, and after further discussion, they both sheath their weapons and their dance finally ends.

[Thomas] Rymer's comment upon this scene in The Tragedies of the Last Age was that "When a Sword is once drawn in Tragedy, the Scabbard may be thrown away." The remark is myopic but revealing, for Beaumont and Fletcher are clearly not interested in tragic decorum. In the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius [in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar] which was probably the model for their scene the turns of action and sentiment grow out of the characters of the two men, their evolving relationship with one another, and their particular situation. Amintor and Melantius are not comparably defined, nor is their quarrel. What characters they have are largely postulates for the turns and counterturns in which they are engaged, for theirs is a choreographic abstraction of the Shakespearian scene, a pas de deux in which movements of swords and declamations upon friendship have equal meaning. The substance of their quarrel is its design.

John F. Danby has been in such designs and in the kind of scenes that elicit them "not only literary entertainment, but literature aware of itself as a symptom rather than a reflection of the dangerous reality surrounding it—aware of a world that cannot be trusted, and in which the mind is forced back upon itself to make a world of its own, by belief, or resolve, or art." Danby argues that for Beaumont and Fletcher this reality is composed of absolutes—among them, Honor, Kingship and Petrarchan Love—"which have to be chosen among and which it is nonsence to choose among." He contends further that Beaumont and Fletcher are interested not in assessing any of these absolutes separately but in opposing them, for their "best work" and "main interest" lie "in the conflict of the absolutes and the contortions it imposes upon human nature." On the basis of these assumptions he concludes that The Maid's Tragedy, in particular, is a searching expression of the disorientation of values in Jacobean society, conveyed through exceptionally subtle characterizations. Evadne, for example, "a study in radical perversity … is more compelling than Lady Macbeth, and more subtle"; Melantius, though the soul of honour, is essentially a representative of "the simplifying madness of war"; and Aspatia "represents that large and immovable continent of the traditional morality from which the 'wild island' of Beaumont's dramatic world detaches itself."

There is a great deal in these arguments which deserves attention. Danby's consideration of the relationship of Beaumont and Fletcher to their social milieu certainly helps explain their extraordinary popularity and his particular analyses of Fletcherian wit are often acute. For a number of reasons, however, it is difficult to accept his general assessment of Beaumont and Fletcher's intrinsic achievement. In the first place, it is a fallacy common in criticism of the plays which he discusses to see a theatrical style which is self-conscious and which can be entirely self-regarding as necessarily a reflection of Jacobean angst. Danby may well be correct in his assumptions about the sociological sources of Fletcherian drama, but the critical issue is whether these sources are meaningful parts of the plays themselves. James's court and the general decay of Elizabethan standards may have encouraged the enshrinement of absolutes "which have to be chosen among and which it is nonsense to choose among," but in the actual scenes in The Maid's Tragedy and Philaster in which protagonists make such choices, the real emphasis is upon the contrivance with which the choices are posed and disposed rather than upon what they represent. It is difficult, and we are not intended, to take either the absolutes or the protagonists very seriously. The choices are indeed empty of meaning, and not because they are the expression of an empty or disoriented society, but because the alternatives they pose are essentially rhetorical counters in a theatrical display. The quarrel scene between Amintor and Melantius asserts absolutely nothing about Kingship or Honor, either negatively or positively. Inherited ideas of kingship or honor are adverted to solely to provide opportunities for debate and turns of action. In this respect the old judgment, held by both Coleridge and Eliot, that Beaumont and Fletcher's plays are parasitic and without inner meaning, seems just.

Nor do Beaumont and Fletcher, either in The Maid's Tragedy or Philaster, really explore the stress which the conflicts they contrive place upon human nature, as Danby also claims, for psychologically considered, the characters in these plays simply do not have sufficient substance to explore. They are all primarily elements in a spatial design and they follow completely from the design, not the design from them. They are accordingly portrayed with radical discontinuities, capable of Protean change, like Evadne, or with consistent but stereotyped humours, like Melantius (honor) or Aspatia (grief), which are equally in the service of a peripetetic action. The true contortions of Beaumont and Fletcher's situations in these plays are thus rhetorical and theatrical, and their ultimate stress is less upon the nature of the participants than upon the artifice which employs them.

A case can and should be made for the possibilities of such artifice, but on different ground and with different plays, for it is in their comedies, it seems to me, rather than in works like The Maid's Tragedy, that Beaumont and Fletcher's real achievement lies. Plays like The Scornful Lady, The Humourous Lieutenant, and The Wild Goose Chase, apparently more trivial than the tragicomedies and tragedies, are at the same time less guilty of trifling with ideas and need neither excuses nor footnotes about baroque mentality to explain them. They explain and justify themselves, and the reason is that as with the Restoration comedies of manners of which they are precurso-rs, as indeed with all good plays, their artifice and their subjects give substance to each other.

The Scornful Lady was written by Beaumont and Fletcher in collaboration and shows Beaumont's influence in its satiric emphasis and in its strong humours characterizations. The Humourous Lieutenant, written by Fletcher alone, mixes comedy with threats of tragedy, while The Wild Goose Chase, also an unaided Fletcherian work, is more strictly a comedy of intrigue. At the heart of all three plays, however, is a sexual combat in which one lover wittily and persistently foils the attempts of another to make him or her submit to love and marriage. In The Scornful Lady the Lady of the title resists Elder Loveless's efforts to make her acknowledge her love, and the bulk of the play consists of their intrigues against one another. In The Humourous Lieutenant Celia toys contrarily with the true passion of her lover and frustrates the villainous passion of his father. In The Wild Goose Chase three witty couples spawn intrigues and counter-intrigues: in two of them it is the women who have the "brave spirit" of contention, in the third it is Mirabel, the man. The theme of wit combat is not in itself new—Shakespeare, among others, had represented it with obvious mastery in Much Ado About Nothing—but Beaumont and Fletcher make it peculiarly their own because the peripeties of action and feeling, the declamations, the intricate intrigues, the discontinuous, Protean characterizations, in short, the characteristics which are bred by their tragicomic style, are also and precisely the characteristics which express the comic manners of a witty couple. .

The Scornful Lady depicts these manners with perhaps the greatest insight. The Lady—she has no other name—is represented as a woman whose humour does not permit her to submit to a man, even one she loves. In a series of encounters she alternately spurns and appears to favor her lovers while they correspondingly praise or vilify her. The most remarkable of these scenes is the one which eventually leads her to relent. Elder Loveless, who has already been duped and rejected by her, comes to her house to mock her and boast of his escape from bondage:

Neither doe I thinke there can bee such a fellow found i' th' world, to be in love with such a froward woman: if there bee such, th'are madde, Jove comfort um. Now you have all, and I as new a man, as light, & spirited, that I feel my selfe clean through another creature. O 'tis brave to be ones owne man. I can see you now as I would see a Picture, sit all day by you, and never kiss your hand, heare you sing, and never fall backward; but with as set a temper as I would heare a Fidler, rise and thanke you.


At first unmoved by such diatribes, the Lady after a while appears to be deeply affected. She asks to speak "a little private" with him and accuses him of perjuring himself; he laughs at her "set speech," her "fine Exordium"; she kisses his hand and swoons into the arms of her sister, who has just entered the room. Predictably, Elder Loveless then reverses course completely, railing upon himself as passionately as he had upon her and vowing that it was only a trick, that he always has loved her:

for sooner shall you know a generali ruine, then my faith broken. Doe not doubt this Mistres: for by my life I cannot live without you. Come, come, you shall not greeve, rather be angry, and heape infliction on me: I wil suffer.

(11. 275-79)

Suffer indeed he does as the Lady, her sister, and her maid proceed to break into laughter and the Lady tells him he has been finely fooled. He then rails upon her in earnest:

I know you will recant and sue to me, but save that labour: I'le rather love a Fever and continual thirst, rather contract my youthe to drinke, and safe dote upon quarrells, or take a drawne whore from an Hospital, that time, diseases, and Mercury had eaten, then to be drawne to love you.

(11. 366-73)

He flees and at precisely that moment, the Lady asks her servant Abigail to recall him: "I would be loth to anger him too much: what fine foolery is this in a woman, to use men most frowardly they love most?" Abigail agrees, re-marking, "this is still your way, to love being absent, and when hee's with you, laugh at him and abuse him. There is another way if you could hit on't" (11. 383-85, 392-94).

The scene is a perfect counterpart of the debate between Amintor and Melantius or the wedding night of Amintor and Evadne. Like them it consists of extreme turns and counterturns, of characters whose emotions oscillate violently, of declamations which are at once passionate and contrived. Like them also, it calls repeated attention to the artifice of its own construction. The difference is that whereas in The Maid's Tragedy the extreme discontinuities of character and the turns of passionate debate which are their consequence can be accepted only as theatrical conventions, in The Scornful Lady they represent credible human behavior. Elder Loveless's contortions are the reflection of a young man in love, while the artifices of the Lady are the expression of a woman who finds herself incapable of accepting not only the love of a man but the reality of her own feelings. Interacting with one another, the two form a pattern representing the dynamics of a recognizable human relationship. Their perversities, their posturings, conscious and otherwise, spring from something resembling psychological integrity. Thus the sophistication of our response to them enables us to appreciate both the artifice (theirs and the dramatists') of the ballet which they dance and the meaning behind it.

The Humourous Lieutenant, a full-blown tragicomedy, is less consistent and less penetrating than The Scornful Lady, but the portrait of its heroine Celia has some of the same virtues. Unlike the Lady, Celia is in part a romantic figure, very much in love with Demetrius and usually very willing to say so. But she also, like the Lady and indeed like most of Fletcher's women, has a brave streak in her, and it is this part of her character that is most prominent in the play. When Demetrius's father, King Antigonus, pursues her with lecherous designs while Demetrius is away fighting, alternately tempting and threatening her, she resists with a high spirit, declaiming satirically and at length on the corruption of courtiers and kings. Persuaded as much by her energy as her chastity, Antigonus eventually becomes her convert, praising the virtue which he had before suspected. At this point Demetrius comes home, and unaware of the full situation, suspects her himself. She then turns upon him: "he's jealous; /I must now play the knave with him, [though I] dye for't, / 'Tis in me nature" (IV.viii.54-56). A quarrel ensues in which she castigates him for his lack of faith and he contritely asks her forgiveness. Antigonus himself is obliged to command that she forgive him.

Celia swings between extremes of romance and satire which appear incompatible, but her character, if not profound, is nevertheless of a piece. Her diatribes are the other side of the coin of her love, for she is motivated by love as much in the satiric condemnations of Antigonus's lust as in the criticism of Demetrius's faithlessness. The extremes through which she travels are thus plausible and though they are also exaggerated they still denote a coherence of feeling. She is indeed still capricious, but the caprice is clearly hers, not simply the dramatist's.

The Wild Goose Chase is less concerned with the psychology of its characters than either The Scornful Lady or The Humourous Lieutenant. Its emphasis is upon the spirit which they display and the contrasts they create rather than upon their motivations. Oriana pursues the witty and reluctant Mirabel, Pinac and Belleur chase the equally witty and reluctant sisters, Lillia-Bianca and Rosalura. Each group is in counterpoint to the others and within each the lovers continuously adopt opposing postures, some conscious, some not. Their pas de deux are symmetrically balanced and end only after the exhaustion of every contrast of every movement. Once again, however, stylization has a relation to content. Mirabel, Lillia-Bianca, and Rosalura (as well as Celia and the scornful Lady) look forward to the heroes and heroines of Restoration comedy. Like their descendants, they habitually don masks which reflect not only their pleasure in acting roles, but their need to do so in order to respond to the requirements of their personal relationships. Their wit, thus, expresses their sexual identity as well as their social grace, and the consciously elegant patterns which their courtships form at least begin to represent the nature of their society as well as the art of the dramatist.

It is no doubt curious that the pattern of tragicomedy which Beaumont and Fletcher crystallized should have produced less merit in the tragedies and tragicomedies themselves than in the comedies, but it is nonetheless true. Without either the vision of fortunate suffering which informs Shakespeare's dispassion or the moral clarity which informs [Thomas] Middleton's, the detachment and self-consciousness which Beaumont and Fletcher's style breeds turn in upon themselves when applied to a serious subject; and this was to be a most damaging legacy in seventeenth-century drama, affecting playwrights like Webster, Ford, and [John] Dryden, as well as comparative hacks like [Philip] Massinger and Shirley. In their tragicomedies and tragedies Beaumont and Fletcher's men in action are essentially formal devices, theatrical fragments, and no amount of special pleading can mend them or give them human dimension. It is only in some of their comic writing that Beaumont and Fletcher can truly be said to have held a mirror up to nature, and it is no accident that it was in this genre that they left their most enduring legacy to the repertory of the English stage. [William] Congreve was born of many parents, but not least among them were Beaumont and Fletcher, who were the first, as Dryden saw, to represent "the conversation of gentlemen."

Robert Y. Turner (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Heroic Passion in the Early Tragicomedies of Beaumont and Fletcher," in Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, Vol. I, 1984, pp. 109-30.

[In the following essay, Turner examines The Faithful Shepherdess, Philaster, and A King and No King in light of tragicomic depictions of heroism and "extravagant passion."]

In The Faithful Shepherdess (ca. 1608), Philaster (ca. 1609), and A King and No King (ca. 1611), Beaumont and Fletcher create their distinctive tragicomic effects by holding up for admiration characters who act with passionate disregard for the dictates of reason. Their intense passions impart an outsized—one could say heroic—dimension to them, but a heroism that lies more in desires than in deeds. This is not to say that these characters are unwilling to act; they are all too willing to lay their lives on the line for what they believe to be matters of life or death. So frequently do they proclaim their willingness that twentieth-century readers have been inclined to discount their heroic intensity and overlook a feature central to Beaumont and Fletcher's notion of tragicomedy. As a result, critics concentrate upon "high design," "pattern," surprising endings, and liken the plays to "roller-coaster rides." For most of us, extreme perturbations, such as the wrath of Achilles or the jealousy of Othello, fit the dimensions of epic or tragedy but appear less worthy of serious consideration when they dissipate in the tides of good fortune characteristic of tragicomedy. Even so, a willingness to die for love or honor meets the requirements of tragicomedy, which, as Fletcher wrote [in his preface to The Faithful Shepherdess, 1608], "wants deaths, which is inough to make it no tragedie, yet brings some neere it, which is inough to make it no comedie." Beaumont and Fletcher were not unaware of the slight ridiculousness of a character's gesture at tragic grandeur during the course of events moving inexorably toward happiness. Indeed, the serio-comic is the very chord to be sounded in tragicomedy. Yet the playwrights' interest, as I see it, lay more in the exploration and judgment of ethical conduct than in an adjustment of tones for the sake of some imposed design. Before Fletcherian tragicomedy hardened into formula, the plays raised questions about assumed values and showed difficulties in assessing behavior by even the most accepted standards.

Beaumont and Fletcher's most provocative case for extravagant passion is A King and No King. If Arbaces's reason and will were strong enough to temper his desire for Panthea, his putative sister, then he would either remain the illegitimate king or be replaced. If his passion were to challenge all moral, legal, and religious prohibitions against incest, then he would discover his real father and become a real king through marriage to the princess and true heir to the throne. This bizarre testing of kingship reverses traditional wisdom about a ruler's exercise of self-control. From Erasmus's The Education of a Christian Prince to James I's Basilicon Doron in the sixteenth century, one finds the dictum that a king must rule himself before he can rule others properly. At the end of Lyly's Campaspe, Alexander masters his desire for Campaspe and gives her to Apelles: "It were a shame Alexander should desire to commaund the world, if he could not commaund himselfe" (V.iv.150-51). Implicit in Prince Hal's rejection of Falstaff is the exercise of self-control necessary to a successful ruler. Throughout most of A King and No King this standard seems to be appropriate, for Beaumont and Fletcher withhold the facts of Gobrius's plan and Arbaces's parentage. Not only Mardonius, the trustworthy captain and adviser, but Arbaces himself and his sister recoil from the prospects of incest. Until the final disclosures, the paradox of the title seems to refer to Arbaces's failure as a real king, since he cannot control his passions, as the temperate Tigranes manages to do. Arbaces, in his penultimate speech of the play, praises Tigranes for being temperate, no doubt a speech to reassure the audience that the drama hardly champions irresponsible submission to one's feelings. And by affirming the customary rule of temperance, the play strengthens its case for Arbaces's conduct as exceptional. The very strangeness of his circumstances, the odd way in which he becomes heir, then to be superseded by Panthea, insists upon its characteristic as being exceptional. Primarily, however, the dramatists arrange events to show that even the most unquestioned standards need not apply absolutely. In view of the details, the play resists the charge that it encourages the audience to take Arbaces's behavior as a license for indulgence. Instead, it cautions against the assumption that human beings behave in similar ways in similar circumstances or can be readily judged by the same standards.


Arbaces, in effect, proves himself worthy to be a real king by feeling a love so strong that he challenges all prohibitions, even to the extent of risking eternal damnation. Entangled as Arbaces's love is with the topic of incest, his love has not been seen as clearly as it might within the respectable tradition of heroic love, embodied in epical romance and tragicomedy. If we understand this connection, the charge of sensationalism against the play loses some of its force. Sidney's Arcadia makes a suitable starting place because it exerted the most direct impact of any work upon the young playwrights, providing as it did the story for Cupid's Revenge (ca. 1607), in all probability their earliest collaboration. Even though Cupid's Revenge is a tragedy, resemblances with the first tragicomedy they wrote together, Philaster, indicate that the same story served as model for that play too. Fletcher probably wrote The Faithful Shepherdess by himself between these two collaborations; it is a pastoral tragicomedy that takes many of its events from the third book of Spenser's The Faerie Queene, although Fletcher certainly knew [Giovanni Battista] Guarini's Il Pastor Fido, which directed his interest toward the fashionable new genre. All three sources feature at least one character who feels a love so intense that he cannot resist it and is driven to extraordinary actions, which to sober eyes would be intemperate and impractical. Guarini's tragicomedy resembles the two English epics in its concern to show how apparently dangerous passions, deviating as they do from the approved rules of conduct, eventually solve problems of state and coordinate with some divine plan, revealed by an oracle or other supernatural means. In A King and No King Beaumont and Fletcher remove the heroic character from his customary romantic or pastoral setting, excise all intimations of divine approval, and populate Arbaces's environment with sober commentators like Mardonius and Ligones or temperate characters like Tigranes, thereby intensifying the problematic aspect of Arbaces's outsized passion and extravagant behavior.

From the beginning of the young playwrights' collaboration, they showed a fascination with the operations of passion, especially romantic passion. For Cupid's Revenge they selected from Book Two of The Arcadia some stories of entangled lives made turbulent by passion and linked them together by the figure of Cupid, who asserts his intention to get revenge against the whole family of Hidaspes when she orders destruction of all his statues. The theme linking five central characters concerns the irresistible and ruthless power of Cupid and is in itself simple: Cupid rules all. He signifies love, of course, but the ways the characters behave under his control suggest that he signifies passions in general: greed, ambition, vindictiveness, selfless devotion, as well as love. The play derives its interest less from the theme than from the complicated ways by which the characters move relentlessly toward destruction under the control of passion. It is in the dramatists' later plays that they explore the implications of passion's control: its effect upon identify and its potentiality for beneficial, as well as for destructive, consequences.

One problem involved in the control by passion can be seen from the ways in which Elizabethans and Jacobeans, as well as ourselves, use the term "passion." The second and third meanings listed in the Oxford English Dictionary signify on the one hand any vehement, commanding, or overpowering emotion, such as love, hatred, joy, grief, or anger, and on the other hand a state of being passive, of being acted upon. To speak of someone as passionate, we mean that he is driven or possessed, as if the passion were somehow separate from the person, who should try to reinstate control. At the same time the joy or love or grief or hatred is "inside" and intimately a part of the person. We talk as if one is not entirely himself when he is in the throes of passion, and yet those passions are identifiably his very own. Implied in this seemingly contradictory usage is a question of identity and a question of judgment. Is the character "himself when he controls his passions, or are his passions attributes of "himself? The question can be rephrased as a matter of judgment: should he not control his passions if he wishes to become fully "himself? Such questions lie at the heart of A King and No King. Arbaces believes that his passionate desire for Panthea should be controlled, and he tries but cannot master this intense feeling, which is the very attribute that confirms his identity as king.

To pose the issue of control in that way, the playwrights needed to draw upon their reading of The Arcadia, as well as Il Pastor Fido and The Faerie Queene. Although Cupid's Revenge does little more than testify to their interest in the possibilities in romantic passion for exciting dramatic episodes, their work with their source indicates a careful and sensitive reading. The stories for the play run intermittently through Book Two of The Arcadia. Sidney narrated the events by a variety of means: King Basilius learns part of the story from Plangus and writes what he learns on paper which is later read by Pyrocles; Philoclea tells part of the story to Pyrocles; Pyrocles (disguised as Zelmane), who has been involved in another part of the story, tells it to Philoclea. This fragmented narrative, which the characters must piece together, suggests a relationship between the inner story and those who are telling and hearing it. When Beaumont and Fletcher chose to substitute stage names for the central characters, the fact that they selected the names from minor but morally appropriate characters from other sections of Book Two reveals their acute understanding of the text. It appears unlikely that they failed to notice how the problem of love experienced by the tragic characters of the inner story was related to the main characters of the outer story. Like Hidaspes of the inner, Musidorus of the outer feels contempt for love and chastises his devoted friend and cousin Pyrocles, who has fallen in love with Philoclea and, to be near her, has taken the degrading disguise of an Amazon: "forsooth love, love, a passion and the basest and fruitlessest of all passions … is engendered betwixt lust and idleness." Pyrocles responds that men have claimed love to be the "highest power of the mind"; any faults associated with love "be not the faults of love but of him that loves, as an unable vessel to bear such a liquor." Musidorus, of course, comes to realize that he can no more resist love than can Pyrocles. Since both princes are rare vessels, marked from birth by divine prophecy for extraordinary deeds, they fall in love with princesses of appropriate beauty and virtue, who feel love with appropriate intensity.

Yet Sidney complicates their story to embody our traditional ambivalence toward passion. The heroic princes, driven by their love, perform heroic deeds in defense of Philoclea and Pamela, but they also engage in devious shifts to avoid King Basilius and Queen Gynecia, who have retreated from their proper roles as rulers of Arcadia out of fear of an ominous prophecy. The princes' intrigues almost cost them their honor and lives, but at the same time their love and consequent actions help fulfill the prophecy, so that at the end of The Arcadia the reader sees how their heroic passions, dangerous in themselves, coordinate with their heroic deeds, peace in Arcadia, marriage, and divine plan. The distinction between heroic love and sheer lust is a thin one, unclear until the ultimate outcome in marriage and political harmony. Whether or not the end justifies the means, Sidney's narrative, as it slowly unwinds, cautions against hasty judgment. What appears devious or imprudent at one point fits into an overall beneficent pattern at another point. Beaumont and Fletcher exploit a similar evolving narrative that requires shifting judgments when they compose their major tragicomedies.

This pattern of destiny, working through the young lovers to solve problems of state, underlies Guarini's Il Pastor Fido, Britomart's quest for Artegall in Books Three, Four, and Five of The Faerie Queene, and Beaumont and Fletcher's Philaster. Part of the outline can be discerned in A King and No King, although the playwrights remove the dimension of divine prophecy and locate the controls solely in Gobrius's planned gamble on the quality of Arbaces's passion. In all probability, the strong resemblance between the main story of The Arcadia and Guarini's Il Pastor Fido helped encourage Fletcher's close attention to the tragicomedy. At the outset of Guarini's play, a divine oracle predicts that the burden of yearly sacrifice of a nymph to Diana will be lifted only when two lovers of divine ancestry are married. Difficulty arises because the only two such descendants, Silvio and Amarillis, feel little love for one another, but Mirtillo, a shepherd of foreign origin, loves Amarillis enough to offer his life to save her from execution. He feels such intense passion that he persists in his devotion despite the religious sanction of her betrothal to Silvio, despite the legal prohibitions of Arcadia, and despite the fact that Amarillis refuses to give him any sign of her love. With no assurance beyond his own feelings, he persists and without hesitation offers his life to save her from death, an offer that sets in motion the disclosures to bring about a happy ending. This extreme passion, at odds with any practical calculations of normal conduct, then turns out to be in harmony with the social and religious forces of Arcadia, in both Sidney's and Guarini's work.

Likewise, in Philaster the love of Arethusa and Philaster, not the arranged marriage of Arethusa to Pharamond, solves the political difficulties of Sicily and Calabria and thus appears to have the endorsement of the gods. In A King and No King the planned marriage of Panthea to Tigranes is stopped by Arbaces's unnatural love for his sister, but this love eventually solves the difficulties of rulership in Iberia and ends in marriage. Such resemblances would be less striking if there were other English comedies written before 1608-09 which dramatize solutions to political difficulties by private loves. Robert Greene's James IV (ca. 1592) is the only early extant comedy that approximates the scope of this pattern. In tragedies, such as Marston's Sophonisba (ca. 1605) or Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (ca. 1607), private love does affect matters of state, but the comedies tend to conform to the humanists' definition of the genre that limits issues to domestic problems of ordinary families.

Fletcher's The Faithful Shepherdess, written about the same time as Cupid's Revenge, does not embody the full scope of Guarini's tragicomic design that gives sanction to Mirtillo's extreme passion. Without problems of state and without a divine oracle to burden them, the shepherds and shepherdesses concern themselves with controlling their passions. In effect, Fletcher narrows the focus to explore the problem raised by Cupid's irresistible power. His pastoral characters align themselves on a spectrum from the utterly controlled—or chaste—Clorin and Amoret to the utterly lustful Cloe and the Sullen Shepherd. Most of the characters lose themselves temporarily to passion and then undergo purgations and cures. The very movement of the play from dusk to dark to dawn, from the public work area into the dark woods surrounding the magical grounds of a holy well and back to Clorin's cabin, follows the psychological pattern of release, confusion, and reassertion of order. Thus described, the play would appear to endorse the customary thinking about passions as dangerous energies to be controlled, thereby the contrary of A King and No King, where Gobrius's plan rests on the hope that Arbaces's passion will be too intense to be controlled.

In this regard Thomas Wright's The Passions of the Mind in General, first printed in 1601, and again in 1604, 1620, 1621, and 1630, can serve as a popular contemporaneous account of traditional thinking about control over passions to gloss Fletcher's tragicomedy. Wright, a Jesuit, followed Aquinas's division of the soul into its various faculties, the appetites into the concupiscible and irascible, and saw man's central problem to be one of governing them as the king governs his state. Reason, he writes, in its proper role

like an Empresse was to gouern the body, direct the senses, guide the passions as subjects and vassals, by the square of prudence, and the rule of reason, the inferior parts were bound to yeeld homage, and obey.

Many of Fletcher's shepherds talk about self-control in the same way. Clorin, dedicated to the memory of her beloved shepherd, excludes the "lustful" turpentine from her medicinal herbs because it would "intice the vaines, and stirre the heat / To civili muteny, scaling the seate / Our reason moves in, and deluding it / With dreames and wanton fancies" (II.ii.36-40). Like Thomas Wright, she uses the metaphor of governing the lower faculties by the higher reason. Daphnis behaves as a textbook example when he prepares to meet Cloe in the dark woods. Fletcher gives him a soliloquy that depicts his use of the square of prudence and the rule of reason:

    I charge you all my vaines
Through which the blood and spirit take their way,
Locke up your disobedient heats, and stay
Those mutinous desires, that else would growe
To strong rebellion.
                                        (II.iv. 16-20)

His straightforward talk to his "vaines" prefigures Tigranes's soliloquy in A King and No King, which dramatizes the mastering of his passion for Panthea and earns him the right to be praised as temperate. Other shepherds in The Faithful Shepherdess, however, experience more trouble in governing their mutinous desires. Angered by Amoret's apparently wanton behavior, Perigot stabs her in a moment of abandonment to his irascible passions. Cloe and Alexis give free reign to their concupiscible passions and suffer appropriate misfortune. Alexis, at the very moment of their rendezvous, is wounded "in the thigh" by the Sullen Shepherd and must undergo a cure by Clorin, the chaste shepherdess, who administers herbs and advice about self-control.

Thomas Wright divides the passions into the ordinate, which are moderated according to reason in harmony with the virtuous motions of the will, and the inordinate or perturbations, which blind the reason by distorting the imagination and causing "all those vices which are opposite to prudence," such as the rashness exhibited by Perigot. This distinction, Wright is cautious to explain, does not counsel mortification of the passions, as the Stoics would. Wright recalls the Scriptures' exhortation to be angry and sin not (Ps. 4:4) or "With fear and trembling work your salvation" (Phil. 2:12). Christ's zeal in chasing the money-lenders from the Temple shows how passions can be enlisted in the service of goodness. The shepherd Thenot, who remains content to worship Clorin for her devotion to the memory of her dead lover, is a negative example of this point because he mortifies his passions for a life of idolatry. To cure him, Clorin pretends to cast off her chaste life, dedicated to curing wounded shepherds, and disillusions Thenot by her wanton advances.

Thus Thomas Wright's commentary on the control of passion applies to most of the episodes in Fletcher's pastoral tragicomedy, but it bears little revelance for Amoret, who like Clorin belongs to an order different from those of her fellow shepherds. More than Clorin, Amoret has claim to the faithful shepherdess of the title and center of Fletcher's interest, although Clorin too is admirable for her chastity and virtuous deeds. One would be hard put to find the square of prudence or the rule of reason guiding Amoret's devotion to Perigot after he has stabbed her twice, and yet the play holds up her unswerving love for our wondrous approval. Her difficulties arise from Amarillis's exercise of magic and thus do not lend themselves to measurement by the square of prudence, which is ill-equipped to take account of events that fail to meet normal expectations. Amarillis desires Perigot, who loves only Amoret. To possess him, Amarillis transforms herself by magic to look exactly like Amoret. As the false Amoret, she exhibits wanton behavior that surprises and angers Perigot to the point of abandoning her. Subsequently, when the true Amoret comes upon him in the dark woods, he gives way to an "irascible perturbation" and stabs her. With appropriate miraculousness, the River God suddenly appears to save the wounded Amoret and cure her. Despite Perigot's ill-treatment, she remains faithful to him and rejects the River God's offer of love. Again she meets Perigot in the dark woods, and again he stabs her, and again she remains unwavering with a devotion that rises above any normal response and certainly beyond any calculations by the square of prudence, if not the rule of reason.

Tasso in the Discourses on the Heroic Poem (1594) discusses the exceptional feelings of the heroic character and defines love itself, with a nod to Aquinas, as appropriate to heroes: "If love is not merely a passion and a movement of the sensitive appetite but also a noble habit of the will, as Saint Thomas thought, love will be praiseworthy in heroes and consequently in the heroic poem." Tasso removes love, at least in part, from the realm of passion and places it in the will and the realm of action. In this light, Amoret's constancy—she remains "true" to Perigot, as this faithfulness is sometimes expressed—can be interpreted as an heroic act of will that arises from choice, and not simply a given passion. Fletcher could have inserted a speech to explicate Amoret's faithfulness as an exertion of will, for other shepherds interpret their actions by mental faculties. Or he could have postulated a princess in disguise as a shepherdess to diminish the mysteriousness in the source of her constancy. One would accept without question a princess who feels heroically, as Pyrocles's defense of love indicates when he says to Musidorus that the vessel into which the liquor of love is poured determines its quality. This connection, cast in the form of a test, governs Beaumont and Fletcher's later play about Arbaces's identity. Or one could see Amoret, as well as the chaste Clorin, in the tradition of the long-suffering wives like Dekker's Grissil or his Bellamont in The Honest Whore. Bellamont and Grissil remain chaste and constant despite extreme provocations, but Dekker's plays raise few questions about the psychological determinations of their conduct. In The Faithful Shepherdess, Amoret and Clorin behave in a context of psychological commentary, from the Priest of Pan's first blessing as he sprinkles holy water on his flock to help them tame their wanton fires until his final summary on events of the play. This context leads us to make a distinction between ordinary passions, which appear wanton and need control, and rare or heroic love, so elevated and powerful that by its very nature it is exempt from the dangers of wantonness. Fletcher intimates a divine dimension in this distinction in the Priest of Pan's final speech:

     All your strength,
Cannot keepe your foot from falling,
To lewd lust, that still is calling,
At your cottage, till his power,
Bring againe that golden howre,

Of peace and rest, to every soule.
May his care of you controle,
All diseases, sores or payne …
Give yee all affections new,
New desires and tempers new,
That yee may be ever true.

The play does not insist upon a divine causation that divides the shepherds into saints and sinners, somewhat like Calvin's division of the elect and the reprobate. Almost as an afterthought, the Priest of Pan's speech touches on a note that Guarini sounds loudly in making his faithful shepherd a descendant of divine ancestors, who fulfills the oracle by his heroic devotion to Amarillis. Fletcher leaves open the possibility that Amoret's heroic love, either an exercise of will or a noble passion, may be, like grace, a divine gift.

The major source for his pastoral tragicomedy was Book Three of Spenser's The Faerie Queene on the virtue of chastity, not Guarini's Il Pastor Fido, as the title suggests. W. W. Greg proposed [in Pastoral Poetry and Pastoral Drama, 1906] that the young Fletcher intended his play to rival Guarini's, not to imitate it; so he deliberately looked elsewhere for inspiration. He no doubt took the episodes concerning the true and false Amoret from Spenser's true and false Florimel. Amoret's very name, of course, derives from the twin of Belphoebe. Their mother, Chrysogonee, made fertile by sunbeams, gives birth to her twin daughters in the Garden of Adonis. Belphoebe joins Diana for her education; Amoret joins Venus. Belphoebe becomes a chaste huntress, who helps cure the squire Timias, wounded in the thigh as he fights three "foule fosters" (probably representing lust of the eye, ear, and flesh). Her counterpart in Fletcher's play is Clorin, destined to remain unmarried and loyal to the memory of her dead lover; she cures Alexis, wounded in the thigh when he lusts for Cloe. Thenot, who worships Clorin without hope of response, embodies another aspect of Timias, who loves Belphoebe. And Amoret, like her namesake, embodies chastity in love and marriage, her future with Perigot, as the end of the play indicates.

But it is to Spenser's arrangement of his characters in relation to chastity and especially to Britomart, that we must look to understand the influence upon Fletcher's thinking about heroic passion. Belphoebe and Amoret, as Thomas Roche has explained [in The Kindly Flame: A Study of the Third and Fourth Books of Spenser's "Faerie Queene," 1964], must be differentiated from Britomart, who exhibits psychological experiences of a well-rounded character; the twins are archetypes or universals, whose emblematic natures are disclosed in their adventures. Britomart, whose quest for her loved one, Artegall, constitutes the central adventure of Book Three, reveals a remarkable power to realize the potentialities of the virtue of chastity, as she confronts a variety of characters either controlled by their wanton passions or struggling to control them. Spenser's narrator, in commenting on the many versions of love, sounds much like Pyrocles talking to Musidorus:

Wonder it is to see, in diuerse minds,
How diuersely loue doth his pageants play,
And shewes his powre in variable kinds:
The baser wit, whose idle thoughts alway
Are wont to cleaue vnto the lowly clay,
It stirreth vp to sensuali desire,
And in lewd slouth to wast his carelesse day:
But in braue sprite it kindles goodly fire,
That to all high desert and honour doth aspire.

This commentary avoids discussing the way passions should be controlled by the rule of reason and the square of prudence and attributes instead the quality of passion to the quality of the "vessel" into which it is poured. Like Fletcher's shepherds, such characters are identified by the quality of their love more than by strength of will.

Britomart, like Sidney's two heroes, is marked from the outset for greatness. When she first views Artegall in Merlin's magic mirror, she falls instantly in love, and Merlin interprets her glance into the charmed glass as "the streight course of hevenly destiny" (III.iii.xxiv.3). For all that, Spenser insists upon the physically passionate aspect of her love:

Sithens it hath infixed faster hold
Within my bleeding bowels, and so sore
Now ranckleth in this same fraile fleshly mould,
That all mine entrailes flow with poysnous gore,
And th'vlcer groweth daily more and more.

Beaumont and Fletcher stress this feature of passion more with Arbaces than Fletcher does with Amoret. Unlike Arbaces's amorous passion, Britomart's inspires her to a series of virtuous exploits, so that her deeds and the supernatural sanction help establish her identity as heroic; Arbaces's valorous exploits on the battlefield occur before he experiences the test of passion that determines his regal identity. Britomart begins her adventures with the stamp of nobility; Arbaces's passion warrants this stamp. Fletcher must have felt the challenge of basing identity upon feelings when he confined all the varieties of passion to shepherds without regard to external endorsement by a social hierarchy. According to his preface to the quarto of The Faithful Shepherdess, the differentiations caused problems for his audience who expected to see "a play of country hired shepheards, in gray cloakes, with curtail'd dogs in strings." Instead, they should "remember Shepherds to be such, as all the ancient Poets and moderne of understanding have receaved them: that is, the owners of flockes and not hyerlings." In other words, the audience should not conceive them as base rustics for whom the passions of love would be inappropriate. Theater-goers were accustomed to seeing a princess feel heroic passion, but not to seeing extraordinary passion itself as a fundamental differentiating characteristic.

It is hardly surprising that Beaumont and Fletcher, given the poor reception of The Faithful Shepherdess and The Knight of the Burning Pestle, plays written individually, would in their collaborations be attracted to stories about misunderstandings and failures of judgment. Both Philaster and A King and No King, although they continue Fletcher's interest in the value of intense passion, concern themselves as much with characters who fail to understand and judge those passions adequately. These plays hold up characters like Amoret for the audience's admiration but also dramatize in detail obtuse characters who fail to admire them. Many episodes turn upon the difference between those who take a mundane outlook and those who acknowledge the exceptional. Mundane characters expect the usual to occur and guide their lives by the square of prudence; characters of heroic dimensions, driven by their extreme passions, attempt and achieve what would otherwise seem impossible.

The initiating predicament in Philaster moves the play toward Guarini's model and away from the schematized variations derived from Spenser. In both Il Pastor Fido and Philaster, the rulers arrange an obviously wrongheaded marriage for interests of state. Unlike Guarini, Beaumont and Fletcher reveal almost immediately to the audience that Princess Arethusa's true love could solve the difficulties between Sicily and Calabria. She loves not Pharamond, the vain prince of Spain selected by her father, but Philaster, the true heir to the throne of Sicily, displaced by her father. When Arethusa first discloses her true feelings to Philaster, Beaumont and Fletcher pitch their dialogue at a high degree of intensity: love for Arethusa and Philaster is a matter of life or death. Arethusa says that she must either have her "wishes" "or I dye, by heaven I die" (I.ii.55). Philaster matches her vehemence with his response: "Love you, / By all my hopes I doe, above my life" (I.ii.92-93). To underline the exceptional quality of Arethusa's passion, Beaumont and Fletcher give her several references to the hand of the gods:

You Gods that would not have your doomes
Whose wholy wisedomes at this time it is,
To make the passions of a feeble maide,
The way unto your Justice; I obay.

Elsewhere she says, '"Tis the gods, / The gods, that make me so" in explaining to Philaster the intensity of her love for him. By showing in the second scene of the play how the intense passion of the hero and heroine could solve political difficulties and by intimating the approval of the gods, the playwrights move swiftly to provide external endorsements and win the audience's acknowledgement of the value of their feelings. Convinced of mis evaluation, the audience then watches the wrongheaded characters fumble toward a similar outlook by the end of the play. The happy conclusion thus becomes as much an agreement in judgment as it is a joining of the lovers in marriage.

Once the solution to the initial difficulties is suggested by Arethusa's possible marriage to Philaster, the playwrights introduce a series of intervening events that nicely exploit the implications of the opening scenes. As one might expect, the hero and heroine, who declare so readily their willingness to die for their love, are put to the test. The action moves into a forest not unlike the dark and magical woods of The Faithful Shepherdess, where restraints fall away and confusion reigns. They are pushed to the test by misunderstandings and mistrust that fail to take account of exceptional behavior and extraordinary love. The complication is triggered by Megra's slander of Arethusa. At the moment when Megra's lust is being exposed, she deflects attention to Arethusa by exploiting what from Megra's viewpoint is a probability: Arethusa's lust for her attractive young page, Bellario. Megra's slander unintentionally enlists Dion in her cause. He is the sensible, plain speaker who serves throughout the first section of the play the role of the reliable commentator, the role that Mardonius takes in A King and No King and Ismenus takes in Cupid's Revenge. When Dion hears Megra's accusation, he is willing to believe the worst since he knows the ways of the world and takes the opportunity to turn Philaster against Arethusa for the practical purpose of regaining his throne. Dion miscalculates, for he fails to take account of Philaster's extraordinary love that has become a defining part of himself. Far from agreeing to wrest the throne from Arethusa's father, Philaster sees himself to be a rejected lover, not a displaced ruler, and envisions a life apart from society in the forest. There he comes upon Arethusa in the arms of her page Bellario. He gives what he sees the worst interpretation, as Perigot does to the "facts" about the false Amoret.

Just as Perigot stabs the true Amoret in his anger, so Philaster stabs Arethusa in his despair, but unlike the shepherd, both Arethusa and Philaster, true to their earlier statements about the value of their love, request death from one another in their dismay over their situation. Philaster takes up his sword and asks Arethusa to help guide it to execute "justice," when suddenly the Country Fellow enters, speaking prose, eager to catch a glimpse of the King and his courtiers hunting in the forest. Like Philaster who earlier comes upon Bellario comforting the faint Arethusa, the Country Fellow misinterprets what he sees and rushes to rescue a helpless woman from a dastardly attacker. His prosaic outlook throws into relief the operatic behavior of the hero and heroine, whose intense passions allow for no thoughts of moderation or practicality. The intrusion of the Country Fellow dislo cates the audience's attitude by introducing everyday standards that move events from the edge of tragedy toward comedy. They are thus shaken from a frame of mind which has adjusted to the scope of Philaster's outlook—that his love for Arethusa is indeed a matter of his identity and thus a matter of life or death. The title page of the quarto, which exhibits a woodblock of the episode, confirms the centrality of this moment in the play, a moment that dramatizes "the danger, not the death." Our involvement in the heroic passion of Philaster and Arethusa suddenly has been qualified; the upshot of this qualification does not become clear until the final moments of the play when we discover the true identity of Bellario and the effects of her passion.

The extent to which the audience shares Philaster and Arethusa's outlook can be measured by our judgment of Philaster as he flees for his life, having been wounded by the Country Fellow. He wounds in turn Bellario to create a decoy for the King's party of searchers. Certainly Philaster's action is practical, but we judge him as small when he instinctively tries to preserve his life. The play has had its way with us, so that we take the heroic gestures of self-sacrifice by Arethusa and Bellario to be the standard of conduct. When Philaster comes to a full recognition of their willingness to die for their love, their integrity needs no "facts" to reverse his judgment. He assumes his earlier heroic stance, purified of practical calculations, when he offers his life to the King: "By the Gods it is a joy to die, / I find a recreation in't" (V.iii. 103-04). The comic aspect of this extravagance fades somewhat if Philaster is compared with Pharamond, who trembles for his life when taken captive by the threatening but jolly citizens. The retreat into the forest, then, provides the occasion for Arethusa and Bellario to affirm their integrity as they lay their lives on the line, and for Philaster to regain his when he regains his judgment of their true worth. It would not be farfetched to describe the play as the education of Philaster, who awakens to the actuality of total devotion, the consequence of heroic passion.

Yet the play ends not with Philaster's enlightenment and subsequent marriage, but with the disclosure of Bellario's identity. This disclosure can be described as the playwrights' "trick" by those who find the facts about Euphrasia essential to the happy ending, but it is the King, not Philaster, who needs such facts and pushes to the ultimate revelation. Philaster has been convinced of Arethusa's trustworthiness. The King, throughout the play, has failed to take account of the exceptional. It is he who proposes the "practical" marriage of Arethusa to Pharamond, and it is he who believes Megra's accusation, thereby refusing to give the benefit of the doubt to his own daughter. Like him, Dion is practical; he seizes the opportunity of slander to lie in order to motivate Philaster; and he too never suspects the extraordinary passion and equally extraordinary conduct of his own daughter. The final disclosures enlighten those who fail to trust and interpret conduct by standards based upon ordinary behavior. In cases of slander like Megra's, there can usually be no facts to decide the issue of chastity for convincing doubters. The very nature of the trick, the improbability of a situation where the page turns out to be a woman, makes the very point that a "trick" is necessary where trust should prevail. Judgment should take into account behavior that can transcend the average, the probable, and even the practical. What Philaster relearns in the forest both the King and Dion learn with the final disclosure about Bellario.

By ending the play not with marriage but with disclosure, the playwrights address the problem of judging heroic passion in the perspective of tragicomedy, admirable from the tragic or heroic, grandiose from the comic or practical viewpoint. Although the emphasis comes down on the heroic and exceptional, the play can hardly be accused of rejecting Thomas Wright's square of prudence and rule of reason. Bellario's very career points to the bifold judgment provoked by the play. She could have prevented all the difficulties consequent upon Megra's slander by revealing her own identity as Euphrasia. But the absoluteness which governs her dedication to her vow governs her love for Philaster and leads to her willingness to sacrifice her life to save his, a willingness that opens his eyes to her loyalty and reverses the tragic chain of events. Guarini adapts Aristotle's dictum about the best plot for tragedy so that, in the best plot for tragicomedy, the cause of tragic danger becomes the cause of the comic resolution. Bellario's intense devotion works bom ways; so does Philaster's love for Arethusa. The complexity of the tragi-comic design thus evokes a complexity of judgment. Neither unqualified approval nor unqualified disregard of heroic behavior or practical behavior will do. As we have seen, Bellario, Arethusa, and Philaster, through their willingness to sacrifice themselves, push events to the brink, but so do Dion and the King's practical calculations. The heroic characters' willingness to sacrifice themselves leads to the happy ending, but so do the actions by the Country Fellow, Dion, and the citizens. Philaster dramatizes a picture of human conduct that neither fully endorses Thomas Wright's standards for controlling passions, nor rejects them; it is a picture that urges the audience to take account of the exceptional.


A King and No King, placed in the context of Beaumont and Fletcher's earlier plays and their sources, can be seen as a provocative reworking of their interest in extraordinary passion as a basis of heroic identity rather than as a dangerous force to be mastered, extraordinary insofar as it drives a character beyond all calculations of prudence and the accepted laws of reason to ultimately beneficial results. By casting this passion in the form of incest, the playwrights present their case at its most challenging because incest is probably as horrifying a consequence as one could imagine in arguing the case against uncontrolled passion. Unlike Arethusa's love for Philaster, seen from the outset with political and divine endorsements, Arbaces's love for his sister runs counter to all sanctions. Only the love of Guarini's faithful shepherd compares with Arbaces's in the number of prohibitions apparently against his love, but Mirtillo feels an inner conviction about his passion that Arbaces lacks. Stripped of all supports, Arbaces's passion is the thing itself, irresistible before the ultimate taboo. Dramatized in these all-or-nothing terms, it is the stuff of tragedy, unlike Arethusa's love for Philaster, which is typical of romance. In this later play, Beau-mont and Fletcher reduce the trappings of romance for the sake of verisimilitude characteristic of tragedy: no retreats into the forest, no oracles, no priests, no magic wells. Arbaces's situation fits literally the requirements implied by the name of the genre, tragi-comedy, more evocative of Seneca than of Sidney. The features of comedy and romance—the slapstick evoked by Bessus's ridiculous pursuit of honor and the strong-willed maiden in disguise—separate themselves for the most part into subplots to serve as contrasts with the episodes concerning incestuous passion. The only way to resolve Arbaces's problem happily is for the playwrights to shift the terms of the opposition: things are not what they seem. It is this shift which has annoyed critics and made the play more provoking than provocative. The case against incest, so fiercely presented through the first four acts, turns out not to be the case at all.

Moreover, the disclosures alter the mode from the verisimilitude of tragedy to the implausibilities characteristic of romantic comedy, involving secret parents and a babe exchanged at birth. Yet this mixture, so strange to a palate accustomed to tragedy or comedy, may be part of the playwrights' generic arrangement. The cause of the reversal, Arbaces's extraordinary passion, is the very same cause of the initial difficulty, a fact that indicates some care about genre in the planning. And, too, the dramatic irony works upon the audience to strengthen the provocative impact, not as it works in Philaster with the audience against the misjudgments of wrongheaded characters. This provocation, as I see it, leads the audience to reconsider their understanding about passion: not to abandon their principles about the need for restraints, but to apply their principles with flexibility by acknowledging the possibility of exceptions. Both Philaster and A King and No King resemble one another in their focus upon judgment, but the later tragicomedy uses devices more directly disturbing to the audience, cast in a role comparable to Dion's in Philaster.

Four acts of the play make the case for Thomas Wright's moderation of the passions. The very source of the names of Tigranes, Panthea, and Gobrius, taken from Xenophon's Cyropaedia, gives external support for this plan. At least one of the playwrights had studied this epical narrative about a practical and temperate soldier and king, who never suffered defeat. Scattered through the eight books are passages of advice like this one:

And by making his [Cyrus's] own self-control as an example, he disposed all to practise that virtue more diligently. For when the weaker members of society see that one who is in a position where he may indulge himself to excess is still under self-control, they naturally strive all the more not to be found guilty of any excessive indulgence.


This passage could have appeared in Erasmus's The Education of a Christian Prince or King James's Basilicon Doron. Certainly, the character of Cyrus, as it emerges from his prudent management of his troops, his exercise of temperance, his piety and his loyalty, could be taken by sixteenth-century rulers as an ideal. Arbaces, who conquers the Armenian forces not by a cautious deployment of his troops but by a challenge of Tigranes to single combat, strikes us as a rash contrast. Beaumont and Fletcher, as if to enforce this impression, never disclose why Arbaces's Iberian army was fighting the Armenians, aside from the glory of the enterprise. Cyrus, on the other hand, fights for payment of tribute money, for loyal supporters, for self-defence, but not for mere personal honor. Thomas Wright could have explained Cyrus's actions by the square of prudence and the rule of moderation, but not Arbaces's.

Panthea in the Cyropaedia, the beautiful wife of Abradates of Susa, no doubt attracted Beaumont and Fletcher by her resemblance to the faithful shepherdess Amoret. Xenophon's Panthea remains true to her noble husband even to the point of killing herself at his funeral after he dies an honorable death in battle, fighting for Cyrus. Earlier her husband fights on the side against Cyrus, and she is taken prisoner by Araspas, one of Cyrus's captains. Araspas becomes enraptured of her beauty and urges Cyrus to view his rare captive. Cyrus, characteristically prudent, refuses to be tempted because he knows the danger in beauty. Araspas disagrees, arguing that beauty need not cause love since love is a matter of free will:

But of beautiful things we love some and some we do not; and one loves one, another another; for it is a matter of free will, and each one loves what he pleases. For example, a brother does not fall in love with his sister, but someone else falls in love with her; neither does a father fall in love with his daughter, but some-body else does; for fear of God and the law of the land are sufficient to prevent such love.


This discussion about the control of passions happens to be the very topic which occupied Beaumont and Fletcher from their collaboration upon Cupid's Revenge. Araspas's mistaken argument, which cites incest to clinch his belief in man's ability to control his passions, could well have been the seed for A King and No King. As events turn out, Araspas finds that he loses control, falls in love with Panthea, and brings shame upon himself by threatening her in order to win her submission.

Tigranes, the primary example of self-control in A King and No King, takes his name from one of Cyrus's captains, who joins Cyrus after Cyrus has outmaneuvered and conquered Tigranes's father, the King of Armenia. In the play it is Arbaces who conquers Tigranes, the King of Armenia. Xenophon's Tigranes pleads with Cyrus for his father's release from imprisonment, saying that the King has been punished by fear and has learned discretion (III.i. 16-18). By implication, the son too has learned a lesson from his father's mistake in refusing to pay tribute to Cyrus. Cyrus accepts Tigranes's argument, releases the King, and gains Tigranes's loyalty, for Tigranes follows Cyrus throughout the Cyropaedia as a stalwart supporter. The point to be stressed in the similarity between Xenophon's character and the dramatic Tigranes is his secondary role. The dramatic character masters his passion for Panthea and thereby serves as the embodiment of temperance to contrast with Arbaces. As admirable as Tigranes is, he never escapes the fact that he remains Arbaces's prisoner throughout the play, already defeated in single combat when the play begins, released at the conclusion to return to rule Armenia with Spaconia as his queen. This secondary position casts a shadow over his self-control: does he control his passions not so much because his will is stronger but because his passions are weaker? If Tigranes were meant to serve as our standard of judgment, then Gobrius's plot to bring about the happy ending must be viewed as wrongheaded. Yet, had Arbaces followed Tigranes's example and behaved temperately, the true ruler would have been deprived of the Iberian throne, and Arbaces would have lacked the final sanction as king.

Gobrius, the third name to be derived from the Cyropaedia, belongs to aggrieved fathers in both the drama and the epic. Xenophon's Gobrius gets revenge upon his Assyrian king, who killed Gobrius's son in anger for besting him in a hunt. In short, Gobrius suffers from a ruler who could not control his temper. Beaumont and Fletcher's Gobrius protects his son from Queen Arane's attempt to kill him by fostering an uncontrollable passion in his son for Queen Arane's daughter. Like Panthea and Tigranes, the dramatic counterpart serves a thematic purpose the very opposite to that of his namesake.

From the outset of the play, Beaumont and Fletcher give indications that the problem of judging Arbaces lies at the center of the dramatic action. Before he sees his sister and falls in love with her, he behaves in ways that defy a simple favorable or unfavorable judgment. Like Araspas, he thinks he can control love, confident that when Tigranes sees Panthea, he will want to marry her. To help guide our attitude toward Arbaces, the playwrights use the trustworthy old captain, Mardonius, whose prudent outlook resembles Cyrus's, so that he could very well have stepped from the Cyropaedia, although he has no namesake there. When Arbaces boasts about his victory in a style reminiscent of Tamburlaine, Mardonius undercuts his vainglory and at the same time shows the justness of tempered praise: "Would you but leave these hasty tempers, which I doe not say take from you all your worth, but darken um, then you would shine indeede" (I.i.360-62). He speaks with a voice of moderation, neither endorsing Arbaces's extreme behavior nor overlooking his heroism. From among his balanced comments one can be chosen for its portentous, although unintended, irony: "Yet I would have you keepe some passions, least men should take you for a god, your vertues are such" (I.i.364-65). In some ways Mardonius sounds like a moderating interlocutor from a Senecan tragedy, but in all probability he was modeled after Shakespeare's Enobarbus [in Antony and Cleopatra], whose prudence and scepticism help the audience adjust to Antony's extravagant passions and behavior. Enobarbus's practical soldiership cannot finally take the full measure of Antony's stature, as Enobarbus comes to realize after he defects and thus dies of a broken heart from his misjudgment. A King and No King, as a tragicomedy, does not push matters that far. Mardonius is put to the test when Arbaces discloses his incestuous desires in Act Three. As we would expect, Mardonius recoils in horror but does not abandon his leader in total disgust. It is Gobrius, not Mardonius, who possesses the fullest grasp of events, and as Gobrius's viewpoint comes to dominate events in the last section of the play, Mardonius as spokesman for received values fades in importance.

Bessus, the low comic figure, for all his apparent irrelevance to the audience's problem of gauging their attitude toward the protagonist, does affect it. An utter coward, Bessus runs by mistake toward the enemy in battle and shares inadvertently in Arbaces's victory. With impudent boasts, he exploits his good fortune—boasts which bear an uncomfortable resemblance to Arbaces's speeches about his triumph over Tigranes. Whereas the contrast between the low comic coward and the valorous king remains the dominant impression, the similarity is strong enough to affirm the critical reservations expressed by Mardonius of Arbaces. Later in the play, a parallel works in the opposite way to enforce a contrast. Bessus, in his effort to thrive, shows himself to be the amoral courtier, ever eager to please his king. He listens to Arbaces's tortured confession of incestuous feelings without so much as the blink of an eye and promptly agrees to serve as go-between with Panthea. As an afterthought, to impress Arbaces with his efficiency, Bessus volunteers to solicit the King's own mother. Now it is Arbaces's turn to recoil in horror at the moral insensitivity of another character.

Yet it is Bessus's pursuit of honor that dominates the dramatic life of this character and creates, although obliquely, the strongest impact upon the audience's respons es to the question of Arbaces's identity as king. Bessus's boasts about his soldiership make him the victim of slap-stick for those who cannot abide his obvious hypocrisy. Despite the humiliations, he persists in his pursuit of "honor" with a comic resilience that helps win the audience's good-natured indulgence of his shortcomings. His efforts to buy the testimonies of authorities about his honor and his transparent evasions of challenges to prove his valor give comfort to the audience that things are what they seem. No one mistakes Bessus's character; he cannot gain a reputation for qualities he does not have. Just as the audience takes comfort in Mardonius's voice of moderation, so they feel reassured by the ease of judging Bessus. He appears to live in a world where deceptions never work, where reputations coordinate with inner qualities, where identities are unmistakable. Bessus could hardly be described as "a coward and no coward."

Even in the first four acts when Mardonius and Bessus exert their influence, the audience should resist being seduced by their simplified version of the world because it has overheard Gobrius talking to Arane about secret past events. Why does Arane want to kill her own son? This question hangs over subsequent events and should caution against hasty estimates about the way things are. Beaumont and Fletcher introduce Ligones in Act Five to renew this caution. From the viewpoint of the main story, Ligones would appear to be a totally extraneous character; the presence of Spaconia's father makes no difference to the outcome of the play. Ligones suddenly arrives from Armenia, expecting to confirm his worst speculations about his daughter, whose love for Tigranes has led her to risk her reputation, if not her life, by following him into captivity. The father discovers Spaconia living in prison with Tigranes and places the worst interpretation upon the situation, calling his daughter a whore on the assumption that she and Tigranes are behaving as ordinary mortals would behave. But the audience knows Spaconia to be far from ordinary in the intensity of her love and character. Appropriately Tigranes has proposed that she become his queen. The reversal of Ligones's judgment when he learns that his daughter is hardly a whore but a queen occurs just before Arbaces learns that his would-be incest is in fact love for a princess and that he is no king. Ligones's enlightenment thus prefigures the reversal in Arbaces's out-look and, of course, the audience's. Both Ligones and the audience must come to terms with the fact that extreme passion leads to royalty. Neither Spaconia nor Arbaces was born of royal blood, but their intense love leads them to royal marriages.

Shortly after Ligones's misjudgment, Arbaces makes a similar misinterpretation. When Gobrius says that he is Arbaces's father, Arbaces places the worst interpretation upon the Queen's conduct, only to learn like Ligones that others need not confirm one's usual expectations. The two cases of mistaken judgment, occurring so near one another in the final act of the play, show how the playwrights are preparing the audience for the final disclosures, all of which caution against absolute judgments. Events thus encourage a flexibility of outlook that allows for the un-predictable in human affairs, not only the odd happening, such as Arbaces's exchange at birth, but the exceptional passion, such as Arbaces's love for Panthea.

If the final act of A King and No King were lost, we would no doubt read the remaining four acts to be endorsing temperance as an ideal for human conduct. The unsuspected facts of Arbaces's birth and Gobrius's plot, introduced in Act Five, throw us off balance and remove our confidence in judging all cases by one standard: temperate conduct need not be best for all in all circumstances. This outlook in some ways recalls Fletcher's viewpoint in The Faithful Shepherdess, where Amoret and Clorin remain exempt from the problems of the other characters who struggle to control their passions. In both plays some characters show themselves to be outstanding exceptions to general rules of conduct, although Amoret calls into question prudence, not restraint, as Arbaces does. But the sudden readjustment of attitude evoked by the disclosures of Gobrius's plot has no counterpart in The Faithful Shepherdess; instead, it recalls the sudden interruption of the deadly serious moment between Philaster and Arethusa by the Country Fellow. There the dislocation of tone throws us off balance to make us realize that our outlook has been too narrowly focused; we must readjust to include, in the earlier play, the everyday viewpoint of the Country Fellow, in the later, the bizarre facts of Arbaces's birth and reassessment of his irresistible passion. Granting the comparison, we still feel that Gobrius's narrative disturbs us far more than the intrusion of the Country Fellow, for we suddenly become aware of the hands of the playwrights manipulating us. We become conscious of the play as an arrangement of events, a consciousness that imparts a hypothetical, even playful, dimension to a drama that for four acts maintains typical dramatic illusion.

To be sure, in all drama we remain somewhat aware that we are attending to a fiction, but style can intensify the verisimilitude; Beaumont and Fletcher, with the improbable facts that solve Arbaces's problem, suddenly call attention to the contrived story, as if to catch us off guard. By breaking through the alternatives for development that Arbaces's story seems to require, the play risks the charge of triviality, and its playwrights the charge of being cynical entertainers. The logic of Arbaces's situation dictates either that he succumb to his passion, an act that would lead to his death, or that he master his passion either by renunciation or by suicide. Tigranes has removed himself, in effect, as a partial solution, husband to Panthea, by managing to redirect his love to Spaconia. The playwrights' actual solution coordinates the esthetic response, to use rough terminology, with the moral response: the sudden shift of tone catches us unprepared, as if to warn us to be on the qui vivre, to be alert to the exceptional.

Coleridge, using Beaumont and Fletcher's tragedies to compare unfavorably with Shakespeare's, complained that they are founded "on some out-of-the-way accident or exceptional to the general experience of mankind." As usual, he placed his finger on an important critical issue. If Beaumont and Fletcher's tragedies exhibit their fasci-nation with the unusual or exceptional, how much moreso do their tragicomedies, for the genre itself encourages this attention. Tragicomedy, as Guarini embodied it in Il Pastor Fido, not only takes account of the unusual, but holds it up for praise. "Wonder" is a characteristic response to his form. The heroic, as it appears in the tragicomedies of Beaumont and Fletcher, must be differentiated from the heroic as Sidney describes it in An Apology for Poetry: not as an example to admire and imitate, but an exception to be wondered at. Giason Denores protested Guarini's new amalgam because in his view there were only two dramatic genres, tragedy and comedy, sanctioned by nature and the ancients. Guarini countered by urging a flexibility toward changing circumstances: since Christians experience an outlook on life different from that of Greek and Roman audiences, it is only natural that their dramas should take new forms to render their new experiences. It is hardly surprising that Beaumont and Fletcher also see in the tragicomic genre the potentiality for encouraging a flexibility of response toward the surprising and outstanding, a readiness for the wondrous exception.


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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 audience. The purpose of this paper is not to dispute the dictum but to analyze Philaster as an exception which apparently has gone unnoticed, and to demonstrate that, even as an exception, the play is significant in showing the direction of the political winds in early seventeenth-century England.

In what may be called the political aspect of the plot of Philaster, the citizens are the dominant force. They are the means by which the usurping king of Sici.y is deposed, the interloper Pharamond shipped back to Spain, and Philaster restored to his rightful inheritance. The result is not achieved by a tour de force at the end. Their importance is announced in the first scene and referred to at occasional intervals; the audience is not only not allowed to forget them, but is compelled to think of them as being an integral part of a well planned play.

In the opening conversation between two courtiers, Dion and Cleremont, the potency of the people's will is suggested. The Spanish prince Pharamond, says Dion, will find it difficult, even through marriage with Princess Arethusa, to keep the crown of Sicily, "the right Heir … living, and living so vertuously, especially the people admiring the bravery of his mind, and lamenting his injuries."

The reigning king is, in intention, a king by divine right. Though not unaware that the hydra-headed public must be appeased (as witness the rumor, reported by Dion, that "the King labours to bring in the power of a Foreign Nation to aw his own with"), he does not willingly concede their importance. In publicly proclaiming Pharamond his heir, his major purpose, he tells Pharamond, is

                             to confirm
The Nobles, and the Gentry of these Kingdoms,
By oath to your succession.

Indeed, his lofty conception of a king's estate, which brooks no demur even from noble or gentry, would do credit to James himself. In substance, his grandiose speeches claim for him the same illimitable, if vague, authority which James claimed in theory. To him apparently, as to James, "royal authority was … a mystery, not to be explained or argued about, but to be piously accepted with a 'mystical reverence.'" In the hunting scene in Act IV, when his demand that the lost Arethusa be found and brought to him proves futile, he exclaims in anger:

           what am I not your King?
If I, then am I not to be obeyed?

And he swells to rhetoric when he has to repeat his demand:

                    'tis the King
Will have it so, whose breath can still the winds,
Uncloud the Sun, charm down the swelling Sea,
And stop the Flouds of Heaven.

Stripped of its bombast, it is a claim to absolute power, not different in essence from that claimed by James. One who exercises authority by divine right is only a step from godhood, as James himself avowed [in "A Speach to the Lords and Commons of the Parliament at White-Hallon Wednesday the XXI of March. Anno 1609"]:

For Kings are not onely GODS Lieutenants vpon earth, and sit vpon GODS throne, but euen by GOD himselfe they are called Gods. … In the Scriptures Kings are called Gods, and so their power after a certaine relation compared to the Diuine power. … Kings are iustly called Gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of Diuine power vpon earth: For if you wil consider the Attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a King.

It is usual enough, of course, that a usurping monarch should have to yield, finally, to the rightful heir. What is surprising about this play is that the citizens are made the agents of justice. In Shakespeare's Richard II, for example, though frequent lip service is paid to "the people," they do not enter as characters; the destiny of Richard, and of England, is clearly in the hands of the masterful Bolingbroke and the supporting barons. It is true that in Philaster the real instigators of the revolt are Dion and Cleremont, but the courtiers' part is unobtrusive; it is mentioned in only two places, and there not prominently. The citizens are given the dominant role. In fact, to interpret for the audience the mood and temper of the people seems to be Dion's main function in the political plot. Upon the king's threat to imprison Philaster, Dion murmurs, "… you dare not for the people." He promises Philaster that he will

                   conjure up
The rods of vengeance, the abused people,

who shall restore the kingdom to its rightful owner.

In Act III, when Megra's slander against Arethusa has received general acceptance in the court, Dion and Clere-mont, no longer bound by loyalty to Arethusa or desirous of her union with Philaster, sigh impatiently for Philaster to rise and claim his own, saying that "the Gentry do await it, and the people." Philaster entering at this juncture, they urge revolt upon him in the name of "the Nobles, and the people." The importance of the people as a political force is further shown when Philaster is carried off to prison for his attack upon Arethusa in anger at her supposed misconduct: Cleremont is worried lest "this action lose … Philaster the hearts of the people."

It does not. In Act V the instigation to rebellion bears fruit. The citizens take Pharamond prisoner and rise in a mutiny which threatens the king as well. That mighty sovereign, who a moment before was angrily denouncing the newly reunited Philaster and Arethusa, now pleads with Philaster in a frenzy of fear:

                      Calm the people,
And be what you were born to: take your love,
And with her my repentance, and my wishes,
And all my prayers, by the gods my heart speaks this:
And if the least fall from me not perform'd,
May I be struck with Thunder.

In plot alone the part of the citizens is given equal importance with the conventional devices by which the romantic story is developed to its happy ending. But from an analysis of the citizens themselves and their relation to other characters, emerge some interesting facts—not to say discrepancies—which make the indisputable importance of "the people" all the more surprising. The courtiers who are quietly responsible for the rebellion seem to have the usual aristocratic contempt for the character and the intelligence of the common people. In the opening scene of the play Dion speaks of the "multitude … that seldom know any thing but their own opinions," a line which the con-text suggests is intended to characterize them as ignorant, uninformed, emotionally unstable. It is true that in Act V Dion apostrophizes them as "brave followers," as "fine dear Countrymen," but the terms are an expression of his delight at their revolt. His real opinion is voiced in a comment to Cleremont:

Well my dear Countrymen, what ye lack, if you continue and fall not back upon the first broken shin, I'le have you chronicled, … prais'd, and sung in Sonnets, and bath'd in new brave Ballads, that all tongues shall troule you in Saecula Saeculorum my kind Can-carriers.

Another Lord also fears their cowardice and instability of purpose:

What if a toy take 'em i'th' heels now, and they run all away, and cry the Devil take the hindmost?

The citizens, in fact, except for the serious business of securing the kingdom, are made objects of more or less kindly ridicule. They display the rough bawdy humor found in many plays of the middle class. And their Captain, who is their chief spokesman, comports himself with a bluff heartiness reminiscent of Simon Eyre in [Thomas Dekker's] The Shoemaker's Holiday. A seventeenth-century aristocratic audience would no doubt have found in him a target for pleasantly condescending mirth.

An important contrast in attitude, however, is afforded by Philaster, who treats the citizens with grave respect. His manner towards them is restrained, moderate, sincere. It has none of the contemptuous implications of the courtiers'; none of the bombast of the king's; nothing suggesting the weakness of character that distinguishes him in the purely romantic plot. When he has rescued Pharamond and calmed the popular frenzy, he dismisses the citizens with quiet courtesy and firmness:

Good my friends go to your houses and by me have
  your pardons, and my love,
And know there shall be nothing in my power
You may deserve, but you shall have your wishes.
To give you more thanks were to flatter you,
Continue still your love, and for an earnest
Drink this.

So, one might conclude, the relations between sovereign and subject should be. One can almost imagine Queen Elizabeth, in diplomatic mood, tactfully and shrewdly ensuring the loyalty of the middle class, which contributed so largely to Tudor strength. And the citizens go as requested, praising Philaster and rejoicing in their good fortune. The political action ends here. The remainder of the play disposes of various unfinished business in the romantic plot. It is an impressive ending for the citizens, demonstrating their power and, as well, the desirable relationship between a ruler and his people.

Such, it seems to me, must be the impression left by the citizens if the play is read carefully. One can grant that Philaster is primarily romantic in interest, its major appeal directed to the fashionable audiences in the Jacobean theatres; can recognize that the outspoken criticism of the king is, after all, criticism of a usurper (and, as such, to be welcomed by a lawfully reigning king); must admit that the courtiers are really, albeit unobtrusively, responsible for the rebellion and that they are contemptuous of the human agents they use to consummate it—yet the fact remains that in the political action of the play the citizens are the decisive force. Their importance is not only admitted; it is made emphatic. And that fact has at least the significance of a straw in the wind. The play ends with pious moralizing of the king:

                     Let Princes learn
By this to rule the passions of their blood,
For what Heaven wills, can never be withstood.

He finds it expedient to attribute certain events to Heaven, but even a seventeenth-century audience must have seen that Heaven had appointed the citizens as its agents. In the first of the play no king could have been more plainly an absolute monarch in intention; in the last none could be more clearly amenable to the popular will. It was the seventeenth-century Puritans that about forty years after the first performance of Philaster were to make a practical demonstration of popular sovereignty.

This recognition of the power of the people and the fallibility of the sovereign appears to be Beaumont's rather than Fletcher's. In the passages quoted the significant speeches are commonly attributed to Beaumont. Seven other plays in which the relation of ruler and subject is mentioned seem to offer confirmation that Fletcher's views were uncompromisingly royalist. Of one, A King and No King, Beaumont and Fletcher are joint authors. In this play there is little of political implication, since the personal rather than the kingly qualities of Arbaces are stressed, and since, after some talk of conquest at the beginning, it is largely a story of romantic love. But in Act II, as the king returns triumphantly to his own country, the citizens (London citizens, need it be said?) turn out to greet him. Everything he says to them, though egotistical, is conciliatory in tone. His first speech is particularly significant:

I thank you all, now are my joyes at full, when I behold you safe, my loving Subjects; by you I grow, 'tis your united love that lifts me to this height: all the account that I can render you for all the love you have bestowed on me, all your expences to maintain my war, is but a little word, you will imagine 'tis slender paiment, yet 'tis such a word, as is not to be bought but with your bloods, 'tis Peace.

The citizens, though obviously intended to offer comic entertainment, are shown as at least aware that their money has paid for the war; they are perhaps even a little complacent over their value in the kingdom.

Of Valentinian, The Loyal Subject, and The Island Princess Fletcher is sole author. Valentinian talks grandiosely of himself as absolute in power, above the reproaches of men and even of gods, who "as they make me most, they mean me happiest." This exalted conception is also held by his loyal follower Aecius, who declares that

Majesty is made to be obeyed,
And not to be inquired into.

In The Island Princess there is the same conception of royalty, stated by the Princess herself:

                     though I be
A Princess, and by that Prerogative stand free
From the poor malice of opinion,
And no ways bound to render up my actions,
Because no power above me can examine me.

In The Loyal Subject, in spite of the criticism of the Duke made by Theodore and the soldiers, the royalist view is maintained by the uncritical loyalty of Archas throughout and by Theodore's retraction at the end. There is no doubt as to Fletcher's intention to uphold royalty at any cost; he wants us to think of the Duke as a noble, generous ruler, temporarily misled by false counsel.

In three plays of divided authorship the passages which deal with the power of the citizens or the obligations of the sovereign are not from Fletcher's hand. Field is considered responsible for the scene in The Bloody Brother in which Rollo, Duke of Normandy, has to ingratiate himself with the citizens, lest they learn that he murdered his brother wantonly and not in self-defense, as he claims. To Jonson is attributed the nobleman's comment that a prince may send troublesome nobles to the block, but that when they (kings) "once grow formidable to their Clowns, and Coblers, ware then, guard themselves." In Thierry and Theodoret two passages which suggest that kings have an obligation to their subjects and are under some necessity of restraint, are attributed to Massinger. Believed to be also by Massinger is a passage in The False One which, though it clearly shows a subject's loyalty, is characterized by a blunt independence, an insistence on the right of free opinion.

That Fletcher's attitude is thoroughly royalist seems clear from the evidence of these six plays, as well as of the two in which he had a slight share with Beaumont. Valentinian, the play in which blind loyalty is most stressed, is by Fletcher alone. And no passage which lays strong emphasis upon a king's obligation to his subjects can certainly be attributed to Fletcher.

And what of Beaumont? Are we to conclude that he had love and admiration for the common people, the London citizens? The evidence of his plays seems to warrant no such inference. The good-natured tolerance of the middle class shown in The Knight of the Burning Pestle is far removed from positive expression of approval, and is doubtless to be explained on the basis of temperament rather than of social conviction. My belief is that Beaumont, consciously, was a royalist, though, unlike historical dramatists, he did not have to face the issue squarely even in his plays, since they are romantic in scene and story, far removed from the conflicts between James and his subjects. As Wilhelm Creizenach points out [in The English Drama in the Age of Shakespeare, 1916], the attitude of submissive loyalty is particularly noticeable in plays based on English history. But to further statements—"… not one among the dramatists appears to doubt that the duty of the subjects lies in submission, and that kings are responsible to God alone for the manner in which they rule"; "it goes without saying that the downtrodden multitude is never allowed the right to revolt against bad government"—I must at least raise the question of exception. I believe that Beaumont, whether knowing or caring about the implications in his plays, is giving evidence of the changing temper of the English people. He must have been aware of Elizabeth's fear of the Puritans as a political force, young though he was when she died. And he could hardly have failed to be aware, when Philaster (1608/ 1610) and A King and No King (1611) were acted, of the frequent clashes between James and the Puritans, James and Parliament. It is possible, if we accept 1609 or 1610 as the date of its composition, that Philaster had its inception at a time when James himself temporarily relaxed his extreme claims. Though James angrily dissolved his first Parliament in February, 1611, "determined henceforth to carry on affairs free from the vexatious cavilling of a Parliament [G. M. Trevelyan, England under the Stuarts, 1914], the dissolution itself was the unhappy outcome of earlier, and unsuccessful, attempts at compromise. In both 1609 and 1610 he had adopted a conciliatory attitude. One reason was his desperate need of money. Another was the resentment in the House of Commons over James Cowell's The Interpreter, which asserted that the King of England was an absolute king, and therefore had plenary legislative power. Since no book could be printed without a license, every book treating of politics seemed to have the sanction of the state, and the Commons was deter mined to defeat this apparent attack upon its prerogative. The Interpreter was denounced by the House in 1610, and shortly thereafter James suppressed it by royal proclamation. The year before, however, he had disclaimed it publicly. Early in 1609 he sent a message to Parliament by the Earl of Salisbury, then lord treasurer, acknowledging that "he had noe power to make laws of himselfe, or to exact any subsidies without the consent of his 3 estates," and even that the crown had been set on his head by the common law. His own later speech, in March, struck the same conciliatory note, mainly in his emphasis upon the important distinction between the powers possessed by the king in theory and those he found it judicious to exercise in practice. The Parliamentary victory was far in the future—so far, in fact, that many Royalists failed to see the storm gathering upon the distant horizon—but even then to acute observers the winds of change were blowing. It seems not implausible to number Francis Beaumont among those observers, and to see in Philaster a recognition, however slight, of the shifting political current.

Harold S. Wilson (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: "Philaster and Cymbeline," in English Institute Essays, 1951, edited by Alan S. Downer, Columbia University Press, 1952, pp. 146-67.

[In the essay below, Wilson counters assertions by previous critics that Shakespeare's Cymbeline was modeled after Philaster. He accounts for similarities between the plays by stressing that the "situations of the romantic plays of Shakespeare and Beaumont and Fletcher are the materials of romance which they and every other playwright of their time used in common."]

At the beginning of the present century Professor A. H. Thorndike advanced two notable contentions in his book The Influence of Beaumont and Fletcher on Shakespeare [1901]. The first was that Beaumont and Fletcher had introduced a new dramatic genre to the Jacobean stage during the first decade of the seventeenth century, the genre of the heroic romance, with such plays as Philaster, The Maid's Tragedy, and A King and No King. This contention has scarcely been challenged since he so ably presented it, and certainly not successfully challenged. His second contention, however—that Shakespeare followed the fashion set by Beaumont and Fletcher in writing Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest—has proved more controversial, though this contention still carries enough weight to have gained the notice of Granville-Barker [in his Prefaces to Shakespeare, Second Series, 1935] and to have been recently endorsed, with some qualifications, by critics of the distinction of Una EllisFermor [in her Jacobean Drama, 1936] and E. M. W. Tillyard [in his Shakespeare's Last Plays, 1938]. I should like to re-examine Professor Thorndike's second contention in this paper, with particular reference to the analogy he draws between Philaster and Cymbeline.

First, however, we should notice, for the sake of dismissing them, certain gratuitous assumptions which color Professor Thorndike's argument and which have also commended themselves to various later writers. There is the assumption that Shakespeare's latest plays represent a diminution of Shakespeare's dramatic powers, an assumption based upon the feeling that Cymbeline and the plays which followed it are somehow inferior to Antony and Cleopatra and the other tragedies, an assumption common to Professor Thorndike and Lytton Strachey [in his Books and Characters, 1922], but incapable of real demonstration, since the last plays are very different in form and purpose from the great tragedies. Then there is the view (to quote Professor Thorndike) "that Shakspere almost never invented dramatic types. In his earliest plays he was a versatile imitator of current forms, and in his later work he was constantly adapting dramatic types used by other men." Shakespeare, it would seem, lacked the ability, so conspicuous in Beaumont and Fletcher, to mold his own dramatic form. Fortunately, he was clever at imitation and quick to follow the changing fashions set by others. If the Jacobean audiences demanded romances of the Beaumont and Fletcher cut, Shakespeare was their humble servant.

This part of Professor Thorndike's hypothesis is, of course, designed to bolster his main argument that Cymbeline is imitated from Philaster and Shakespeare's last group of plays from the Beaumont and Fletcher type of romance. These assumptions are unsupported by any real examination of the development of Shakespeare's dramatic form. It is simply asserted that Shakespeare was an "adapter and transformer" of other men's work, and we are expected to take this extraordinary assertion as self-evident.

Finally, there is the circumstance, fortunate for Professor Thorndike's argument, that it has not proved possible to establish by external evidence whether Philaster preceded Cymbeline or Cymbeline preceded Philaster. Both plays belong to the period 1608-1610; that is all we may safely assert about their dating. Professor Thorndike, of course, thinks it extremely likely that Philaster came first; but if some unlooked-for evidence should one day turn up to show that Cymbeline preceded Philaster, his hypothesis would be in a sad plight.

Yet although Professor Thorndike's case depends in some measure upon the question of dating and the apparatus of critical assumption that we are agreed, I hope, to dismiss as irrelevant or worse, his argument does not rest simply upon these insubstantial grounds. He bases his contention chiefly upon his demonstration that Beaumont and Fletcher did introduce a new type of dramatic romance to the Jacobean stage during the first decade of the seventeenth century, a type of play different from anything Shakespeare had written before Cymbeline, and upon a detailed analysis of the plot, characterization, style, and stage effects of Philaster and Cymbeline designed to show that the resemblances between these two plays cannot be accidental. To quote his summing up,

there are enough specific similarities to make it very probable that one play was directly suggested by the other. When we remember that both plays were written at nearly the same time, for the same company, and by dramatists who must have been acquainted, the probability approaches certainty. … It is not only practically certain that Philaster was written for the King's Men while Shakespere was still writing for that company; it is also probable that it was written before Cymbeline. In that case we could not escape the conclusion that Shakespere was indebted to Philaster.

Professor Thorndike assumes, with little further argument, that The Winter's Tale and The Tempest belong to the same type as Cymbeline and must therefore reflect a less specific, but still definite, influence of Beaumont and Fletcher. With the latter suggestion we need not much concern ourselves, for the weight of Professor Thorndike's argument rests upon the analogy he traces between Philaster and Cymbeline. We shall accordingly treat that analogy as providing the only substantial ground of his conclusions.

Though it is a great commonplace, it may be remarked by way of preliminary that analogies are often misleading. In literary criticism, especially, they are dangerous tools. With something less than metaphysical ingenuity, one may draw analogies, more or less striking, between Sophocles' Queen Jocasta and the Wife of Bath or between Paradise Lost and Tom Jones; and what has actually been done with Shakespeare's Tempest in this line almost passes belief. By a tactful selection of criteria, it would not be too difficult to argue that both Cymbeline and Philaster are imitated from Robert Greene's James IV or from King Lear. The analogy with Lear, to take but one example from those here suggested, might go like this: Cymbeline is Lear, with one ungrateful daughter instead of three. He is also the father of Arethusa. Iachimo is Edmund, turning his attentions upon Cordelia and Edgar, who are at once Imogen and Posthumus, Arethusa and Philaster. And surely Belarius is an unmistakable Kent, a little damaged by his long exile, whose alter ego is Bellario's father, the Lord Dion. So we might go on; but we have all played this game and need not further remind ourselves that analogy hunting comes easy to an irresponsible fancy.

Part of the trouble with Professor Thorndike's analogy between Philaster and Cymbeline is the highly selective nature of his criteria for comparison and a certain ambiguity about the criteria themselves. This is how Professor Thorndike compares the plots of the two plays:

The historical narrative and the Italian expedition of Posthumus have no parallels in Philaster, and most of the Megra affair and the rising of the mob in Philaster have no parallels in Cymbeline. In the main, however, the plots are strikingly similar.

Imogen, heiress to the throne, is destined by her royal father to marry his boorish stepson, Cloten; but she is wedded to a noble youth, Leonatus Posthumus. Arethusa, only daughter of the King of Calabria, is likewise destined by her father to marry the boorish Spanish prince, Pharamond, but she is in love with Philaster the rightful heir. Leonatus is favorably contrasted by the courtiers with Cloten, and so Philaster is contrasted with Pharamond. Both Leonatus and Philaster are driven from court by the royal fathers. As he is leaving Arethusa's apartments, Philaster has an encounter with Pharamond, and as Leonatus is leaving Imogen, he has an encounter with Cloten. In the absence of Leonatus, Iachimo tries to seduce Imogen, and Pharamond makes similar proposals to Arethusa. Both are repulsed. Iachimo slanders Imogen to Leonatus, and Arethusa is falsely accused to Philaster by Dion. Imogen is brought to despair by Leonatus' letter charging her with unfaithfulness, and Arethusa is likewise in anguish when similarly upbraided to the face by Philaster. Each lover has a passionate soliloquy in which he denounces his mistress and all womankind. Imogen leaves the court in disguise to seek Leonatus and, after dismissing Pisanio, loses her way; and Arethusa parts from the hunting party to wander "O'er mountains, through brambles, pits, and floods." Both, because falsely slandered, wish to die. Each king is very much disturbed at his daughter's absence. Cymbeline accuses Pisanio of knowing where she is, and so Calabria accuses Dion. Arethusa is wounded by Philaster, and Imogen is struck down by Leonatus. Finally the disentanglements of the two plots are made in similar ways. In Philaster, Bellario explains that in spite of her page's clothes she is a woman, and Megra confesses that she has falsely slandered Arethusa. In Cymbeline, Imogen explains and Iachimo confesses. In Philaster, all are forgiven, even Megra and Pharamond; so in Cymbeline Iachimo is pardoned; and in each play the lovers are happily united under the king's favor.

These parallels indicate a close similarity between the two plots, yet after all the similarity does not lie so much in the stories as in the situations. The basis of the Imogen story is probably the ninth novel of the second day in the Decamerone. This story, the story of Iachimo's trick, forms no part of Philaster. To this Iachimo-Imogen story, however, Shakspere added a dozen or so situations which are almost exact counterparts of situations in Philaster.

But a group of dramatic "situations" do not constitute a dramatic action. The situation of Philaster in the opening of his play roughly corresponds to the situation of Hamlet; the situation of Bellario approximates that of Shakespeare's Julia and Viola; and we might easily multiply similar parallels from Much Ado and other of the earlier Shakespearean comedies. But this does not mean that the plot of Philaster derives in any part from Shakespeare. The situations of the romantic plays of Shakespeare and of Beaumont and Fletcher are the materials of romance which they and every other playwright of their time used in common. To select certain stock romance situations from two plays like Philaster and Cymbeline and to conclude from this that one play must be imitated from the other is like comparing, let us say, the David of Verocchio and the Statue of Liberty and concluding that because they contain similar materials the one must be imitated from the other.

By means of this innocent confusion between "plot" and "situation," Professor Thorndike has, in fact, largely avoided comparing the conduct of the action in the two plays. Had he done so with any care, he must surely have concluded that they were very different.

Let us notice some of these differences. The plot of Cymbeline is a double plot in this sense: it is the story of what happened to Imogen and of what happened to her brothers. The two stories are not parallel and do not grow out of each other; each story has a separate exposition, a separate climax, and a distinct culmination. After we have followed Imogen's story for two whole acts, she wanders into her brothers' story by accident, and from then on the two stories are cleverly sandwiched together to produce a finely complicated climax.

The plot of Philaster is nothing like this. From beginning to end it is one story, the story of what happened to Philaster, and the fates of Arethusa and Bellario-Euphrasia are parallel and contrasted plot elements that depend upon Philaster's fate and support his story. The controlling idea of Philaster, again, has nothing to do with Shakespeare's Cymbeline, but rather finds its proper parallel in Fletcher's own Faithful Shepherdess. There we find disinterested love represented in Clorin; normal love in the pairs of Amoret and Perigot, Alexis and the reformed Chloe, Daphnis and the reformed Amarillis; lust in the Sullen Shepherd and the unregenerate Amarillis and Chloe. So in Philaster, Bellario-Euphrasia stands for disinterested love, Philaster and Arethusa for normal love, Megra and Pharamond for lust.

The main sources of Cymbeline are clear enough. Shakespeare retells, whether at first or second hand, the story of the ninth novel of the second day in Boccaccio's Decameron and adds certain materials from [Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland] for his framework and second plot. The sources of Philaster are by no means so clear (though no scholar likes to admit that the authors may have made up the story themselves); but it is at least clear that Philaster is not derived from Boccaccio or Holinshed. Shakespeare must have had a fine time with his sources if he had to watch the plot of Philaster constantly while he was juggling with Boccaccio and Holinshed. According to Professor Thorndike, Shakespeare would have had to turn from Boccaccio's story to elaborate traits and situations for Imogen suggested by the two characters of Arethusa and Bellario; and in modeling his Posthumus upon Philaster he must surely have felt embarrassed to recognize in Philaster traits of his own Hamlet.

But the really essential and decisive difference between the two plots lies in Shakespeare's technique of preparation as distinguished from the Beaumont and Fletcher technique of surprise. [Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his "Characteristics of Shakespeare"] long ago pointed it out: "Expectation in preference to surprize. … As the feeling with which we startle at a shooting star, compared with that of watching the sunrise at the pre-established moment, such and so low is surprize compared with expectation."

In Cymbeline we are prepared to grasp the implications of each situation as it arises, as the actors themselves are not. The effect of such preparation is cumulative. We first see Posthumus's protestation of fidelity to Imogen:

            I will remain
The loyal'st husband that did e'er plight troth.

We then learn of the Queen's poison plot, but neither the Queen, who gives the poison to Pisanio, Pisanio, who gives it to Imogen, nor Imogen, who ultimately takes it, knows what we learn from Cornelius, that it is actually but a sleeping potion. We witness the wager scene, learn all the circumstances of Iachimo's attempt, and see his successful ruse of concealment in Imogen's chamber whereby he betrays both Imogen and Posthumus. From then on (II, iii) we are prepared to observe the mounting irony of the succeeding action. Cloten comes in the morning with his musicians to serenade Imogen, and we have the comic moment of his emphatic rejection. But the comedy is sharply interrupted by Imogen's discovery of the loss of her bracelet; and her premonitory

I hope it be not gone to tell my lord
That I kiss ought but he

reminds us poignantly that the consequences are likely to be far worse than even she knows. With all her high courage, she has no chance of avoiding the snare laid for her; we have seen it, but she has not.

The ensuing scenes gradually increase the sense of horror impending and closing in on its victim. We see Pisanio receive his instructions from Posthumus to kill Imogen on the way to Milford Haven; and though we are slightly reassured by Pisanio's

I am ignorant in what I am commanded,

Imogen's rapturous outburst,

O, for a horse with wings! Hear'st thou, Pisanio?
He is at Milford Haven!

marks for us the beginning of her deepest pathos. The moment of her realization that she has been betrayed is supported for us by her impassioned denial and appeal to Pisanio, whose device of disguising her as a page brings about the reunion with her brothers at the cave of Belarius. Here, for a moment the idyllic setting and the gentleness of her welcome bring a lull in Imogen's misfortunes; but the other shadow of the plot against her, set in motion by Pisanio's parting gift of the Queen's poison, soon closes in again. The sleeping Imogen is placed beside the headless body of Cloten, and she wakens, but dimly realizing her surroundings at first, as she finds the corpse half-concealed with flowers, and the flowers soaked in blood; then the dawning realization that there is no head, that the clothes, the very limbs seem to be her husband's, that Pisanio, as she thinks, has murdered him.

We know better; but it is not this knowledge that matters at the moment, it is Imogen's suffering. And all that separates it from the pathos of Lear's attempts to revive the dead Cordelia is that we are spared the recognition of the inevitability of it all. It comes close to tragedy, so close that in the reunion of Imogen and Posthumus at the end there can be no rejoicing, but only tenderness and tears. It is tragedy subdued to a gentler, a sentimental key, with a consequent loss of intensity. But it is by no means the Beaumont and Fletcher vein of sentimentality.

The opening situation of Philaster shows the hero in love with the Princess Arethusa, whose father intends to marry her to the cowardly Pharamond. Philaster presents his devoted page Bellario to Arethusa as a liaison in forwarding their love. Here is the first major difference in method. Bellario is represented to us as Bellario, a page. We do not learn her proper sex or identity or why she is devoted to Philaster until the very end; so complete is her disguise that her own father, Dion, does not recognize her; indeed, he never gives his daughter a thought, beyond casually mentioning near the beginning of the play (I, i, 333-35) that she has gone on a pilgrimage. We witness Imogen's disguise as a page and fully understand the circumstances of it. All the time she is disguised, our awareness of her identity allows us to understand not merely her actions but also her feelings, and this deepens the pathos of her predicament, especially in the denouement. There is no surprise and no trick about Imogen's disguise; the intention is to let us see all the springs of her actions and to feel the full significance for her of each following situation as it arises.

Bellario's situation actually offers considerable psychological possibilities, but they are deliberately ignored. Bellario loves Philaster and must act as his representative with the woman he loves, who (unlike Viola with the Duke and Olivia [in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night]) also loves him. Furthermore, Bellario is falsely accused of illicit relations with Arethusa, and the man Bellario loves believes the calumny. Philaster unhesitatingly takes the word of Megra and the nobles against Arethusa, whom he loves, and the page, whose single-hearted devotion to himself he has already remarked. When he passionately accuses Bellario face to face, she sadly protests her innocence and her devotion to Philaster; but neither of them seeks an explanation of the misunderstanding, and Philaster's suspicions are but lulled, to rouse with new welcome when he finds Bellario bending over the fainting Arethusa in the hunting scene. He dismisses Bellario (though one might expect a man of such strong feelings to direct his first violence against her; as usual, she seeks no explanation or vindication, but sadly departs), and Philaster exhorts Arethusa to kill him. Since she declines, he wounds her. Philaster, himself wounded by the countryman who intervenes to protect Arethusa, then comes upon Bellario sleeping from exhaustion and wounds her as she lies asleep with this remarkable explanation:

      Hark! I am pursued. You gods,
I'll take this offer'd means of my escape:
They have no mark to know me but my blood,
If she [i.e., Arethusa] be true; if false, let mischief light
On all the world at once! Sword, print my wounds
Upon this sleeping boy! I ha' none, I think,
Are mortal, nor would I lay greater on thee.

The next instant Philaster repents what is surely the most astonishing lapse in any hero of Jacobean romance (though no comment is made upon it anywhere in the play) and urges Bellario to lay the blame for wounding Arethusa upon him, which she, of course, fails to do, taking it upon herself to protect him; then he crawls out of the bushes, where he has impulsively hidden, and assumes it himself, and both of them are arrested.

All of this is, of course, the most evident artifice, and we are not to pause and ask why Bellario and Arethusa and Philaster act at any particular moment as they do. The action is full of excitement, swift turns, and surprises; logical motivation and consistency of character are neglected, that each turn of the plot may be more unexpected than the last.

When the denouement comes, we see the King reconciled to the marriage of Arethusa and Philaster. There has perforce been some preparation for this through Philaster's quelling the popular uprising in his favor and the final discrediting of Pharamond. But the authors have one surprise left. The discredited Megra spitefully renews her accusation of Bellario. The king at once credits Megra and is bent only upon getting a confession from Bellario. He orders the page to be stripped and tortured. Philaster, who must be prevented from spoiling things, is tricked into an oath not to interfere. He offers to kill himself, but no one pays much attention to him. As Bellario is about to be stripped, she is obliged to break her oath (of which we hear now for the first time) and reveal herself as Euphrasia, the Lord Dion's daughter, dedicated to a hopeless love. She assures them that her love is selfless.

                   Never, sir, will I
Marry; it is a thing within my vow;
But, if I may have leave to serve the princess,
I shall have hope to live.

She, at least, has been consistent, and her role is the only element in the play which might tempt one to take it seriously. The beautiful lines she earlier speaks to Philaster:

Alas, my lord, my life is not a thing
Worthy your noble thoughts! 'tis not a life,
'Tis but a piece of childhood thrown away

are of a piece with her modest renunciation at the end; but the picture of a tranqu Il ménage-à-trois with which the play closes is again too much for solemnity. "I, Philaster," says Arethusa majestically,

Cannot be jealous, though you had a lady
Drest like a page to serve you; nor will I
Suspect her living here.—Come, live with me;
Live free as I do. She that loves my lord,
Cursed be the wife that hates her!

We might similarly consider the treatment of Arethusa. Her good name is traduced to her lover, as Imogen's is to Posthumus. But even to suggest the comparison is to see at once its absurdity. Arethusa makes a few rhetorical protestations when she is required to act:

And I (the woful'st maid that ever lived,
Forced with my hands to bring my lord to death)
Do by the honour of a virgin swear
To tell no hours beyond it!

But woeful she is not, unless in the figure she cuts beside the more attractive Bellario, who is obviously the feminine lead. For the most part, Arethusa preserves an inconspicuous calm throughout the tempestuous action to which she is submitted that at least saves her from being altogether ridiculous. Philaster is charming in his way, but he is closer to opéra bouffe or even musical comedy than to tragedy. Posthumus is not one of Shakespeare's strong characters. He is necessarily absent from the action during the middle part of the play, and he is built up for the climax by rather artificial means. But he has dignity and force in the difficult wager scene, and in the end he seems a fitting husband for Imogen, which is all that need be required of him. He lacks the volatility of Philaster, and certainly he is not half so much in love with easeful death. But he belongs in a serious play, and the other does not.

The other characters of Philaster are little more than conveniences of the plot. The King is a good cardboard tyrant, refreshing in his imperiousness because he always seems to know his own mind—which can hardly be said of Shakespeare's Cymbeline—even when he changes it abruptly as the plot requires. Since neither monarch has any clearly marked character, neither needs to reform in order to accept the culmination of events and preside benevolently at the end. Megra is a stock villainess, "a lascivious lady," like Chloe in The Faithful Shepherdess, except that she does not reform; and Pharamond is a stock villain, the cowardly lecher. Beaumont and Fletcher do not run the risk of puzzling their audience—to say nothing of later readers—with the subtler characterization of a Cloten, a bully too dull to know fear. Pharamond is lecherous, boastful, cowardly, and nothing more. The Calabrian lords are a faint and ineffectual chorus, with the prize for fatuity going to Dion, who leads the attempt to turn Philaster from his allegiance to the King by swearing that he has seen Arethusa's misbehavior with the page Bellario.

Thus, to belittle Philaster is not, of course, to do it justice. It is not meant to be a study of human pathos or human character, for all the high-pitched emotional tone of the piece, even to the relatively slight extent that Cymbeline is. Philaster is a lively series of incidents contrived with great ingenuity to provide constant excitement and surprise and to issue agreeably with the recognition and reward of virtue, the dismissal of the wicked in disgrace. And it is nothing more. Cymbeline is, by comparison, more old-fashioned in method, more complicated, and altogether more ambitious. At least as ingeniously plotted, it employs an utterly different method in the conduct of the action: preparation of the audience to perceive the dramatic ironies of situation, the pathos of character, the joys and sorrows of reunion; it aims at effecting the gratification of expectancy rather than the shock of surprise. Cymbeline admits all kinds of ancient romance conventions and stage devices in which Beaumont and Fletcher were little interested—stately pageants, riddles, masques, the god from the machine. The younger dramatists seem to have regarded such effects as unnecessary. Their new technique in the dramatic romance was actually a remarkable simplification of existing stage conventions. In Philaster, apart from the ingenious plotting there is scarcely any conspicuous stage device used save that of disguise—and that in the single example of Bellario. But they carried their economy much further, virtually eliminating character study and stripping the play down to the bare essentials of swift emotional dialogue and clever plot. One might say, if the figure would hold, that Cymbeline is a stately and somewhat overloaded Elizabethan matron, bejeweled and brocaded, with filmy laces, ruff, farthingale, and pelisse, old-fashioned and stiff in fashionable Jacobean society, but still imposing; Philaster is a court shepherdess under the Stuarts, sophisticated to extreme simplicity and as shallow as her simplicity would make her seem.

Cymbeline has fully as much artifice as Philaster, or more, as the foregoing figure would suggest, but it is directed to a more serious end. Philaster is written in the middling mood of pure recreation. Its stormy passions, its perils and reverses, are never meant to be taken seriously. It is like a ride on a roller coaster. It is breathless and exciting, and the whole technique is directed to keeping the roller coaster going through its dizzy swerves and plunges and recoveries, until the ride comes to a delicious end with everybody safe and sound and pleased with the fun—and it may be very good fun, if you happen to like it. Some people do not, and denounce it as a fraud or a menace; but this is not fair to the operators of the entertainment. They had no nefarious design upon the art of the drama, but only strove to amuse people and to make some money in the process.

We have now considered the plots and the characters of the two plays and found them to be in important ways unlike. I am enough of an Aristotelian to think that the action of a play is its essence, that the characters tend to take their natures from the nature of the action—if the playwrights know their business, that is, as Shakespeare and Beaumont and Fletcher undoubtedly do. The characters of a play like Cymbeline are not extracted from suggestions in someone else's play and "stuck on" to the action as one mounts postage stamps in an album. Rather, the impression of character, however impressive or unimpressive it may be, emerges from the developing action, emerges as we watch the characters act. This impression of individual and recognizable characters is very much stronger and subtler in Cymbeline than in Philaster; and so it is not likely that any of the characters of Cymbeline is "imitated," in any meaningful sense, from the characters of Philaster.

It remains to speak of Professor Thorndike's two other criteria, the "style" (or, more precisely, the verse) of the two plays, and the "stage effects"; and this we may do rather briefly. If anyone believes that the verse of one play may be at all successfully imitated from the verse of another play which has an essentially different theme and structure, he does not, to my mind, have a very clear conception of what poetry is like. And as for the stage effects, if Shakespeare, who had been writing successful plays for at least fifteen years before Beaumont and Fletcher started, had to be prompted by these juniors in order to avail himself of the pageantry of the court masques in his last plays, then he must surely have suffered something like that mental crisis and indeed collapse, before or during his famous "last period," of which some critics would fain persuade us. Nothing short of a mental breakdown could explain this extraordinary loss of initiative and command over one of the familiar elements of stage technique that Shakespeare had made skillful use of in plays like A Midsummer Night's Dream and indeed most of the earlier comedies. The hypothesis of a mental collapse during Shakespeare's later years might attract us, were it not for the fact of the plays that he wrote during that time. Of course, there are those who say that the Earl of Oxford wrote them for him.

"The question of Beaumont and Fletcher's influence on Shakespeare," writes Dr. Tillyard, "has, in fact, been warehoused rather than disposed of for good." This paper has attempted to take it out of the warehouse and air it a little. But it has also, I hope, a relevance to the more general issue … of sources and analogues and what use we should make of them in literary criticism. The principle which this paper tends to support, it seems to me, is that the first and best analogue in considering any author's work is that author's other work. Our first critical obligation is to try to understand the author's whole work in all its interrelations. There are, to be sure, many aids to doing this outside the corpus of the author, and the study of his work in relation to its indubitable sources is one of the most important. But we must not confuse sources with partial analogues, nor should we venture to introduce the vague and dubious conception of "literary influence" to explain such partial analogues. For a great author like Shakespeare, we must never lose sight of the aim to comprehend his work as an organic and interrelated whole, growing as a tree grows from a young sapling until it towers above the forest. When we treat some casual or conjectural circumstance—that Beaumont and Fletcher may have written Philaster for Shakespeare's company; that this play or others like it enjoyed such popular success that Shakespeare was bound to imitate them—as of decisive critical importance, we not only imply a decided disparagement of Shakespeare's ability; we disregard the vital principle that Shakespeare's dramatic art was a continuous growth. If we would understand Cymbeline, or any other play of Shakespeare's, we must consider it primarily in relation to the whole body of his work, in relation to this only indubitable evidence of his artistic growth. And the same holds for Beaumont and Fletcher. The best clue to Philaster is not in Cymbeline or any other play of Shakespeare, but in the other plays with which Beaumont and Fletcher, those enterprising and estimable collaborators, graced the Jacobean stage.

John F. Danby (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "Beaumont and Fletcher: Jacobean Absolutists," in Poets on Fortune's Hill: Studies in Sidney, Shakespeare, Beaumont & Fletcher, Kennikat Press, 1952, pp. 152-83.

[In the following essay, Danby explores the ways in which Philaster reflects the concerns and tastes of an aristocratic audience.]

After all, Beaumont and Fletcher were but an inferior sort of Shakespeares and Sidneys.

C. LAMB, Specimens of an English Dramatic
Note on Maid's Tragedy

Charles Lamb's judgment is not likely to be reversed however much the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher are re-read or re-assessed. But something less than justice is done them if the Shakespeare comparison is made prematurely or in the wrong way. In any such comparison they will naturally come out on the wrong side; and they have rarely been read without the motive of comparison in mind. Coleridge, for example, wrote [in his Lectures on Shakespeare]:

The plays of Beaumont and Fletcher are mere agregations without unity; in the Shakespearian drama there is a vitality which grows and evolves itself from within—a key-note which guides and controls the harmonies throughout.

And Lamb [in his note on The Two Noble Kinsmen]:

Fletcher's ideas moved slow; his versification, though sweet, is tedious; it stops every moment; he lays line upon line, making up one after the other, adding image to image so deliberately that we see where they join: Shakespeare mingles everything, he runs line into line, embarrasses sentences and metaphors; before one idea has burst its shell another is hatched and clamours for inclusion.

The more recent reports on their work are in much the same vein. On the question of dramatic workmanship generally Miss Ellis-Fermor [in her Jacobean Drama, 1936] repeats Coleridge's charge: Beaumont and Fletcher sacrifice everything to situation and immediate effect. Lamb's criticism of their verse has been made again, in other words, by Mr. T. S. Eliot [in his Selected Essays]: imagery in the Beaumont and Fletcher verse amounts merely to dead flowers of speech planted in sand. Neither as dramatists nor as poets do they seem to have the roots that clutch. Yet at the beginning of this century Shakespeare's last plays were commonly regarded as having been strongly influenced by Beaumont and Fletcher. And at any time after the death of James I (Fletcher too died in 1625) something like the following comparisons would be made by the polite and instructed reader:

When Jonson, Shakespeare, and thyself did sit,
And sway'd in the triumvirate of Wit,
Yet what from Jonson's oil and sweat did flow,
Or what more easy Nature did bestow
On Shakespeare's gentler muse, in thee full grown
Their graces both appear; yet so, that none
Can say, here Nature ends and Art begins;
But mixt, like th'elements, and born like twins.
          [John Denham, "On Mr. Fletcher's Works"]

Denham need carry no authority, but he is a reminder of the Caroline rating which, as a phenomenon of taste and choice, calls for understanding. There was a time when Beaumont and Fletcher seemed the universal geniuses, combining qualities which avoided on the one hand Jonson's laboured calculation of effect and on the other Shakespeare's merely random happiness:

Manners and scenes may alter, but not you;
For yours are not mere humours, gilded strains;
The fashion lost, your massy sense remains.
       [J. Berkenhead, "On the Happy Collection of
                           Master Fletcher's Works"

The judgment is no doubt a mental aberration. But it was broadspread in the seventeenth century, typical of a class and a time.

I propose now to look at the position Beaumont and Fletcher occupied in their contemporary world; then, to examine what they actually did in one of their serious plays; finally, bearing in mind their present-day neglect, when practically all the other Jacobeans have had their vogue, to hazard a fresh placing of their work from the point of view of a modern observer.


The social positioning of Beaumont and Fletcher has often been noticed. So has the timing of their appearance. The provenance of what they put into their plays has also been commented on. What is most lacking, in their case, would seem to be that which is most needed—the linking of these things significantly, so as to make possible the right groupings and the appropriate comparisons.

Professor A. Harbage [in his Cavalier Drama] has pointed to their special position among dramatists of their time:

In the reign of James a greater number of the writers seem to have been gentlemen by birth, but there is no change in the status of their occupation. Typical of this group was John Fletcher, well-born, and well- nurtured but déclassé he lacked patrimony, his father had died in debt and in royal disfavour. Most dedicatory epistles … were suggestive of mendicancy, and could scarcely be written by the gentle according to the strictures of the day. The one true exception to our rule is Francis Beaumont, his father a judge in a family still prospering. But Francis was a younger son. …

The best sketch of Bishop Fletcher and son (Harrington only portrays the father) is given by Bishop Goodman, that anxious whitener of sepulchres wherever possible:

Doctor Fletcher, dean of Peterborough, he was made almoner and Bishop of Bristol … he was afterwards preferred to London; and there he married my Lady Baker, a very handsome, beautiful woman. … Here many libels were made against him: I remember part of one of them: "We will divide the name of Fletcher; / He, my Lord F.; and she, my Lady Letcher." I think he had a check from the Queen, and died for sorrow. His son was a poet to a playhouse.

[The Court of King James]

Bishop Goodman's professional charity was apt to fail when confronted with failure. He obviously regarded the son's career as a fitting appendage to the father's disgrace. Harrington is kinder to the man by including in his contempt most of the courtier-Bishop's contemporaries:

What shall I say for him? Non erat hoc hominis vitium sed temporis?

[Nugae Antiquae]

The original judgment of Lamb at the head of this chapter may be more fully understood in a social than in a literary sense (though it has the literary implication too). It is important either way that Beaumont and Fletcher had a Bishop and a Judge for their fathers and not a bricklayer or a small country-tradesman. The Great House, however, was not around them, as it was around Sidney: they were, after all, an inferior sort of Sidneys. The Great House was some distance away behind them, or, as an ambition, some distance in front of them: Beaumont actually did marry well and retire from the stage; Fletcher had to be content with the playhouse and the Mermaid. These he maybe succeeded in converting into something agreeable to the court élite—an urban substitute for Wilton and Penshurst.

The precise social placing of Beaumont and Fletcher carried with it specific differences of endowment and interest and intention as compared with those with which the popular dramatist worked. Something more, however, must be added. Beaumont and Fletcher were inferior Sidneys of the second generation. The work done within the Great House itself is different from that work which is based on it (as 'literature') but which is actually done outside its walls by persons whose right of admittance might be a matter for conjecture, for a public that would certainly, in most cases, be excluded. The distinctions are not merely snobbish. The declension is real. In Sidney's day the Great House had been a centre of culture in its own right, independent of the Court. Sidney draws a picture of it in the opening pages of the Arcadia—itself a typical achievement of the Great House in literature. There Lord Kalander can comment critically and with sharp detachment on the sillinesses of King Basilius, who, in leaving his palace and shirking his responsibilities, has fallen away from the standards the Great House expected the Palace to uphold. The Great House and its literature (the Arcadia, The Faerie Queene, the Pastorals, and the petrarchan sonnet-sequences) belonged to the polite Renaissance and to something consciously European. Its works were to stand comparison with those of Greece and Rome, France and Italy: epics in prose or verse compendiously analysing love and the ideal man. Beaumont and Fletcher take over from this tradition the matter of the Arcadian and pastoral and petrarchan, together with the conscious intention of the Great House to achieve literature—the intention, as it becomes with them in fact, to make the popular drama literary. In their case, however, the declension has to be reckoned in: a twofold degeneration, what Harrington would see as vitium hominis et temporis.

The Jacobean phase can best be seen, as the Victorians saw it, in a sinister light. In both politics and letters the Court asserted itself disastrously, to upset a precarious balance. James's claim to the kingly prerogative was not the attempt to retain something which had been granted Elizabeth. It was a bid for something Elizabeth herself had never pretended to, and which (on the terms maintained by James) had never existed. The structure behind Elizabeth's rule had been a confederation of Great Houses. Her power was merely the exertion in a single person of the reason, the competence, the influence, and the desert upon which this confederation (ideally) based itself. In the person of James the Court usurped the place the Great House had occupied. Thereby what Greville called the strong middle wall' was broken. Looking at the disgusting shambles of James's dramatic entertainment for the King of Denmark, Harrington remarked that it was different 'in our Queen's days'. Commenting more widely, a Lord Kalander could have noted almost item by item how James was behaving like Basilius in his dotage. This political depression of the Great House and the values it represented is paralleled in the literary field by James's taking over the Chamberlain's men and making them King's Players, and by his attaching other of the actors' companies to the Queen and the Prince. The influence of the Court seems to have vulgarized both the politics and the literature of the Great House. It coarsened the technique of government and perverted taste.

It is this that makes the timing of Beaumont and Fletcher as important as the placing. The déclassé son of the Bishop and the younger son of the Judge are James's unconscious agents. They are capturing the Great House literature for the courtier, writing for adherents of a Stuart king rather than for Tudor aristocrats. Their work, from one point of view, represents a snobbish vulgarization and a sectional narrowing of the great tradition.

In this Beaumont and Fletcher are not alone, nor are they unrespectable. They occupy very much the same social and literary position as Donne. Donne himself was a marginal beneficiary of the Great House tradition, who survived, depressed and now utterly dependent, to write subserviently under the conditions inaugurated by James.

Donne in his Satyres can claim rightly:

With God and with the Muses I conferre.

Or again:

                                  On a huge hill,
Cragged, and steep, Truth stands …
Keep the truth which thou hast found; men do not
In so ill case here, that God with his hand
Sign'd Kings blanck-charters to kill whom they hate,
Nor are they Vicars but hangmen to Fate.

This has the tone and independence of Kalander and the Great House. In The Sunne Rising (still in the pre-Jacobean period) Donne can also write:

  If her eyes have not blinded thine,
  Looke, and tomorrow late, tell me,
 Whether bot th'India's of spice and Myne
 Be where thou left'st them, or lie here with mee.
Aske for those Kings whom thou saws'st yesterday,
And thou shall heare, All here in one bed lay.
 She is all States, and all Princes, I,
 Nothing else is.
Princes doe but play us; compar'd to this,
All honor's mimique; All wealth alchimie.

It is the same Donne that writes the Satyres and Songs and Sonets. In the Satyres he takes his stand on truth and his own independent experience, on a kind of dignity which he feels due both to God and the Muse. In Songs and Sonets, in spite of the different content, there is a similar tone. The Sunne Rising gets an immediate sanction. It has tenderness, playfulness, impatience, and pride, vigorous courage and tough reasonableness. Its components, matched with hyperbole and conceit, lie well together with each other and with the form in which they are expressed. One feels confident that the poet would put things in right order of priority. Even the final hyperbole is not a lie, or a merely poetic truth. Hyperbole will eventually become one of the main Jacobean vehicles of self-persuasion: here it is the witty stretching of plain sense in order to take in more truth:

She is all States, and all Princes, I,
Nothing else is.

—'She is all the States I care about and am a loyal member of; and I am sole ruler as well as subject in this State, complete servant and complete King. Nothing else is—is important, is as much, is so completely known.'—The 'over'-statement that is presented to a first glance as an extravagance resolves itself, on a second glance, into an interesting exploration of what is generally accepted and acceptable. The effect is carried by the rich ambiguities of 'is', itself capable of meaning everything or nothing: everything if we regard it as saying 'has real Being', nothing if we see it as needing always an extension before it can mean anything; everything and nothing as it means 'is' or 'seems'.

'Is' and 'seems' and the ambiguities playing through them set up a frame that contains what immediately follows—with its almost unnoticeable inversion of what Dr. Richards has called vehicle and tenour:

Princes doe but play us; compar'd to this,
All honor's mimique; All wealth alchimie.

—Love is both an assertion and a surrender of the will, a resolved belief and a rapture. Rule, honours, and token currency are secondary phenomena, social shadows or derivatives or a language for or an expression of the primary society which two lovers form. None of them can stand in their own right, or can be so immediately known, as love can, to be more than provisionally true. They are means not ends. Their usurpation of the central position in the world would be a perverse tyranny. They command not belief, but, at the most acquiescence; their claim over us is felt not as a rapture but as coercion. Again the hyperbole is on the surface only: the direction in which it works is towards an interesting exploration of sense.

In all this Donne is in the great tradition of Sidney. He writes as the poet above the need or the desire to sing at doors for meat, as the poet exploring truth and investigating the metaphysic of love: love not as a petrarchan convention but as the key to what conventions are about. Within ten years the tone and truth of Donne's verse change. The 'truth' he was dedicated to in the Satyres becomes the fabrication of the compliments he there despised. The mistresses of the Songs and Sonets become the patronesses of the Verse Letters. There the riches of 'mine' and 'India', 'America' and 'coins', become sud denly concretized to the moneys he desperately needed:

She that was best and first originall
Of all fair copies, and the generall
Steward to Fate; she whose rich eyes, and breast,
Guilt the West Indies, and perfum'd the East;
Whose having breath'd in this world, did bestow
Spice on those Isles, and bade them still smell so,
And that rich Indie which doth gold interre,
Is but as single money, coyn'd from her:
She to whom this world must itself refer,
As Suburbs, or the Microcosme of her,
Shee, shee is dead; shee's dead: when thou knowst
Thou knowst how lame a cripple this world is.

Donne here is adding image to image rather than writing poetry; and the imagery is repetitious, commercial, mercenary. What he says, furthermore, is now felt as only poetically true. The hyperboles do not extend sense: they balance permissively on a convention or a fashion of compliment.

Beaumont and Fletcher provoke comparison with the later Donne. Non erat hoc hominis vitium sed temporis. They are involved in the same degeneration of a tradition, impelled by similar bread-and-butter needs. It was economic pressure that deflected Donne from the metaphor of Songs and Sonets to the conceits of the Anniversaries. It was the urge of the younger son to exploit the India of the stage, the desire of the déclassé to rehabilitate himself in court circles (the memory and the ambition of the Great House still working in each of them) which drove Beaumont and Fletcher to descend on the popular theatre and wrest it from its popular way to something they could approve of and make their social equals applaud. This of course makes their descent on the playhouse much more consciously a social strategy than in all likelihood it was. There is, however, the fact that two of the earliest plays they wrote were, first, a burlesque of what the popular audience approved, The Knight of the Burning Pestle which was not well received, and second, The Faithful Shepherdess, a literary pastoral of which Fletcher wrote to one of James's new baronets:

This play was never liked, unless by few
That brought their judgments with 'em.
                   ['To that Noble and true Lover of
                   Learning, Sir Walter Aston Knight'

Compared with the tradition digested naturally into the drama of Shakespeare the Sidneian world is itself a narrow thing. It is conscious and classical and avoids contacts with what in the Arcadia would be called the Helots. The world of Beaumont and Fletcher is still narrower. The difference is that between Penshurst and Wilton and the Court or Blackfriars. The former were European and national at the same time. The latter became something local and sectional.

Beaumont and Fletcher's social affiliations, then, are the same as Donne's; their literary tradition goes back on one side, but on the new Jacobean terms, to the Elizabethan Great House. They operate at a time when the tradition is already degenerating; they are themselves, in fact, prime agents in the degeneration—in the adaptation of platonism and petrarchanism to an inferior end and audience. Their ambition and their strategy can be represented as being a twofold invasion. On the one hand they will capture the popular playhouse, on the other they will gate-crash court society. The Sidneian matter supplied protective colouring for the latter; their dramatic facility ensured success in the former. Their work is brilliantly opportunistic. They are quick to catch and reflect back the lights of their social and literary environment. But they are not to be regarded solely as followers of fashions and tastes. Their social significance in the early Jacobean period goes deeper. They had the power to be formers of attitudes, initiators rather than mimics. They supplied the basis of what will later develop into the Cavalier mentality. In this respect their work can be compared with that of Byron. Later people—not in literature but in actual life—play out Beaumont-and-Fletcherism in their own biographies. Kenelm Digby is one of their heroes in the flesh. The early part of Herbert of Cherbury's autobiography reads like one of their plays.

It is evasive, therefore, to regard their art as merely the creation of a 'fairy world'. Their plays strike roots deep into a real world—the world of their time and of the embryonic Cavalier. Their 'unreality' for us amounts to a criticism of much more than the two dramatists concerned. It is a judgment too of the habits of mind of an actual section of a historical society—a world, in spite of its heritage of charity from the Middle Ages and of instructed reason from the Great House, soon to be confronted with the situation of dictated choice in the midst of civil conflict, a world of radical self-division and clashing absolutes: the world ready to split in every way which Beaumont and Fletcher's serious plays symbolize.

We might turn now to one of these serious plays. Our purpose will be to look for signs of consistency and method. Our leading idea will be, they are not organized, as Shakespeare's plays are, by metaphor—'a key-note which guides and controls the harmonies throughout'—but rather by that which organizes Donne's Anniversaries, the hyperbole and the conceit. And it is the experience organized by hyperbole and conceit which strikes the roots that clutch Beaumont and Fletcher's time. What these roots were we shall also attempt to say.


The central situation in Philaster involves three people. Arethusa, the princess, is the only child of the King. Philaster, legitimate heir to part of the Kingdom, is in love with her. Bellario is Philaster's 'page', sent by him to Arethusa to serve as their means of communication. The events of the play are set in motion by the arrival, at the Court, of Pharamond, the Spanish prince, who comes seeking the hand of Arethusa. This touches off, first, the rebellion story: the group of courtiers led by Dion are unwilling for Philaster's legitimate claims to be put on one side, as Philaster himself is too. Secondly, Pharamond's incontinence while at the Court (the reverse side, as in Songs and Sonets, of the idealistic petrarchan woman-worship) leads to the calumny which will start rotating the relations between the three in the central triangle. Pharamond is discovered early in his stay with a loose waiting-woman who avoids publicity by accusing Arethusa of similar looseness with Bellario, and thus blackmails the King into silence. This lie is repeated to Philaster by Dion. Dion is intent on Philaster's leading the popular revolt and breaking with Arethusa.

A larger frame is sketchily suggested for the central happenings in the play: the King, like Henry IV, is aware of the guilty means whereby he has come to the throne and is depriving Philaster of his just inheritance. He sees his misfortunes as part of a providential punishment for his sins. Arethusa too feels that providence is at work—in her case, a providence working through romantic love for the restoration of justice.

The retention of this traditional providence supervising the working out of the plot might be significant. It is not what we think of as the typically Beaumont-and-Fletcherian. It seems rather to be a gesture in the direction of something Shakespearian. (Philaster is moved by the spirit of his 'father' as Hamlet was, and the King's guilty con-science is reminiscent of Claudius as well as Henry IV.) Though the King, Arethusa, and the courtiers more than once underline it in their speeches, it might be intended merely as a familiar colouring for the story, the better to insinuate what was essentially new. The references to providence, in any case, belong to the outer shell of the play. The inner core, wherein the novelty consists, and in which the main seriousness of the dramatists is displayed, is the platonic or petrarchan triangle of the lovers. It is the happenings here that I propose to concentrate attention on. These provide almost all the 'situations' and 'dramatic effects' to which Beaumont and Fletcher are said to sacrifice everything: coherence of character, moral integrity, artistic unity.

The basis of the emotional attitudes throughout is a prevailing disposition to wilful belief, belief as an all-or-nothing reaction, consciously directed, an absolute self-commitment. The typical Beaumont and Fletcher situations turn on the divisions that such rival absolutes bring about when the central characters find themselves between two or more of them.

In Philaster (as in the plays generally) one of these absolutes is the King. At one point in the play the King's absoluteness is given a satiric or comic turn. The princess Arethusa is lost in the forest and her father is commanding that she shall be found:

KING. I do command you all, as you are subjects,
       To show her me! What! am I not your King?
       If ay, then am I not to be obeyed?
DION. Yes, if you command things possible and
KING. Things possible and honest! Hear me, thou,
       Thou traitor, that do'st confine thy King to
       Possible and honest! show her me,
       Or let me perish if I cover not
       All Sicily with blood.
DION. Indeed I cannot,
       Unless you tell me where she is.
                                             (IV. ii.)

But brute facts call the King's bluff and he is forced at length to realize his limitations:

     Alas! What are we Kings!
Why do ye gods place us above the rest,
To be served, flattered, and adored, till we
Believe we hold within our hands your
And when we come to try the power we have
There's not a leaf shakes at our threatenings?
I have sinned, 'tis true, and here stand to be
Yet would not thus be punished: let me
My way, and lay it on!
DION. He articles with the gods. Would somebody
       would draw bonds for the performance of
       covenants betwixt them.
                                                (IV. ii.)

We have said that this passage is comic or satiric. To be so definitive is maybe over-precipitate. There seems, rather, to be a mixture, or a confusion, or a wavering between intentions in its treatment. Clearly, however, the scene cannot be claimed for full seriousness. The King is not Lear, and Dion is neither Kent nor the Fool. The significant thing is the way the characters fling themselves into disparate roles, adopting one extreme stance after another with all-or-nothing wilfulness. The roles have nothing in common except the wilfulness behind them. The King will be absolute King, the King will be patient sinner suffering the strokes of the gods. Dion (who could have been made a Lord Kalander or a Kent) remains the debunking commentator on both, not disinterested but uninterested in what he says. Neither Dion nor the King seem to have anything in common, not even common humanity, nor the common relationship of King and subject. Instead, they both seem to be embodiments, as it were, of the attitudes they voice—attitudes, again, that the romantics would accuse of having no organic interconnection, and between which transition can only be made by violent self-galvanizations of the will.

If the scene itself is not to be taken seriously, the frequent occurrence of such scenes in the plays must be. It is profoundly symptomatic of Beaumont. Though he is not being clearly satirical or comic, and while the total effect is too confused for full artistic seriousness, there is no doubt that seriousness is intended. The point is that Beaumont's mind works like the minds of his characters, and he is involved in quandaries similar to theirs. He lacks the supporting strength of an independent position from which to see with detachment what he is writing about. Sidney had this strength and support through membership of the Great House: his portrait of Basilius, therefore, is steady and unequivocal. Jonson and Shakespeare had the strength and independence of yet another tradition which enabled them to comment on Kingship, in plays like Sejanus or King Lear, with equal unmistakability. Beaumont has no steady ground to stand on. His attitude to the King, therefore (to take the single example of this scene), inevitably wavers. Beaumont himself is surrounded by the clamorous absolutes which have to be chosen among and which it is nonsense to choose among. But choice is dictated for him. He is himself deeply engaged in the attitudes he is writing about, and in the attitude of mind which makes 'attitudes' important. He is responding deeply to something in his environment. He is a part of his contemporary situation in a pejorative sense.

There is also the fact of Beaumont's adolescence which is relevant here. His concern with attitudes and choice is adolescent—the adolescent as the parvenu to the adult world who brings with him all the virgin will to be convinced, but who has not yet had the time to acquire the wisdom that would illuminate what he is choosing and bring relevant order to his convictions. Beaumont and Fletcher's work indicates the collapse of a culture, an adult scheme is being broken up and replaced by adolescent intensities. It is this which makes the Caroline rating of their work, as compared with that of Jonson and Shakespeare, such a bad augury.

The scene with Dion and the King is about as bad as Beaumont and Fletcher can be. It does, however, reveal the kind of forces among which even their good scenes are set, and the kind of 'situation' we have to deal with in reading them. These 'situations' have much to do with 'psychology', but little to do with the naturalism of consistent character-portrayal. The psychology is that of a blind compulsion to be certain and to be convinced. It is the psychology, too, of a time when action was demanded on the basis of the conviction entertained; and when loyalties were being solicited by widely different authorities.

Kingship is only one of the absolutes in the general Beaumont and Fletcher environment. They are not interested in assessment of any of the absolutes separately, and are weakest when they pretend to be. Their best work is done where their main interest lies—in the conflict of the absolutes and the contortions it imposes on human nature.

In Act I, Scene i, this typical inner setting is swiftly arranged. Philaster comes into the Presence to challenge Pharamond's right to replace him as heir to the throne. He begins by making his obeisances to the King:

Right noble sir, as low as my obedience,
And with a heart as loyal as my knee
I beg your favour.

The King gives him permission, within the bounds proper to a subject, to say what he will. Philaster then immediately turns on Pharamond, and threatens him with hyperbolical rebellion if ever he should take the throne. The King intervenes to check him; Philaster's defiance collapses:

I am dead, sir; you're my fate. It was not I
Said I was wronged.

The King thinks Philaster must be possessed. Philaster rejoins that he is possessed—and with his father's spirit:

       It's here, O King,
A dangerous spirit! now he tells me, King,
I was a King's heir, bids me be a King,
And whispers to me, these are all my
  subjects …
But I'll suppress him; he's a factious spirit,
And will undo me. Noble sir, your hand;
I am your servant.
KING. Away! I do not like this:
      I'll make you tamer, or I'll dispossess you
      Both of your life and spirit. For this time
      I pardon your wild speech, without so much
      As your imprisonment.

There is no suggestion of satire here. The King is one of the absolutes Philaster recognizes. The demands of justice (the 'spirit' of his father) are another. But there is no moral conflict in Philaster. He can live absolutely in either the one loyalty or the other. It is a law of the Beaumont world that absolute committal removes the need for moral deliberation, and supervenes on conflict by suppression of one of the warring terms. The courtiers, Philaster's friends, for example, are bent on revolt:

          shrink not, worthy sir,
But add your father to you; in whose name
We'll waken all the gods, and conjure up
The rods of vengeance, the abused people,
Who, like raging torrents …

But Philaster does not so much as feel the pressure of their rhetoric:

           Friends, no more;
Our ears may be corrupted; 'tis an age
We dare not trust our wills to.

The audience is left, at the end of this first scene, with an exciting sense of an either-or world, and of a hero who will be all-or-nothing whichever way he is thrown: for it is obvious he won't (in the normal sense of the word) decide. There is this, and a further sense besides—something that comes through in Philaster's words last quoted: the sense that this is not only literary entertainment, but literature aware of itself as a symptom rather than a reflection of the dangerous reality surrounding it—aware of a world that cannot be trusted, and in which the mind is forced back upon itself to make a world of its own, by belief, or resolve, or art:

           'tis an age
We dare not give our wills to.

The other sphere in which the absolutes manifest themselves for the Beaumont hero we are introduced to in the scene immediately following. Arethusa sends for Philaster. Up to now neither he nor the audience have had any inkling of what is to take place. But Arethusa is in love with Philaster. The scene is a minor example of the stunts with situation which characterize all the Beaumont and Fletcher plays: the subject cannot woo the princess, so the princess will declare her love to the subject. More than this, it is an interesting example of Beaumont's technique exerting itself on a more serious level. Its congruency with what has gone before it and with what will follow after helps to credibilize the incredibles later to be handled.

Arethusa's inversion of propriety is justified by invoking the overruling power of the gods. She is driven by forces larger than human:

           'tis the gods,
The gods that make me so; and, sure, our love
Will be the nobler and the better blest,
In that the secret justice of the gods
Is mingled with it.
                                                (I. ii.)

But this divine sanction is in fact supererogatory: love itself is an absolute for the Beaumont and Fletcher lovers.

Secondly, there is the teasing way in which the proposal is made. Philaster assumes (the audience is already aware of what is in Arethusa's mind) that a declaration of love is the last thing that will be made in the interview. And Arethusa's first words seem to bear out his fears. Why, she asks, has he laid scandal on her in a public place, and called the great part of her dowry in question? Philaster's reply is similar to his original reaction to the King:

Madam, this truth which I shall speak will be
Foolish; but for your fair and virtuous self,
I could afford myself to have no right
To anything you wished.

Notwithstanding, Philaster confesses he is loath to give

His right unto a sceptre and a crown
To save a lady's longing.

He is still unaware that Arethusa is in love with him. Arethusa then says she must have both kingdoms, and even more. Philaster must turn away his face while she tells him the full length of her demands. At this Philaster flies into heroics:

I can endure it. Turn away my face!
I never yet saw enemy that looked
So dreadfully but that I thought myself
So great a basilisk as he; or spake
So horribly but that I thought my tongue
Bore thunder underneath, as much as his;
Nor beast that I could turn from: shall I then
Begin to fear sweet sounds? a lady's voice
Whom I do love? Say, you would have my life;
Why, I will give it you; for 'tis to me
A thing so loathed, and unto you that ask
Of so poor use, that I will make no price:
If you entreat I will unmovedly hear.

This is wit according to Dr. Johnson's formula: contrary ideas yoked together by violence. It is witty in that what the audience knows is love on Arethusa's part, Philaster takes to be hate; what he thinks is a demand about to be made on him the audience knows is an offer about to be made to him. Philaster's misapprehension has been successfully raised at this point to hyperbolical proportions. And in one and the same speech we see his heroism and his helplessness, his worth and his sense of worthlessness asserted.

But a measure of depth and seriousness can be recognized in the admittedly adolescent mood in which the hero and the scene are conceived. The part somehow seems to become greater than the whole, the contortions of the hero more important than the forces that produce them. The fact that Philaster is labouring under a misapprehension does not make for complacency in the spectator; and the heroics—on a fair reading—are not received as ridiculous. From this point of view the scene works like a joke that has been pushed too far: except that it never has been a joke. Arethusa's apparently teasing lack of straightforwardness is in keeping with her situation. She must be assured that Philaster would in any case give himself utterly before she can offer herself utterly to him. The point is in that 'utterly'—the adolescent all-or-nothing terms in which the commitments are conceived.

The scene in any case works two ways. There is the joke that it will all have a happy ending. There is also the sense, fatal to our taking the joke at its face value, that happiness as a conclusion to what the scene reveals is an irrelevance. Philaster's heroic and pathetic self-contortion, his insistent readiness to give himself utterly (misapprehension or no) to love or death, are part of a tragi-comedy that cannot really be happy.

There is a final aspect of the Beaumont and Fletcher manner which this scene illustrates, a factor which still further assists belief in Philaster's reactions later. This is the monadic self-enclosure of the characters—part of the petrarchan convention of love, or a part of the native adolescence of Beaumont's mind. The lover can be completely insulated within his love, regardless of the beloved. Love is not necessarily a mutual contract, it can be a private direction of the will, like prayer; or a service, like virtue, that justifies itself by being its own reward. This quality comes out in the scene when Arethusa has finally confessed her love to Philaster, and he replies:

Madam, you are too full of noble thoughts
To lay a train for this contemned life,
Which you may have for asking: to suspect
Were base, where I deserve no ill. Love you!
By all my hopes, I do, above my life!
But how this passion should proceed from you
So violently, would amaze a man
That would be jealous.

The world of Beaumont is a violent, extreme, arbitrary, sudden, and wilful thing, ready at any moment to be inverted, or to swing from one contrary to another. We have seen how the external plot is arranged so that opposite pulls can be exerted at any minute on the main characters, and how—with Philaster in the first scene—the loyalty of the subject is absolute but never complete, since it can only be maintained by an actively willed suppression of the disloyalty he also shares in. Here, the opposites are introjected into the heart of what might seem the only single certainty and purity the Beaumont lovers can find. Love itself, in the moment of its most open and utter declaration, is recognized to be an incalculable force, ambivalently sinister in its possibilities: binding and yet disruptive:

   how this passion should proceed from you
So violently, would amaze a man
That would be jealous.

Philaster sees the chaste and hitherto inaccessible model of womanhood suddenly proposing to him. He is overwhelmed, but of course ready to accept. In the midst of his confusion he is able to note the possible ambiguity of Arethusa's behaviour for an interpreter that 'would be jealous'. His 'amazement' is another stroke of wit, and an oddly serious one. He loved Arethusa apart from any hope of reciprocation: in spite of her impossibility and almost because of it. (The 'psychology' is the same here as in Marvell's poem.) Now that the Impossible She is so possible, the possibility might itself argue an imperfection. Philaster will love her, of course, on the new terms still. But these will require suppression of the interpretation just glimpsed. A fresh tension is thereby introduced. And when Arethusa is calumniated, as she is soon to be, the scales will tilt again, the disruption will begin, and inverted petrarchanism show itself in near-obscenity and disgust of life. The conception in this scene prepares us to accept Philaster's subsequent misbelief of Arethusa.

It is a scene well contrived within the limits of the initial sonneteerish postulates. It might even be claimed to carry more conviction then Leontes' jealousy, or the somersault of Posthumus; though, it must be added, Shakespeare was not really interested in the postulates Beaumont adopted, and does not seem to have bothered overmuch with the mechanics appropriate to them.

Act II springs the trap which has been prepared for Philaster's love. Arethusa is accused of intimacy with Bellario, the Viola-like page Philaster sent her. (In justice to Beaumont's workmanship it might be pointed out that again we have been prepared for the sort of thing the calumniators report: In Act II, Scene iv, misconduct with pages is represented as almost habitual in court circles.) Act III is devoted to Philaster's reception of the report, his interview with Bellario (who is in love with him) and his en-counter with Arethusa herself.

Close analysis of this act (a most effective one) would not carry insight into Beaumont's technique much further. There is no increment of growing wisdom in the situation as it develops. Beaumont's plays, in fact, have no developing revelations, crowded as they are with surprises and fresh turns. For all the increasing violence and cleverness of their movement they seem to get nowhere. The return is always to the original starting-point: the petrarchan nexus, the adolescent all-or-nothingness, the willed and rigid stance on one set of assumptions maintained by the resolved suppression of another, the sense of an arbitrary outer world and a dissociated inner one, of rifts that cannot be bridged but must be desperately overleapt, the mêlée of absolute claims and exaggerated postures—an agony of self-scision based on misapprehension and brought back (by the external contrivances of the plot) to a 'happy' conclusion: a curious sense, typical of decadence, of something at once more primitive and more sophisticated than the normal.

But while it does not further insight into the essential Beaumont situation Act III is a good example of what we have called the 'extended conceit'. This is particularly true of the scene between Philaster and Bellario.

Philaster has just received his friend Dion's account of Arethusa's scandalous behaviour. He is soliloquising on the theme 'What the eye doesn't see'; how, for animals, nothing is but what is seen; but for man, nothing is (at times) but what is not:

O that like beasts we could not grieve ourselves
With what we see not! Bulls and rams will fight
To keep their females, standing in their sight:
But take 'em from them and you take at once
Their spleens away; and they will fall again
Unto their pastures; growing fresh and fat;
And taste the waters of the springs as sweet
As 'twas before, finding no start in sleep;
But miserable man—
                                                (III. i.)

—and at this point Bellario enters. The rest of the speech (it can be imagined well enough) will be demonstrated in action on the stage rather than compressed into metaphor. Philaster is amazed that Bellario, the monster of lust and ingratitude, should still look outwardly the same as he has always done:

           See, see, you gods,
He walks still; and the face you let him wear
When he was innocent is still the same,
Not blasted! Is this justice? do you mean
To intrap mortality, that you allow
Treason so smooth a brow? I cannot now
Think he is guilty.

The speech carries on the ruminations of the soliloquy. It works too a kind of trick with intellectual mirrors, animating all the confusions between 'is' and 'seems' in which mortality can so easily entrap itself, precipitating Philaster into the midst of these confusions, where he finds himself choosing again—hurling himself on the desperate other side of the gulf he has opened out before himself: he cannot now think Bellario is guilty. The volte-face is well executed, and restores both sides of Philaster's self-division to equal status; the prerequisite for Beaumont's strongest occasions.

The remainder of the scene is constructed wittily along similar lines. Beaumont exploits fully the device of double-consciousness (or even double-talk) which is expressive of something central in his conception. The divided man confronts the integral, and mistakes it. Bellario is really innocent. Philaster thinks instead he is the consummate actor of innocence. Philaster will therefore act the part to compete with this, and hoist the engineer with his own petard. The mirror effects begin to multiply.

Philaster inquires how Bellario has been treated while with Arethusa:

Tell me, my boy, how doth the princess use thee?
For I shall guess her love to me by that.

Bellario gives his innocent account of all Arethusa's favours. Philaster is caught by the reviving shock of his love and disgust. He recovers and presses Bellario harder. We are shown the familiar reverse side of petrarchan idealism. The catastrophic overthrow of his love (only possible by reason of his 'noble' mind and the 'virtue' it would espouse) releases an unmanageable and compulsive evil within him. Philaster is as much bound now to the most squalid prurience as he was formerly to the chastest adoration. And the agent of his overthrow, whom he would make the pander to his itch for obscenities, is the innocent 'page' he regards as his greatest friend, and who (beneath it all) is really a girl faithfully in love with him—and thus doubly incapable of disloyalty. It is easy to see what the generation which produced the metaphysicals saw in such scenes as this. It is the 'conceit' perfectly stage-managed, without the overt imagery of conceit:

PHIL. She kisses thee?
BEL. Not so, my lord.
PHIL. Come, come, I know she does.
BEL. No, by my life.
PHIL. Why then she does not love me. Come, she
      I bade her do it; I charged her by all charms
      Of love between us, by the hope of peace

      We should enjoy, to yield thee all delights
      Naked as to her bed; I took her oath
      Thou should'st enjoy her. Tell me, gentle boy,
      Is she not parallelless? is not her breath
      Sweet as Arabian winds when fruits are ripe?
      Are not her breasts two liquid ivory balls?
      Is she not all a lasting mine of joy? BEL.  Ay, now I see why my disturbed thoughts
      Were so perplexed: when first I went to her
      My heart held augury. You are abused;
      Some villain hath abused you: I do see
      Whereto you tend. Fall rocks upon his head
      That put this to you! 'tis some subtle train
      To bring that noble frame of yours to nought.
PHIL. Thou think'st I will be angry with thee. Come,
      Thou shalt know all my drift; I hate her more
      Than I love happiness, and placed thee there
      To pry with narrow eyes into her deeds.
      Hast thou discovered? is she fallen to lust,
      As I would wish her? Speak some comfort to
BEL.  My lord, you did mistake the boy you sent:
      Had she the lust of sparrows or of goats,
      Had she a sin that way, hid from the world,
      Beyond the name of lust, I would not aid
      Her base desires: but what I came to know
      As servant to her, I would not reveal,
      To make my life last ages.

The code of Honour sets a final and inescapable trap for its observers. Absolute loyalty forbids any telling of tales, even when a friend or a lover commands. Honour itself can thus ally with deception. Philaster has to proceed to threats:

            oh, my heart!
This is a salve worse than the main disease.
Tell me thy thoughts; for I will know the least
                                     (Draws his sword)
That dwells within thee, or rip thy heart
To know it: I will see thy thoughts as plain
As I do now thy face.

At the climax of his rage he returns to the thought with which he began on first seeing Bellario.

The rest of the scene solves the problem of Philaster's transition from threatening Bellario's life to sending him away still loved but still thought to be the deceiver. The moves are worked with the same skill, but still continuing within the narrow and violent compass of the petrarchan and adolescent postulates. The note on which Philaster ends is the second return to the dilemma of what things are and what they seem. This time the resolution seems magnanimous:

           Rise, Bellario:
Thy protestations are so deep, and thou
Dost look so truly when thou utter'st them,
That, though I know them false as were my hopes,
I cannot urge thee further. But thou wert
To blame to injure me, for I must love
Thy honest looks, and take no revenge upon
Thy tender youth: a love from me to thee
Is firm, whate'er thou dost …
             … But, good boy,
Let me not see thee more: something is done
That will distract me, that will make me mad
If I behold thee.

The mood, however, is not one of firm resolve. It is rather the passing stability of exhaustion in the midst of fever. All the items of Philaster's self-division are still present. Only the informing energies that usually stir them to conflict are absent. The verse moves to the rhythm of a relaxed exhaustion. In the lull of the violent fit Philaster is at length able to hold together all the opposites. He can call up again the absolute of his affection for the page, and recognizes too that it will be overthrown at any moment by 'distraction'. Occasions like this show how firmly Beaumont has hold on what he is doing, and how consistent is his conception.

What is it that Beaumont is doing? To analyse the serious scenes that ensue would tell us little more man is already apparent from those examined so far. Philaster sees Arethusa, in a subdued mood he confesses himself her slave, her

    creature, made again from what it was
And newly-spirited.
                                                (III. ii.)

Then, stirred again, he reviles both himself and her. He echoes Donne's A Lecture upon a Shadow.

      all the good you have is but a shadow,
I' the morning with you, and at night behind you.

He goes off into the forest which provides a fitting back-drop for the Beaumont and Fletcher worlds, both inner and outer. Here the court hunts, and court ladies disappear into convenient brakes. Here the normal countryman can comment on his betters in much the same vein as Harrington commented on the hunting parties of James and the King of Denmark. Here a brute creation seems to pursue the rational. Lovers wound themselves and wound each other, and seek death in the pastoral environment they otherwise long for as the asylum from their conflicts and confusions. At times the Beaumont vision strikes through the verse. There is resonance, for example, in Arethusa's cry at the end of Act III, Scene ii, when Philaster has left her and she is called to join her father's hunting:

           I am in tune to hunt!
Diana, if thou canst rage with a maid
As with a man, let me discover thee
Bathing, and turn me to a fearful hind,
That I may die pursued by cruel hounds,
And have my story written in my wounds.

The forest, above all, is where the heroes and heroines get lost, with the lostness that is recurrent in Beaumont:

Where am I now? Feet, find me out a way,
Without the counsel of my troubled head:

I'll follow you boldly about these woods,
O'er mountains, through brambles, pits, and floods,
Heaven, I hope, will ease me: I am sick.
                                            (IV. iii.)

And in the same forest where all seems confused, the feet of the plot somehow find a way, and bring everything to a happy ending. The fourth act is as clever in its transitions from the climaxes of the third as it is in its preparation for the surprises and dénouement of the fifth.


We have concentrated our commentary on the petrarchan part of the play, and on only a part of that. There is much else in Beaumont and Fletcher that has received more attention. It is, however, the treatment of the love-triangle which, it seems to me, belongs particularly to their seriousness both as conscious analysts and unconscious symptoms of a particular human plight. The dramatists (or Beaumont alone, if he was solely responsible) attain in their handling of the petrarchan a personal inflection which is both distinctive and distinguished. The main roots that clutch in their work strike down through this into the heart of their time.

The petrarchan matter indicates their derivation. They are in the tradition which began with the Great House, the source of the Arcadian, Heroic, and Pastoral, as well as of the sonnet sequences, the literature of the Elizabethan élite. Their derivation is important from the social as well as from the literary point of view. Or rather, the literary importance does not exist apart from the social. That both Shakespeare and Beaumont and Fletcher went to the same Arcadian and Romance sources at about the same time means two things, not one. Different interests were involved, and different intentions, and these were in part the result of differences in their respective social placings. On a superficial glance alone, it is obvious that Beaumont and Fletcher, as 'inferior Sidneys', the shabby genteel of the Great House, cannot usefully be compared with Shakespeare until the important prior distinctions between the two have first been made. Their prime affiliations are not with the tradition in which Shakespeare wrote but with the tradition—however degenerate—of the Sidneians and the metaphysicals.

A close examination of Philaster only brings out more clearly the difference in content and conception between their romances and those of Shakespeare's last period. On their own ground Shakespeare could not compete with them. Nor would he, one can suppose, have been minded to. The intensely narrowed world in which they are at home is one which Shakespeare's maturity cannot be conceived as entering. At the same time it is evident that Beaumont and Fletcher could have learnt nothing to their essential purposes from Shakespeare's last plays. Their own romances are a genre peculiar to themselves, in spite of the surface lights from Antony, Lear, Othello, Hamlet, and possibly Troilus, which they reflect. If it is a case of influence one on another it would seem likely that the Victorians were right, and that Shakespeare was the debtor. Paradoxically, in a case like this it is easier to imagine the greater taking a cue from the lesser—and then going off on its own. The Winter's Tale and Cymbeline do resemble the Beaumont romances. Structural resemblance we should not expect, but resemblance in the incidentals and externals there certainly is. However, Shakespeare's last plays, internally, belong to the body of his own writing, and through that to the tradition in which they were produced. Their framework is the large metaphor his work had established for him before Beaumont and Fletcher began to write.

Beaumont and Fletcher are dramatic opportunists. Philaster, besides its petrarchan core, has quick and successful utilizations of the large themes of the maturer drama; the theme of rebellion, of the guilty King on the throne, the theme of the King John who turns to a Falconbridge, in time of trouble. (Philaster gathers up the roles of Falcon-bridge, Hal, and Hamlet as ancillary to his main role of lover-hero.) But it is the petrarchan core which is important for the final assessment of the two dramatists.

We have said that it is by reason of the petrarchan matter, as they treat it, that their work strikes roots into their time. Petrarchanism is an important aspect of the Renaissance. It held out the opportunity to concentrate on a territory sealed off from the other realities, social, ethical, or religious. It hinted seductively that a social code, the basis of morality, the effects of religious discipline, could all be found in the ceremonial cult of Stella or Astrea. Ideal love would be in itself a liberal education. It would be open, also, only to such as had the leisure and the facilities of the Great House around them. Petrarchanism was both insulated and aristocratic. In the case of Beaumont the insulation works to make the large traditional themes marginal, reducing them to convenient plot-ingredients.

The roots of petrarchanism, however, strike deeper than this, particularly in the Beaumont and Fletcherian drama. Its real importance there is that the central love-triangle, conflict and self-contortion in the setting of the absolutes, presented a small-scale model and a disguise for the larger situations of real life: situations of dictated choice, of self-commitment, of wilful belief that looks like headstrong denial—situations suited to the extremities of the emotional partisan. (The reign of James brought the question of partisanship to the forefront in almost every sphere.) In the person of Philaster the embryonic Cavalier could live through in pantomime what he would later have to live through in fact except that the terms would be changed. The Beaumont hero feels himself already 'fated'. He is cut off from the social past and the neighbourly present and his future includes only death. He is absolved from the need to exert rational control, and incapable of compromise. He is self-enclosed in the splintering world of the contending absolutes, and all the violence of activity these call out can only end in self-destruction. The fated lover-hero of the Beaumont drama is one of the great premonitory symbols of the seventeenth century.

Thus plays like Philaster are not merely passively addressed to the tastes of their audience. They play an active role. They catch at the half-felt or the unconscious and give it expression. Beaumont and Fletcher do not cater superficially, they shape for their audience the attitudes and postures the audience is not wholly aware yet that they will need. On a most cursory view, of course, as we have tried to show, Beaumont and Fletcher clearly aimed at a two-level appeal. Their plays could easily compete with the popular theatre in dramatic stir and skill; they had something to offer, too, to the aristocrat whose poetic reading was Donne, whose private pastime was the Sonnet, and whose connoisseurship was reserved for 'wit'.

The main poetic feature of Beaumont and Fletcher is their adaptation to the stage of the sonneteer's material and the sonneteer's 'conceit'. The primary affiliation of their drama is with the Sidneians and the metaphysicals. That this should have been overlooked may be a result of the recent concentration, in criticism, on the imagery of poetry: the fashion for what Dr. I. A. Richards has called 'metaphor-hunting' . Clearly, poetry is not to be limited to the devising of imagery narrowly conceived. Our indifference to the poetry of Sidney, Spenser, and Jonson, with its accompanying exaltation of Donne, Herbert, and Marvell, may eventually be recognized as a by-product of Mr. T. S. Eliot's personal pamphleteering for what—even in him—was to be merely a chapter in his own poetic development. In any case, the absence of 'verbal texture' in Beaumont and Fletcher's verse is not decisive. Their words are stretched in the frame of their situations, and it is the frame which gives them the manifoldness of 'wit'. Their achievement was to make dramatic situation perform the work of metaphysical conceit.

A play like Philaster, we have said, further, leaves one with a sense of something at once more sophisticated and more primitive than the normal, of something we associate with decadence. Each of the operative words here can bear fuller expansion.

The world they construct is a product of sophistication. Sophistication implies immediate viability within a restricted circle; a degree of knowledgeability in the extreme, which yet never reaches as far as wisdom; a specialness of insight and an extreme localization of field; an intensity that fails to bring breadth of view, and which breadth of view would render impossible. Beaumont's work has this sophistication. It comes, I have argued, from his concentration on the petrarchan matter, with interests even more circumscribed than those of Sidney. And even Sidney's tradition was narrower, less mixed, and less ancient than that of Shakespeare. It would be wrong, however, to think of Beaumont and Fletcher as deliberately constructing a 'fairy world'. Their artefact is more sinister and more serious than that. It is more like the Anniversaries than Hans Andersen.

The world into which Beaumont and Fletcher fit, as the Victorians used to insist, however clumsily and vaguely, is the world of James I and fermenting civil war. They can be regarded from one point of view as unconsciously fighting a rearguard action on behalf of the Court, compensating with advances in Blackfriars for the retreats in Westminster. The importance of Philaster is that he foreshadows figures in real life: figures of the same class and temper as Kenelm Digby, who married, ad maiorem gloriam amoris, an alleged courtesan.

In history as in the Beaumont drama the setting for the main actors was one in which all-or-nothing, and eitheror, were continually presented as the alternatives for choice. The absolutes of Justice for the subject, Loyalty to the King, Faith in God, Obedience to Church Discipline—a medley of incompatible demands surrounded the individual. Behaviour could no longer be regulated by agreed social habits, or by decent mutualizations of differences as between souls naturally Christian. The outer world and the inner world were beginning to exhibit the phenomena of fissure. In such a situation belief does tend to become wilful and hyperbolical, resting on suppressions and assertions combined. The Philaster hero focusses all this, and becomes the kind of Byron-model for his generation. In him the conflicts, self-divisions and desperate stands, the distraction and the longing for certainty, the bewildered lostness and the violence which will destroy what it loves and finally turn on itself—pathetically and comically jumbled, all the agonies and irresponsibilities meet.

And yet Lord Falkland can be seen as part of Beaumont's world, as well as Kenelm Digby. He too was one who did not want civil war, and yet was confronted with it. He did not wish to take sides, yet when all were fighting he must fight too, and only one side could be taken. And the story goes that on the eve of Newbury he prepared himself as if for his own burial, went out to battle in clean linen, was lost at the head of his cavalry among the opposing ranks, and was discovered next day dead on the field—the kind of suicide without self-slaughter a Philaster would have willed for himself, or Arethusa wished:

       I am in tune to hunt!
Diana … let me discover thee
Bathing, and turn me to a fearful hind,
That I may die pursued by cruel hounds,
And have my story written in my wounds.

The primitive quality in the play is what we should expect from a decaying or collapsing culture. It is congruent, too, with what we have called the adolescent in Beaumont's conception. Both the primitive and the adolescent indicate a reversion to the premature imposed on a civilization by the new and unmanageable developments taking place inside it. Beaumont was only twenty-four when Philaster was written. It is not likely that he should have become maturer as he got older. His adolescence lent itself to the requirements of the time more than Jonson's detached satire could do, or Shakespeare's socially unuseable inclusiveness of comprehension. What we call the modern world was about to launch on a phase when the adolescent and the wilful had special survival value. Since Beaumont's day our society has become increasingly partisan, increasingly juvenile in its wilfulness and its unwisdom. Beaumont and Fletcher are, in an unfortunate sense, the first of the moderns. Their counterpart in the nineteenth century, we suggested, was Byron. A contemporary parallel to their work might be that of Graham Greene. The decadence they reflect has been a condition permanent since their time, and, if anything, apt to be aggravated.

The Maid's Tragedy

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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 statistical details of its composition) was nearly dominated in matters of taste by a genteel coterie, is obvious. Thanks to the work of Enid Welsford and M. C. Bradbrook, it is now generally recognized that in the hands of the more intelligent dramatists "these pretty de-vices" may also have important structural functions. Miss Welsford [in The Court Masque, 1927] has shown that the ritualistic qualities of masque, as well as helping to universalize the significance of the action, may provide an essential method of controlling the audience's response to apparently melodramatic episodes. Professor Bradbrook [in Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy, 1960] has discussed the use of masques as a variety of the play-within-the-play device, designed to create "ironic interplay" of various kinds.

Oddly enough, however, very little attempt has been made until recently to examine the structural purpose of one of the most elaborate masques-within-the-play, the wedding masque in The Maid's Tragedy. Professor Bradbrook remarks that "the masque … with its description of the sudden storm rising on the wedding night, is not entirely irrelevant"; and W. W. Appleton [in Beaumont and Fletcher: A Critical Study, 1956] finds a "prophetic irony" in Cynthia's promise to provide such entertainment for the company

As may for ever after force them hate
Our brother's glorious beams, and wish the night.

Otherwise the critical silence would suggest that Beaumont and Fletcher's masque has been regarded as a spectacular irrelevance. In an essay ['"These pretty devices': A Study of Masques in Plays"] printed in A Book of Masques [1967] Inga-Stina Ewbank attacks this generally implicit view: she notes the way in which the highly conventional themes and imagery of this masque are echoed in the following scene, so that the idealized masque ritual becomes a foil for the corrupt action of the wedding night. And she detects further heavy irony in the conventional tribute to the sovereign with which the masque concludes. In general she claims for it "a … strongly ironical bearing on the action of the play," though the scope of her paper does not allow her to argue the case in detail.

The failure of other critics to give sympathetic attention to the function of the masque is particularly surprising since constructive skill is perhaps the only talent that Beaumont and Fletcher are widely granted today: and yet here, in a play that is usually cited as their most successful tragedy, we are faced with a structural excrescence of unique proportions—and in the exposition, where dramatic economy is most important. Far from attempting to minimize the weight given the masque by its elaborate proportions, the dramatists actually go out of their way to emphasize it in the action and dialogue of Act I. Indeed, with the exception of some brief narrative which reveals Amintor's desertion of Aspatia and sketches in his friendship with Melantius, it would be fair to say that the masque is the real dramatic subject of the first act. In view of the care taken to focus the audience's attention upon the masque, it is at least reasonable to assume that its physical prominence is deliberate, that it corresponds to an intended structural significance.

The purpose of this essay is to show that the "felt fusion" between masque and play action in The Maid's Tragedy, of which Professor Bradbrook speaks, is a real thing; that the masque is part of a carefully worked out dramatic scheme; and that this scheme involves (among other things) 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. Elsewhere in her Themes and Conventions, Professor Bradbrook remarks that the final test of the decadence of the Beaumont and Fletcher plays is their lack of any kind of "verbal framework." I shall argue that a complete reading of The Maid's Tragedy does involve the recognition of significant "linguistic patterns," though they are not perhaps of quite the kind that Professor Bradbrook meant.


In the first set of encomiastic verses which he contributed to the 1647 folio, William Cartwright singled out Fletcher's constructional skill for particular praise:

None can prevent the Fancy, and see through
At the first opening; all stand wondring how
The thing will be until it is; which thence
With fresh delight still cheats, still takes the sence;
The whole designe, the shadowes, the lights such
That none can say he shewes or hides too much.

By "Fancy" Cartwright apparently means something like "design" or "plot," though of a rather specialized kind. The context suggests that the senses of "witty conceit" and "something delusive" are also relevant. Fletcher's "Fancy" is not only a "designe," but a thing which "with fresh delight still cheats … the sence." The term thus neatly embraces three of the most distinctive features of Fletcher's plots: the paradoxical perversions of familiar social situations from which the plays begin; the working out of these paradoxes in a logically articulated sequence of further structural conceits; and the elaborate tissues of deception, dissimulation, and error, rising naturally out of the situational paradoxes, which serve to keep up the audience's interest in the unfolding design.

The social conceits, on which the fancies of plays like A King and No King or A Wife for a Month are built, are immediately and more or less adequately suggested by their titles. The fancy of The Maid's Tragedy is rather more complicated and could be covered only partially by the subtitles which suggest themselves: "A Wife and No Wife," "A Maid and No Maid," or "A Marriage and No Marriage." But it is, I believe, only in terms of the conceited kind of design which Cartwright calls a "fancy" that we can properly discuss the dramatic method and meaning of the play, and so avoid making critical demands that are inappropriate to the dramatists' artistic intention. More specifically, I believe that it is only in its relation to such a controlling fancy that we can fully realize the function of the obtrusive wedding masque.

Of course the masque does have simple, literal functions: it is designed to set the play in a certain milieu and to establish the appropriate social tone. As part of a sequence of wedding festivities, ending with the banquet in Act IV, scene ii, it provides an ironic foil to the revenge action. But these are limited and static uses; more important is what we might call its kinetic function, as part of a dynamic pattern of verbal and dramatic ironies. It embodies, in striking visual terms, a group of images, whose equivocal significance the play exploits through a series of paradoxes and reversals, both structural and rhetorical. The ironic nature of this development compels repeated recollection and re-examination of the masque: it becomes the central and dominating image of the whole work, an epitome of its structural fancy.

The reason for the general critical neglect of the ironic patterns of action and imagery in The Maid's Tragedy seems to me to be fairly indicated by Eliot's complaint that "the blossoms of Beaumont and Fletcher's imagination draw no sustenance from the soil, but are cut and slightly withered flowers stuck into the sand [T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1953] The language of the Fletcher plays obviously lacks the poetic intensity of the best Elizabethan and Jacobean work, and it does not appear to be organized in patterns which can be called (except in the broadest sense) morally significant. But this is not to say that the plays lack any organizational principle except that of melodramatic opportunism. The marriage masque in The Maid's Tragedy is as conventional as the imagery which links it to the play as a whole: but this conventionality is appropriate to the fanciful design of the play, which consists in the juggling of equally conventional social situations. The familiarity of the rhetoric vouches for the fundamental ordinariness of the basic situations. But what the play does, of course, is to turn these situations inside out, and the language of the play is made to go through a corresponding series of inversions and perversions. The patterns are patterns of wit.

By the very nature of its conventional ritual, a wedding masque ought to define the images it presents. In its sophisticated way it remains a kind of magical rite, performed to ensure the success and fertility of the union it celebrates. The unconventional thing about this most conventional of masques is that it fails to establish the proper definitions. This means, as far as the language of the play is concerned, that it initiates a pattern of equivocation and semantic inversion which is the rhetorical analogue of the repeated peripeties of the plot structure. At the same time it ironically predicates the disasters and confusions of the subsequent action. Implicitly its action is related to the fate of the play action: it is not magic which has failed, but magic which has gone astray. I must emphasize that this connection is only implicit: if we stopped to consider it, it would seem absurd. But the implication is necessary if the ironical symmetry is to be effective. The sleight of hand is possible only because the dramatists are juggling with two levels of illusion: in life mundane reality conventionally transcends stage reality at the conclusion of a masque (the presence of the king visibly affects the actions of the masquers), but when the mundane reality is itself a play there is no felt reason why the relationship should not be reversed and the masque "determine" the fate of its audience. Queen Night, and Cynthia, after all, who control the revels and see the stage audience as their "servants" (I.ii.151), are as "real" to the theater audience as Amintor and Evadne themselves.


A stock theme of revels, both in England and on the Continent, as Miss Welsford points out, is the arrival of night and the gradual approach of dawn. Allusion to the presence of night, whether simply in the setting (like the "obscure and cloudy nightpiece" of Blacknesse) or through the presence of a goddess (Queen Night herself or one of the Moon deities), is an obvious device for the blurring of artifice and reality which is essential to the effectiveness of masque. The particular appropriateness of such allusions in wedding entertainments is equally obvious. In choosing Queen Night as the presenter of their wedding masque, Beaumont and Fletcher may perhaps have been influenced by the published accounts of the entertainments at two Italian weddings in 1608. One of these, the Florentine Notte D'Amore was to be extensively adapted by Jonson for his Vision of Delight (1617) and again by Davenant in Luminalia (1638). But the idea might just as well have been borrowed from the conventions of the epithalamium, of which this masque is in effect a dramatized version. A regular feature of epithalamia is the poet's entreaty that the departure of day be hastened and the reign of night begin; and the appeal is normally followed by the announcement that the wished-for night has in fact arrived. Queen Night's "Our reign is come … I am the Night" (I.ii.122-124) at once signalizes the beginning of the masque and anticipates the end of the revels in the entry to the nuptial night itself. The visual context of the announcement and the terms in which it is made suggest an ambiguity which is also native to the epithalamium tradition—an ambiguity which the dramatists go on to exploit.

The eighteenth stanza of Spenser's "Epithalamion," for instance, while welcoming Night as the friend and protectress of lovers, implies that night conceals not only love but evil: it may stand not only for the joys of marriage but for death. And stanza 19 consists of a series of charms invoked against the sinister possibilities of the dark. So, when Beaumont and Fletcher's Night "rises in mists," we may take them as standing for Spenser's "deluding dreames" and phantasms (as in the Mantuan intermezzo of 1608) or, more generally, for "misconceived dout" and "hidden feares." In fact the imagery of Night's opening lines tends to support her identification with evil and confusion:

Our reign is come; for in the quenching sea
The sun is drown'd, and with him fell the Day.
                                (I.ii.122-123; italics added)

There is a quite deliberate irony in the juxtaposition of this ominous visual and verbal imagery with Evadne's greeting to Melantius ("Your presence is more joyful than this day" 1. 120; italics added), an irony which is complicated by the fact that her apparent hyperbole turns out to be a heavily sarcastic litotes.

The doubts thus created are deepened rather than dispelled when Queen Night is joined by her co-presenter, the Moon Goddess, Cynthia. As the patron of virginal chastity, Cynthia/Diana may seem to preside somewhat incongruously over a ritual of consummation. In fact, of course, she has a second aspect as the patron of generation and childbirth and is so invoked in Spenser's poem and in the Epithalamium from Hymenaei. But in both of these her connection with fertility is given considerable emphasis, whereas here it is not so much as alluded to. Indeed, Cynthia's rather tart rebuke to Night's insinuations about her relationship with Endymion (11. 168-170) can only tend to identify her with the virgin Diana. If we make this identification, Neptune's offering of the revels as "a solemn honour to the moon" (1. 211) becomes heavily ironical; and the irony is perfectly, if perversely, fulfilled in a wedding night which remains completely chaste, though the chastity results from the vows of whoredom, not virginity. As an ironic celebration of chastity, the masque is relevant to both Amintor's love relationships: each is a match but no match which this wedding-and-no-wedding ensures will never be consummated, except in death.

The initial uncertainties concerning the nature of Queen Night herself are partially resolved by the conversation between the two goddesses, in which Night is presented as the friend, and Day as the enemy of lovers. Night's proposal that they should "hold their places and outshine the day" (1. 145) even promises to fulfil the conventional lovers' wish (expressed here in the masque songs) that the night may never end. Cynthia has to remind her that the gods' decrees may not be broken in this way but suggests instead that they "stretch their power" over fleeting time by means of an entertainment, designed

To give our servants one contented hour,
With such unwonted solemn grace and state,
As may for ever after force them hate
Our brother's glorious beams, and wish the night.
                                               (11. 151-154)

In effect the masque is to be, like Spenser's "Epithalamion," "for short time an endlesse moniment" which will raise to time a nobler memory / Of what these lovers are" (11. 173-174). If we read the masque with the irony that its ambiguities invite, it can be seen to do exactly this.

Pre-eminent among the servants for whose delight the revels are offered are the lovers themselves, Evadne and Amintor; and conventionally of course it is the bride and groom who will most hate the advent of dawn and "wish the night." This defining association of Night with happiness, love, and sexual consummation is continued in the nuptial songs which separate the three dances of the revels. The masquers make repeated appeals for the extension of Night's reign:

Joy to this great company!
             And no day
Come to steal this night away,
  Till the rites of love are ended.
                                          (11. 219-222)

Hold back thy hours, dark Night, till we have done;
 The Day will come too soon:
Young maids will curse thee, if thou steal's away,
And leav'st their losses open to the day:
 Stay, stay, and hide
 The blushes of the bride.
                                        (11. 233-238)

Hesperus, be long a-shining,
Whilst these lovers are a-twining.
                                         (11. 257-258)

By contrast with "gentle Night," Day is rude, abrupt, and inquisitive: the reward which Cynthia offers the sea-gods for their performance is flood tides which will hide their dwellings from the hateful eye of Day (11. 265-269).

The process of definition, then, is one which inverts, according to the familiar conceit of epithalamia and love poetry in general, the conventional symbolism of night and day, light and dark. But the definition remains incomplete and equivocal. The masquers who are conjured up by Cynthia represent the winds and the sea-gods. Both wind and sea supply conventional metaphors for the passions; so that the dances in which the masquers are led by Neptune may be seen as analogous to the ordered dance in which Reason sets the rebellious humours and affections of Hymenaei. But this symbolism of marital harmony is upset by the escape of Boreas, who proves unamenable to the power of Neptune's "music to lay a Storm." His raising of a tempest which threatens the destruction of "many a tall ship" before day implicitly calls in question the real nature of Night (11. 259-262). The storm stands for an outbreak of unbridled passion which is realized in the discord of the wedding night which follows, and even more disastrously in the slaughter of the second "wedding night" in Act V. Further, the presence among the dancers of Proteus, the shape changer, may also have ironic implications, in views of the web of dissimulation and deception which complicates the subsequent action.

The conventionally circular structure of the masque allows the dramatists to wind up its action with a recapitulation of its opening sequence, which concentrates in a single dramatic emblem the ambiguity of the whole piece. Night, now appropriately called "dead Night" (1. 273) announces her departure with a second and even more malevolent reference to her murderous quarrel with Day, and then vanishes once more "into mists" (1. 287):

     Oh, I could frown
To see the Day, the Day that flings his light
Upon my kingdom and condemns old Night!
Let him go on and flame! I hope to see
Another wildfire in his axletree,
And all fall drench'd.
                                            (11. 275-280)

The immediate effect of the various uncertainties about the significance of the masque action is to give substance to the visual and verbal ambiguities surrounding the figure of Queen Night on her first appearance. Night is described by Cynthia as "queen of shadows" and in the context of a dramatic performance "shadows" may refer not only to the literal shadows of darkness but to the shadows of theatrical illusion: as the presenter of a masque, Night is queen of its actor / shadows and acted illusions. In a wider sense the "shadows" may stand (like the symbolic mists out of which she rises) for delusive appearance and concealed evil. The unfolding ironies of the plot are to reveal Night as the presiding deity of the Rhodian court, Queen of its shadows in both these senses. The whole of the ensuing play action can be seen as the process by which the ambiguities of the masque are ironically elaborated and finally resolved.

The process begins in Act II, scene i: in its opening sequence Dula's bawdy identification of night with love and consummation is contrasted with Aspatia's melancholy association of night with death (11. 104-105). The juxtaposition extends the ambiguity of the masque-artifice to the play-reality and gives a somewhat sinister ambivalence to the removal of the wedding torches (1. 114). The ambivalence is supported by a subdued play with the two senses of "death" which, though it becomes explicit only occasionally, underlies a great deal of the action of The Maid's Tragedy and is an essential feature of its witty fancy. Just as the rhetoric of love poetry can convert Night, the symbol of death, so it can convert death itself to its own metaphorical ends. On her wedding night a maid "dies" in two senses: there is the "death" of sexual climax and the consequent "death" of her virgin self: in the morning she is reborn as a wife. These are the deaths which the bride songs of the masque lead us to expect for the supposed maid, Evadne:

Stay, and confound her tears and her shrill cryings,
Her weak denials, vows, and often-dyings.

    they may kiss while they may say a maid:
Tomorrow twill be other kissed and said.

Thus, the full pathos of Aspatia's rebukes to Evadne and Amintor depends on an implicit comparison between the literal death which she foresees for herself and the nuptial death of which she has been cheated (II.i.94-105,116-118)—the allusion being clinched by the association of the funeral hearse, around which the maids will watch one night, with the marriage bed, around which maids gather to prepare the bride, and of the mourning garlands of yew, ivy, and willow (11. 77-78, 108, 124) with the bride's floral coronet.

The ironic hints in the first 130 lines of the scene are partially substantiated by the ominous recurrence of tears on the wedding day, so lightly dismissed in Act I, scene i. And the omen is amply fulfilled in the wedding night, in terms which constantly send us back to the masque. Amintor's ineffectual deprecation of "the vapours of the night" (1. 146) immediately recalls the mists surrounding Queen Night, with their symbolism of doubt, confusion, evil, and possibly also of death. In one way, of course, the scene is to dispel the mists of deception and error by revealing the true nature of Amintor's "maid and wife"; but against this is set his decision that they must both dissemble (11. 355 ff.). Again, Amintor's jocose "I mean no sleeping" (1. 154) may remind us of Cynthia's claim to be "gazed on … Almost of none but of unquiet eyes" (I.ii.159; italics added); but this night is to be unquiet for its lovers in quite another sense from the one intended. Even more important are the ways in which the scene produces a perverted realization of two of the masque's most conventional epithalamic tropes. Evadne's declaration that her refusal of conjugal rights is "not for a night / Or two … but ever" (11. 210-211) amounts to an ironic fulfilment of the conventional wish for the indefinite extension of the night of bliss: these "joys of marriage," such as they are, are granted for ever. At the same time Cynthia's prediction that her servants will come to "wish the night" is morbidly realized in Amintor's desire for death at Evadne's hands (11. 327-333). The substitution of literal for sexual death suggests an ironic equation of Amintor's situation with that of the woman he has betrayed.

If night proves as hateful as its symbolic connection with death threatens, day, nevertheless, remains as unwelcome as the masque songs predict. The two morning scenes (II.ii and II.i) contrast Aspatia's lamentation with the inner misery of Amintor. The imagery of her laments makes of the sun, Cynthia's brother and Night's antagonist, a further agent of destruction and death. Rather than credit the faith of a man, she says, one should believe the impossible, that

           the sun
Comes but to kiss the fruit in wealthy autumn,
When all falls blasted.

The image reflects, with ironic aptness, firstly on the King, whom the mandatory flattery of the masque has styled a greater sun (I.ii.283), and whose kiss has in fact blasted the fruitfulness of Evadne's marriage, and next on Evadne herself, whom Amintor has previously hailed as bringing a kind of day at midnight (II.i.142-144). In the second of these scenes, the hostility attributed to the searching eye of day is painfully embodied in the blundering curiosity of the courtiers and the jealous enquiries of the King. Their jokes about the troublesomeness of the night (III.i.2-4) and Diphilus' cheerful shout to his sister that "the night will come again" (11. 16-17) are heavy with unconscious irony, an irony which is heightened by the fact that it is actually Amintor whom Diphilus has heard approaching.

In this scene (as throughout the play) the night/day antithesis is given considerable rhetorical emphasis. But the ironies are not always as clear-cut as in the cases we have been considering, and it would be pointless to labor them all. In general, we can say that they function chiefly as insistent reminders of the central paradoxes of the play's fancy. The final resolution of these paradoxes begins with the perverted second "wedding-night." The preparation for this begins in Act IV, scene i, Evadne's conversion scene. Here the play with the literal and metaphorical senses of death becomes brutally explicit. Evadne, who has been introduced in the hackneyed trope of love poetry as "a lady … that … strikes dead with flashes of her eye" (I.i.74-76), and for whom the bridal dyings have been promised, now quite literally "has death about her." Her relationship with the King has "poisoned" her virtue and "murdered" the honor of her family; and, according to Melantius, she can redeem herself only by resolving to kill the King in fact. When she hesitates, her brother responds with a sarcasm that demands death for her "dyings":

An 'twere to kiss him dead, thou'dst smother him:
Be wise and kill him.

The conceit is elaborately worked out in Act V, where Evadne fulfils her vow.

In Act IV, scene ii, the King presents Amintor and Evadne with a second marriage entertainment, in the shape of a banquet, which is the structural equivalent of Act II's masque. The feast ends with his urging the couple once more to the bridal chamber: "It grows somewhat late.—/ Amintor, thou wouldst be a-bed again" (11. 221-222). But the conversation which follows, between Melantius and his brother, sharply points up the difference in the two situations:

               This were a night indeed
To do it in: the King hath sent for her.

And as though Diphilus' exclamation were not sufficient to establish the night/death conceit on which their revenge is to be built, Melantius is made to echo it a few lines later (11. 288-290).

With Act V the night, in fulfilment of Diphilus' promise to his sister in Act III, scene i, "is come again." Its opening scene is evidently designed as an ironical inversion of the wedding night. The gentleman's obscene banter as he ushers the King's whore to the royal bed corresponds to the bawdy nudging of Dula during the preparation of the bride; just as the dialogue between the two gentlemen at the end of the scene, with its boasting and speculation on the King's sexual prowess, recalls the horse-play outside the bridal chamber in Act III, scene i. The "good-nights" of the gentleman and Evadne ominously echo the repeated "good-nights" of Act I, scene ii and Act II, scene i; and the gentleman's farewell picks up the conventional wish for the perpetuation of the marriage night ("A good night be it, then, and a long one" V.i.2)—a wish which is about to be fulfilled for the lovers of the play with an exactitude that he scarcely anticipates. The King's insistent "to beds" (V.ii.33, 38, 43) ironically repeat the groom's invitations to his bride in II.i.152, 155-156, 194, 277; while his mounting horror as he becomes aware of Evadne's real purpose, his protestations that she is "too sweet and gentle for such an act" and his despairing plea for "pity" all parallel Amintor's response to Evadne's unmasking. The allusions to the earlier action show the scene as a grotesque travesty of a wedding night and thus give its doubles entendres on love and death an intensified ironic force. As she trusses up the sleeping King, Evadne actually seems to recall Melantius' sarcastic quibble:

I dare not trust your strength; your grace and I
Must grapple upon even terms no more.

And she recklessly pursues the conceit by referring to her knife blows as "love-tricks" (1. 91). The whole perverted love act reaches its climax in the King's expiring "Oh! I die" (1. 99). In ironic fulfillment of the second masque song, Night stays to cover the kisses ("love-tricks") of the lover, to "hide all" and make the cries of the murdered King as ineffectual as those of the dying bride. In this scene the symbolism of night becomes for the first time completely unequivocal (though the context provides ironic reminders of its original association with amorous fulfilment):

The night grows horrible; and all about me
Like my black purpose.

The abortive night of love is succeeded by the consummatory night of death.

In the final scene Evadne appears, "her hands bloody, with a knife," to announce to her husband

That in a moment can call back thy wrongs …

The joys she envisages are in fact nothing less than the "marriage-joys" so insistently referred to in the first three acts. The blood and the knife she offers as tokens, not of death but of "rites" which have "washed her stains away" and, she implies (11. 112-113, 117-123), restored her maidenhood, so that their marriage may be rejoined. Thus, she announces her revenge in words which echo the hymeneal shout in the first masque song:

Joy to this great company!

Joy to Amintor! for the King is dead.

And she goes on to make the last of the play's formal invitations to the marriage bed (11. 152-157). When, however, Amintor rejects the symbolism of her love tokens ("Black is thy colour now"), Evadne bids her husband farewell with a speech that finally accepts death as the only consummation possible for her:

Amintor, thou shalt love me now again:
Go, I am calm. Farewell and peace forever!
Evadne, whom thou hatest, will die for thee.

The death of Evadne, bride and no maid, is carefully contrived to parallel that of Aspatia, maid and no bride. Aspatia's equation of sexual and actual death, at II.ii.22-26, is realized through her absurd duel with Amintor in Act V, scene iv, which can be seen as an ironic literalization of the metaphorical battle of bride and groom. Quite properly, as the conventions of the trope require, Aspatia offers only a token resistance (V.iv.101 ff.). And her line as she falls recognizes a pathetic irony in her death in the house of the man who was to have become her husband:

     There is no place so fit
For me to die as here.
                                        (11. 106-107)

In its final act The Maid's Tragedy is revealed as at once dramatized epitaph and epithalamium; the disturbing ambiguities of the masque have been elaborated into a structure of verbal and dramatic ironies which, whatever the difference of scale, is fundamentally of the same order, in its witty conjunction of opposites, as Herrick's "Upon a maid that dyed the day she was marryed":

That Morne which saw me made a Bride,
The Ev'ning witnest that I dy'd.
The holy lights, wherewith they guide
Unto the bed the bashful Bride;
Served, but as Tapers, for to burne,

And light my Reliques to their Urne.
This Epitaph, which here you see,
Supply'd the Epithalamie.

Evadne's intention is that the night of death should blot out the dishonor of the actual wedding night: the blackness of the deed, by a final paradoxical twist, is to make her fair again.

             Am I not fair?
Looks not Evadne beauteous in these rites now?
Were those hours half so lovely in thine eyes
When our hands met before the holy man:
I was too foul within to look fair then.
                                (V.iv. 117-122; italics added)

The italicized words belong to a strain of light/dark imagery so closely related to the basic Night/Day opposi tion that it may be appropriate to deal with it now. The symbolic hostility of Night and Day in the masque was clearly meant to be paralleled in the staging by spectacular use of chiaroscuro. The presence of the "fair Queen," "Bright Cynthia" in the company of dull, black Night, the "Queen of Shadows," calls for visual realization of the paradox which the moon goddess promises to achieve in her revels ("our music may … make the east break day / At midnight" I.ii.214-216). In the play action this visual opposition is continued in the alternation of nocturnal and daytime scenes; and it is a consistent theme of the poetry. The masque's paradox of brightness in blackness, fairness in foulness, is typically embodied in Evadne and in that false sun, the King. The Night Goddesses salute the assembled court beauties (among whom the bride is pre-eminent) as "a troop brighter than we," whose "eyes know how / To shoot far more and quicker rays" than Cynthia herself (11. 136-143); and Night's figure recalls the first description of Evadne as a lady "that bears the light above her and strikes dead / With flashes of her eye" (I.i.75-76), while her comparison of their beams of beauty with the dawn (11. 134-135) looks forward to Amintor's conventional greeting of his bride as Aurora (II.i.142-144).

The first scene, with its references to the "fair Aspatia" (1. 60) and "the fair Evadne" (1. 76) establishes the two as rivals in fairness. Evadne's triumph in this contest, signalized by Amintor's tribute to the "lustre" of her eye, proves however to be a matter of appearance only. When Amintor asks "what lady was there, that men call fair and virtuous … that would have shunned my love?" (II.i.263-265; italics added), he is in fact stumbling towards his later characterization of her as "that foul woman" (IV.i.206; italics added). And by Act III it is Aspatia whom he recognizes as genuinely "fair" (III. i.235). There is an irony beyond that which the King intends in his reference to Evadne's "black eye" (III.i. 147) as a token of her quickness in the sports of love. For hitherto it has been the brightness, the fieriness of her eyes which has been insisted on as an epitome of her fairness. But the blackness on which the King fixes, we know by now, corresponds to an inner blackness—the foulness of illicit lust. If there is any true whiteness about Evadne it is the proverbial whiteness of leprosy (III.ii.183; IV.i.201). And once Melantius has penetrated Amintor's mask of dissimulation, her blackness becomes a persistent rhetorical theme; in Melantius' castigations:

      that desperate fool that drew thee
From thy fair life.

The burnt air, when the Dog reigns, is not fouler
Than thy contagious name.

Thy black shame …

and then in her own bitter self-denunciation:

Would I could say so to my black disgrace!

There is not in the compass of the light
A more unhappy creature.

A soul as white as Heaven …

I do present myself the foulest creature …

                   I am hell,
Till you, my dear lord, shoot your light into me,
The beams of your forgiveness.

All the dear joys here, and above hereafter,
Crown thy fair soul! Thus I take leave, my lord;
And never shall you see the foul Evadne,
Till she have tried all honour'd means, that may
Set her in rest and wash her stains away.

There is of course a special irony in the fact that the King continues to see her (IV.ii.64) as "fair Evadne" (by which he means fair to himself and foul to her husband), since her conversion has effectively restored the word from the perverted sense he gives it.

The imagery of the regicide scene carries on the fair / foul, light / dark oppositions (V.ii. 45, 50, 59, 62-65, 74-80, 87, 90), now chiefly in reference to the King whose foulness has corrupted Evadne's fairness, and whose death alone may restore it: "Am I not fair? / Looks not Evadne beauteous in these rites now?" Amintor's reply to this question is crucial: he coldly denies that one evil can cancel out another; for him Evadne remains foul beneath her fairness: "Black is thy colour now" (V.iv.135). The effect of the last scene is in fact to define beyond argument (as the masque failed to do) the key terms of the play's fancy. And in that damning "Black" (in which is concentrated the traditional symbolism of both sin and death) is implied the ultimate resolution of the central ambiguity of Night—a resolution achieved in Amintor's judgment of Evadne's murder:

     And to augment my woe,
You now are present, stain'd with a king's blood
Violently shed. This keeps night here,
And throws an unknown wilderness about me.
                        (V.iv. 147-150; italics added)

The lines point to the scene as the final ironic realization of the conventional epithalamic appeal which has haunted the action of the play, "Hold back thy hour, dark night… Stay, and hide all"; the appeal is granted as the four lovers of the play slip into the illimitable night of death.

Two further linguistic patterns, associated with the masque and important for the working out of Beaumont and Fletcher's fancy, deserve some comment. One involves images of blushing, and the other, images of storm. The second masque song, in the fashion of an epithalamium, appeals to Night to "stay, and hide / The blushes of the bride" (I.ii.237-238; italics added). These conventional tokens of maidenly modesty acquire an increasingly ironic significance as the play develops. In Act II, scene i, Amintor attributes Evadne's obstinacy to "the coyness of a bride" (1. 163); but Evadne shortly disabuses him (11. 213-217) and cruelly spells out the real meaning of the color on her face:

Alas, Amintor, think'st thou I forbear
To sleep with thee, because I have put on
A maiden's strictness? Look upon these cheeks,
And thou shalt find the hot and rising blood
Unapt for such a vow.

The revelation gives a bitterly ironic twist to Aspatia's complaint at the beginning of the scene which follows:

Good gods, how well you look! Such a full colour
Young bashful brides put on.

But the greatest ironies are reserved for Act III with Strato's unwittingly tactless banter: "O call the bride, my lord, Amintor, / That we may see her blush" (III.i.76-77) and the King's vicious probing

    I should think, by her black eye,
And her red cheek, she would be quick and
  stirring …

As he perfectly well knows, her blushing is a token not of chastity but guilt: it is the result not of maiden bashfulness but excess of blood, in the sense of lust. Despite this, Evadne's blushes, like the fire in her eye, continue to be used for purposes of dissimulation—Amintor endeavors to fob off the curious Melantius with a complimentary reference to the "inevitable colour" of her cheeks (III.ii.76-77); while Evadne herself responds to his attacks with the tokens of bashful innocence (IV.i.3, 5). The foolish old Calianax imagines the restoration of Aspatia's happiness in terms of the same image: "I shall revenge my girl, / And make her red again" (III.ii.333-334). Blushing is seen, then, as a sign of health, as well as of fairness and innocence—the health which the "leprous" Evadne, for all her superficial color, conspicuously lacks. For this reason there is an ironic appropriateness in the fact that the meaning ascribed to blushes is precisely inverted in Act IV. Melantius' reply to Evadne's "You would make me blush" (IV.i.3) implies that blushing reveals guilt rather than bashful innocence. And this cynical interpretation is maintained through Act IV, scene ii (ironically the scene of the second wedding entertainment, where the coy blushes of the bride would be appropriate):

CALIANAX                        If he deny it,
         I'll make him blush.

AMINTOR                    Here, my love,
         This wine will do thee wrong, for it will set
         Blushes upon thy cheeks; and, till thou dost
         A fault, 'twere pity.

KING                     … Calianax,
         I cannot trust this: I have thrown out words,
         That would have fetch'd warm blood upon
          the cheeks
         Of guilty men, and he is never moved.

The King's is the last overt reference in the play to blushing, but I think it is clear that the red of the blood upon Evadne's hands as she enters in Act V, scene iv is meant to recall the earlier insistence upon the redness of her cheeks. The King has connected that redness with lustful excess of blood (III.i.148), and Evadne ironically describes his murder as a medicinal bleeding to purge his surfeit of passionate blood (V.ii.41-46). At the same time the bleeding is intended to "wash her stains away" (IV.ii.285), to "make her red again" in Calianax' phrase. In Act V, scene iv she offers the red upon her hands as an emblem of restored fairness and maiden innocence. The ambivalence of redness cannot, however, any more than that of blackness, survive the assassination of the King: in Amintor's eyes it stands only for lust and sanguinary corruption. Evadne has simply committed the one sin that may "outname thy other faults" and the stain of lust is deepened by the stain of "a king's blood / Violently shed" (11. 148-149).

In my discussion of the masque, I pointed out that its dance of wind and sea gods could be seen as symbolizing the reasonable ordering of the passions necessary to nuptial harmony, and that this symbolism was compromised by the escape of Boreas. Like the other evil auguries of the masque, his storm is realized in the play action and its realization marked by a series of images. Sea and storm imagery runs through Aspatia's extended laments in Act II, scene ii. Its first appearance, seemingly incidental, is as part of the elaborate comparative figure at Act II, scene ii, lines 17 ff. But her "ruined merchant" (merchant vessel) must recall Aeolus' prophecy of the wreck of "many a tall ship," and the recollection becomes even more apparent in the elaborate tableau of Dido and Aeneas which she sets up a few lines later (11. 31 ff.). Aspatia identifies herself with the deserted Dido and pictures herself standing, helpless before the elements

          upon the sea-beach now,
Mine arms thus, and mine hair blown with the
Wild as that desert …
             let the rocks
Groan with continual surges; and behind me,
Make all a desolation.
                                        (11. 68-77)

Amintor she casts as the faithless Aeneas, on whose departing ship she calls down a storm:

           Could the gods know of this,
And not, of all their number, raise a storm?
                                          (11. 49-50)

The irony is, of course, that the wind god Boreas has raised just such a tempest as she despairs of and that it has already struck Amintor in the preceding scene. The wedding night has been stormily "troublesome" in a sense that Diphilus at III.i.3 does not guess.

In Act II, scene i, Amintor feels his inner storm of passion mocked by the peacefulness of the elements. His complaint reflects ironically on Aeolus' advice to Neptune "to strike a calm" for the bridal night (I.ii.264):

    Why is this night so calm?
Why does not Heaven speak in thunder to us,
And drown her voice?

Appropriately, the height of Amintor's passion is expressed in his threat to cut the body of Evadne's lover "into motes, / And scatter it before the northern wind" (II.i.304-305)—where the reference to Boreas is felt less as a literal threat than as an ironic metaphor for his ungoverned rage. And in Act IV, scene i, when Melantius plots the revenge which Amintor's royalism has prevented, the motif occurs again as a metaphor for the revenger's unbridled fury against Evadne's seducer:

    By my just sword, h'ad safer
Bestrid a billow when the angry North
Ploughs up the sea …
                                            (11. 76-78)

The storm so ominously raised by Boreas is not in fact to be allayed until the last scene of the play, after the destruction of "many a tall ship." For Amintor, Evadne's murder of the King has

                   touch'd a life
The very name of which had power to chain
Up all my rage, and calm my wildest wrongs.

The image explicitly identifies his storm of rage on the wedding night with Boreas' breaking of his chain in the masque, and it signals the destruction of his last restraints. He finds himself in the "unknown wilderness" of Aspatia's tableau in Act II, scene ii, the psychological desert left by the violent winds of passion (V.iv.150). True calm of mind is possible now only when all passion is finally spent in death—as Evadne, at the last, comes to realize:

Go; I am calm. Farewell, and peace for ever.


In the second of the encomiums which he contributed to the 1647 Folio, William Cartwright returned to the praise of Fletcher's constructive genius:

Parts are so fitted unto parts, as doe
Shew thou hadst wit, and Mathematicks too.

Fletcher, in Cartwright's admiring view, excelled all his contemporaries in mastery of "the simetry, which gives a Poem grace." In this essay I have been concerned to reveal something of the formal symmetry of The Maid's Tragedy. I have tried to show how it extends as Cart-wright claims, to all the parts—to the rhetoric as much as to the characters and the plotting. The symmetry of the whole is primarily a symmetry of inversions and oppositions—love and death, marriage and adultery, appearance and reality—produced by the dramatists' juggling of familiar social situations. The rhetorical symmetry is designed to elaborate these structural conceits in terms of patterns of imagery whose effectiveness is paradoxically dependent on their very conventionality. Certainly, these patterns are of a different order from those we find in, say, Webster; and there is a good deal of force in Eliot's criticism that the language lacks a "network of tentacular roots reaching down to the deepest terrors and desires." But the criticism is only a half-truth. The imagery of The Maid's Tragedy is conventional rather than imaginative, but the conventionality is the consequence of a particular constructive function: it corresponds to the social familiarity of the situations out of which the plot, with its fanciful twists and witty counterturns, grows. There is a network of roots, but not of the kind that Eliot or Professor Bradbrook were looking for—its spread is wider and shallower.

The wedding masque justifies its formal prominence by the way in which its fundamental oppositions and ambiguities prefigure the development of the whole elaborate edifice of structural and rhetorical conceits. It provides, in effect, the necessary exposition of the play's "fancy," an exposition which predicates the "fate" of the play. In this it combines an oracular ambivalence, ensuring that "none can prevent the fancy," with a mathematic precision that justifies Cartwright's enthusiastic puff:

The whole designe, the shadowes, the lights such
That none can say he shewes or hides too much.

Beaumont and Fletcher have suffered more than most from neglect of the principle that criticism should move towards, rather than from, evaluative comparisons. An attempt to set that right need not, of course, involve any radical change in our assessment of their worth as dramatic poets, but it ought to enhance our respect for their virtues as theatrical craftsmen.

Ronald Broude (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Divine Right and Divine Retribution in Beaumont and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy," in Shakespeare and Dramatic Tradition: Essays in Honor of S. F. Johnson, edited by W. R. Elton and William B. Long, University of Delaware Press, 1989, pp. 246-63.

[In the essay below, Broude examines Jacobean views on providence, justice, and the divine right of kings as depicted in The Maid's Tragedy.]

We are accustomed to regarding The Maid's Tragedy (ca. 1608-11) as a play about the divine right of kings. The immunities conferred by kingship have a prominent part in the play, and the dilemma faced by the play's central character, Amintor, depends upon a conflict between the code of personal honor and a concept of monarchy that holds the person of the king to be inviolable.

Surprisingly, in view of the importance that the theme of kingship—or, more specifically, regicide—is thought to have in The Maid's Tragedy, there has been little agreement about what—if anything—the play says about kings, their responsibilities, and their privileges. During the reign of Charles II, influential members of the court seem to have felt that The Maid's Tragedy, with its portrayal of a lustful king slain by the woman he has seduced, was a play inimical to the interests of the Crown, and, accordingly, Edmund Waller undertook to rewrite Beaumont and Fletcher's most successful tragedy, providing two alternative endings in both of which the King's life is spared. On the other hand, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, at least partially on the basis of his reading of The Maid's Tragedy, characterized Beaumont and Fletcher as "the most servile jure divino royalists." J. St. Loe Strachey, however, vigorously contested this view, observing [in the introduction to the Mermaid edition of Beaumont and Fletcher's plays, 1887] that the portrayals of kings in the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher demonstrate attitudes quite different from the blind respect for royalty that Coleridge seems to have seen in works such as The Maid's Tragedy. More recently, John Danby [in Poets on Fortune's Hill, 1954] has sought to show that the royalist views enunciated by characters in the Beaumont and Fletcher plays were not necessarily the views of the playwrights themselves but were, rather, one of the several absolutes, conflicts between which furnished these protocavalier dramatists with dramatically effective situations.

What Beaumont and Fletcher's original audience may have thought of the regicide in The Maid's Tragedy we cannot say with certainty, for we have no contemporary comment on this aspect of the play. This lack of comment, however, may in itself be significant, for it suggests that the killing of the King in The Maid's Tragedy was not viewed by Jacobean playgoers with undue alarm. Indeed, had The Maid's Tragedy contained any matter which could have been regarded as politically objectionable, it is highly unlikely that the Master of the Revels would have allowed it to reach the stage: James I was, after all, a sovereign particularly sensitive to the privileges of royalty, and, as the author The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, he had propounded one of the most extreme statements of the theory of divine right to have been published during the Renaissance.

Plays in which wicked kings are killed are not uncommon in the drama of the English Renaissance—witness Saturninus, slain in Titus Andronicus; Piero, in Antonio's Revenge; and Claudius, in Hamlet. What is unusual in The Maid's Tragedy's treatment of regicide is the stress placed upon the view that the royal person is sacred. Other plays in which regicide occurs adroitly avoid reminding their audiences of the idea—sanctioned by approved doctrine under James—that a subject raising his hand against his lawful sovereign is guilty not only of treason but also of impiety. Regicide—even tyrannicide—was simply too sensitive a subject to deal with directly on the Stuart stage.

Perhaps, however, it was just this "forbidden" element in the regicide theme that made it attractive to Beaumont and Fletcher—and that helped to make The Maid's Tragedy popular with their audiences. For the courtier playgoers for whom Beaumont and Fletcher wrote, The Maid's Tragedy may well have provided much needed relief from the pressures—both intellectual and psychological—imposed by an unnecessarily rigid and unrealistically restrictive theory of royal privilege, a theory that, given the circumstances obtaining in the English court, could be questioned by the king's adherents neither openly nor directly.

But to prove successful, a play dealing with regicide was obliged to maintain a delicate balance between the dramatically effective and the politically objectionable. In The Maid's Tragedy, such a balance is carefully maintained by diverting attention from the political implications of the killing of the King. In so far as possible, the King's death is "depoliticized": the conflict in which the King plays so important a part is treated as a private rather than a public matter, and his transgressions are represented as injuries to his victim's personal honor and sexual vanity instead of crimes that affect the welfare of the commonwealth. Character and motivation are also artfully manipulated, so that the question of regicide, having been exploited for maximum dramatic effect in the second, third, and fourth acts, is tactfully forgotten when the King is actually killed in the fifth. Finally, the central issue of the play—the entrapment of Amintor into a tragic marriage intended to conceal the liaison of the King and Evadne—is portrayed as part of a larger complex of events over which the heavens preside and that they direct towards the punishment of the adulterous king. Here again, however, political questions are eschewed, for the heavens seem to be punishing not a king who is an adulterer but an adulterer who happens to be a king. As the heavens' program works itself out, Amintor is spared the cruel necessity of choosing between the dishonor of wittoldom and the guilt of regicide, and the King's death, when it does come, assumes a significance altogether different from that it would have had, had Amintor, after mature deliberation, elected to kill the King himself.

But if Beaumont and Fletcher were successful in their own day in making of The Maid's Tragedy a play that both is and is not about the rights of kings, their success has not been altogether able to withstand the passage of time. The strategies that they employed to render their treatment of regicide acceptable to their Jacobean audiences depended in large part upon the conventions of action and character that were peculiar to the Renaissance English stage and that did not survive the closing of the theaters in 1642. It is, therefore, not surprising that these strategies should have failed to have their intended effect when the theaters reopened after the Restoration. For audiences of the Restoration and succeeding generations, Amintor's forcefully expressed views on the inviolability of the royal person naturally suggested that The Maid's Tragedy was a play about the divine right of kings. Moreover, like much literature that seeks to exploit the sensational aspect of forbidden questions while avoiding the potentially embarrassing implications of their answers, The Maid's Tragedy has suffered from the weakening of the taboos that had made its carefully wrought equivocations so during to the courtier playgoers for whom it was written; to modern audiences, the play may well seem wanting in the integrity of vision that is expected of great tragedy. To recover some measure of the meaning that The Maid's Tragedy may have had for its original audience, it is necessary to read the play within the context of both the Jacobean political theory upon which it draws and the Jacobean dramatic conventions within which it was conceived. The insight to be gained is well worth the effort.

The limits of royal power and the immunities and privileges attaching to kingship—the theme with which The Maid's Tragedy seems to promise that it will deal—were issues much in men's minds circa 1610, the approximate date of The Maid's Tragedy's composition. The accession of James I had brought to the English throne a rigid theoretician who claimed for the Crown broader rights and greater privileges than had been either asserted in Tudor theory or implied by Tudor practice. Changes in the social structure of England, however, had given new standing to a middle class that ascribed to Parliament and the Law powers at least as great as those of the Crown. Social differences, economic pressures, and political confrontations served to aggravate the conflict between the Crown and the institutions in which were seen to lie alternative sources of power. Eventually, this conflict—and the antagonisms that it reflected—was to prove a cause of civil war; during James's reign, however, rival claims were still in the process of being staked and basic issues were still only tentatively defined.

Sixteenth-century English political thought had consisted of disparate (and sometimes mutually inconsistent) elements drawn from a broad range of traditions—from theology, from law, from speculative politics, and from custom. The views that had received official sanction—and that had been disseminated in forms ranging from learned treatises to simple sermons and homilies—had been those which supported the Tudors in their effort to establish a strong central government which would secure the Tudor dynasty from feudal upheavals of the sort that had toppled in turn their Lancastrian and Yorkist predecessors. Notwithstanding the sixteenth century's interest in—and astute application of—the principles of Realpolitik, approved Tudor theory had grounded its concept of kingship upon a medieval cosmology that represented the structure of the commonwealth as the political manifestation of the divine order that permeated and informed the universe. To each member of the commonwealth (as to each being in the universe) God was supposed to have assigned a place and a function. The place of the king in the commonwealth had been understood to be analogous to that of God in the universe: the king's function was to serve as God's deputy on earth, to maintain order in the body politic, and to punish those who transgressed the law. Theories that sought the mandate for kingship in the assent of those governed or in a system of mutual obligations between sovereign and subject had not been unknown in sixteenth-century England—indeed, they had been reflected in some of England's most venerable institutions—but Tudor theorists had preferred to regard royal power as flowing directly from God: the king and the magistrates, it was asserted, held offices ordained by God, and the power that they exercised was therefore His.

Failure on the part of the king to seek out and prosecute all malefactors had been considered an extremely serious matter, for unpunished crime had been understood to lay upon the entire commonwealth a burden of collective guilt. Especially grave was the situation created when the king himself violated the laws that it was his duty to uphold. Nevertheless, Tudor theory, consistent with its emphasis on the importance of civil order and its fear of riot and insurrection, had assumed the position that no royal malfeasance—neither negligence in the pursuit of malefactors nor misconduct by the sovereign himself—could justify the use of force against the legitimate king. The wicked king, it had been argued, was a punishment visited by the heavens upon an unworthy people; to resist such a king was therefore to resist the will of the heavens. The subject of such an evil sovereign was advised to accept God's will and to obey his lawful ruler. Only if his king commanded a course of action manifestly contrary to the word of God could the subject refuse to obey; such refusal, however, rendered him liable to whatever punishment the sovereign thus thwarted might choose to inflict. Called by modern scholars the "doctrine of non-resistance," this insistence upon the immunity of the king from reprisals by his subjects and the obligation of subjects to obey even tyrannical kings had been a prominent feature of "official" Tudor theory; it had been especially valuable in helping to maintain political stability during the uncertain early years of the English Reformation.

With the accession of Mary Tudor in 1553, English Protestants, who for the most part had been staunch in their support of the doctrine of non-resistance under Henry and Edward, had begun to reconsider their position. The sources of royal power were reexamined, and the view that the king derives his authority from "the people," who, if he abuses the trust placed in him, may remove him from office, had been revived and elaborated. The duty of a good Christian living under an impious king had been studied, and it had been suggested, tentatively at first but later more forcefully, that passive resistance might not in all cases be a sufficient response to the ungodly exercise of royal power: tyrannicide had been openly discussed. With the death of Mary in 1558, English Protestants' interest in tyrannicide had understandably waned, but on the continent Reformers and Counter-Reformers alike had become intensely concerned with defining the circumstances that might justify active opposition to a legitimate but despotic ruler; some of the Catholic documents in this bitter exchange of pamphlets and treatises had been un mistakably addressed to the Catholic subjects of England's Protestant queen. Concern with tyrannicide had not, however, been purely speculative; events such as the deposition of Mary Stuart in Scotland and the assassination of William of Orange in the Netherlands had served to keep tyrannicide a topic of current if not continuously immediate interest for Englishmen.

The broad range of ideas on kingship to which Englishmen had been exposed during the sixteenth century all but precluded the possibility of a favorable reception for views on royal authority as militant as those professed by James I when he ascended the English throne in 1603. As James VI of Scotland, the new English king had waged a long and bitter struggle to impose upon the unruly Scots nobility the same sort of strong monarchy that the Tudors had created in England a century earlier, and, accordingly, his conception of the divine right of kings had become too firmly fixed to permit comfortable adjustment to the very different political conditions obtaining in his new kingdom. James's views, which his subjects could read in his published speeches and in The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, went well beyond the familiar model presented by "official" Tudor theory. For James, the king derived his authority directly from God and was therefore responsible to no earthly power. The king, James argued, stood above the law, for laws were established in the king's name, and might be altered, suspended or revoked at his pleasure. The king might obey his own laws if he chose, but he was under no obligation to do so, and he might without reproach ignore them when it suited him. To all intents and purposes, then, royal power was absolute, untrammeled by institutions of any sort: this, indeed, is what James meant by a "free" monarchy.

To be sure, the king would be called to account before God both for his own conduct and for the welfare of his subjects, and severe punishment would certainly be visited upon the ruler found to have failed in his duty. Sometimes, James admitted, invoking a commonplace of Tudor doctrine, this punishment would take the form of an insurrection raised by God among the subjects of the wicked sovereign; all good Christians, however, were urged not to participate themselves in such mutinies, for, they were warned, subjects who overthrow their king are instruments of God which, having served His purpose, will be delivered up to the punishments prescribed for rebels.

Although The Maid's Tragedy draws upon political theories that would have been familiar to Englishmen during the first decade of James's reign, it does so in ways that effectively remove the play from the context of contemporary political controversy. The Maid's Tragedy presupposes no more than superficial acquaintance with either James's views or the premises of sixteenth- or early seventeenth-century political thought; it avoids serious discussion of both abstruse and controversial aspects of political theory; and it alludes to royal privileges and immunities only in the simplest and most general terms. No attempt is made to examine the issues most likely to be of current interest—the limits of the king's powers and the relationship of royal authority to the laws of the realm. Nor is there any balanced presentation of conflicting views: the broad yet vague claims made on behalf of royal privilege by Amintor, the King, and Evadne are nowhere countered—not even in 3.2, the crucial scene in which Amintor reveals his predicament to Melantius—by reference to the obligations inherent in the office of kingship or to possible (if not universally acceptable) courses of action open to subjects whose king fails in his duty.

The concepts of kingship upon which The Maid's Tragedy draws are applied to a situation so apolitical and so unusual that they seem to have little if any relevance to the real world of politics. In The Maid's Tragedy, a king and his mistress propose to make use of the privileges and immunities of the royal office in a cynical attempt to keep their illicit relationship secret: they depend upon the position of the King both to compel a loyal subject's participation in their scheme and to shield them from the subject's wrath when he discovers how he has been deceived. But Tudor-Stuart political theory does not contemplate the flagrant and premeditated abuse of royal authority in an essentially private matter such as this. Traditional theory assumes that, unlike the King in The Maid's Tragedy, most sovereigns whose subjects complain of them will have some measure—or at least some pretext—of justice on their side. Moreover, the wrongs to which English political thought addresses itself are political wrongs—abuses on a large scale involving the consciences, lives, or property of substantial numbers of subjects. Aside from the scandal of his personal life, however, the King in The Maid's Tragedy remains a cipher: we do not know, in political terms, whether he has been been a good king or a bad one, whether his policies have been wise or foolish, his kingdom prosperous or impoverished. He seems, in fact, to exist in a political vacuum; the sins for which he dies are private sins, and his death, in so far as a king's death can be, is without political significance. The situation presented in The Maid's Tragedy is, then, an artificial one sufficiently removed from the realities of English politics to make the application of political theory to it a harmless academic exercise, an exercise in the tradition of the controversiae, which, as Eugene Waith has shown [in The Patterns of Tragicomedy in Beaumont and Fletcher, 1952], play so interesting a part in the drama of Beaumont and Fletcher.

Although The Maid's Tragedy assiduously avoids discussion of specific topics that might have been construed to have relevance to Jacobean politics, the importance accorded the question of royal immunity in the second, third, and fourth acts requires that, if the play is not to appear a pièce à thèse on the limits of royal privilege, the killing of the King must not seem the considered act of a morally responsible character who has carefully reviewed the arguments both for and against regicide. The King has committed serious crimes, and he must certainly be made to pay for them, but Amintor, who has suffered most from the King's malfeasance and has had to decide whether or not to revenge himself upon his sovereign, cannot be made the immediate instrument of the King's punishment: having affirmed his belief in the inviolability of the royal person, Amintor cannot reverse himself without calling into question the adequacy of the doctrine of royal immu nity. The punishment of the King is accordingly accomplished through the joint efforts of three characters among whom the functions of exposing the King and putting him to death are carefully distributed: Amintor reveals the King's crimes to Melantius; Melantius plans and sets in motion the machinery of retribution, and Evadne executes Melantius's instructions. Great care is exercised in managing the details of circumstance and character that would have shaped an audience's perception of the significance of the characters' actions, so that the likelihood of any incident's assuming embarrassing political implications is effectively minimized.

The character of Amintor and the circumstances in which he is placed are manipulated in such a way as to make his reluctance to proceed against the King both credible and acceptable to a Jacobean audience. The particulars that define the injury that Amintor has suffered are carefully selected and arranged so that he cannot take action against the King without changing from an innocent victim to a villain revenger. The conventions of the Renaissance English stage recognized only one sort of crime for which revenge might be sanctioned—a felony (usually but not always murder) secretly committed against an immediate blood relative. Judged in accordance with these conventions, the injuries that the King has done Amintor—commanding him to break his vows to Aspatia and marrying him to the dishonored Evadne—although grave, would not have been regarded by a Jacobean audience as serious enough to warrant revenge. Thus the question of justifiable regicide does not really arise in The Maid's Tragedy, for regardless of whether Evadne's lover be a king or a commoner, Amintor lacks sufficient cause to take action against him.

Nor does Amintor's character—a skillful blend of engaging virtues and serious flaws—suggest that he will be likely to repair the damage that the King and Evadne have done his honor. Amintor can be generous, brave, and steadfast in his loyalty to principles in which he believes, but he can also be petty, weak, and strangely indifferent to the demands of the honor he professes to value so highly. In 2.1, we see him—under great stress, it is true—disgracefully agreeing to act the role of satisfied husband for which the King and Evadne have cast him; he defends his decision with the thoroughly unacceptable argument that honor is merely a matter of appearances:

           Me thinkes I am not wrong' d,
Nor is it ought, if from the censuring world
I can but hide it—reputation
Thou art a word, no more. …

These sentiments are in perfect harmony with those which underlie Amintor's plea in 3.1 that Melantius not revenge himself upon the King lest it

            shame me to posterity. …
            It will be cald
Honor in thee to spill thy sisters blood
If she her birth abuse, and on the King
A brave revenge, but on me that have walkt
With patience in it, it will fixe the name
Of fearefull cuckold.
                                     (3.2.216, 223-28)

We are reminded by these speeches that Amintor has already compromised his honor by acceding to the King's command and abandoning Aspatia, already his troth-plight wife. As we have observed, Renaissance Englishmen were unlikely to have regarded royal authority as having power sufficient to compel a subject to disobey the dictates of his own conscience, nor were they likely to have regarded the plea of obedience to a royal command as absolving a subject from responsibility for his own actions. Amintor himself shares these views: as he acknowledges,

It was the King first mov'd me to't, but he
Has not my will in keeping.

Nevertheless, Amintor has allowed his honor to be stained because of his undiscriminating allegiance to the Crown and because of an ignoble preference for present comfort—the King's favor, alliance with his friend Melantius, and marriage to a much admired woman—to the disadvantages of incurring royal displeasure while keeping his word to Aspatia. For an audience sensitive to such failings, Amintor's inability to redeem his honor by taking action against the King would seem neither surprising nor out of character.

The passive role that Amintor must play if The Maid's Tragedy is safely to avoid politically compromising issues determines the course that his career follows. Amintor's tragedy conforms to the pattern associated with such similar tragic figures as Richard II and Lear, and audiences acquainted with the persecutions that these noble but flawed characters impotently endure must have found the shape of Amintor's tragedy familiar. Like Richard and Lear, Amintor can see the immediate cause of his misery in an ill-considered choice—in Amintor's case, the decision to obey the royal command and marry Evadne instead of Aspatia. This decision—like those of Richard and Lear, superficially tenable but tainted by elements of self-indulgence and moral irresponsibility—opens Amintor to persecution by powerful and implacable enemies; it seems also to deprive him of the ability effectively to take the initiative in determining his own fate. Reduced to theatrical displays of self-pity and futile rage, Amintor must look to others to right the wrongs he has suffered. Only when he has been rescued from the consequences of his fatal choice is Amintor able to regain the moral composure with which bravely to confront his tragedy.

Melantius, who provides the impetus for action against the King, is presented as a veteran warrior, less naive and more adept at intrigue than he would like others to believe, but nevertheless decidedly more comfortable with simple deeds than with complex ideas. Forced to choose between the rival claims of friendship and family solidarity, Melantius quickly decides upon the priority of his loyalties and acts in accordance with the decision he has made. His preference for action allows him little opportunity for the sort of prolonged meditation that might be construed as an embarrassing discussion of regicide, and this quality permits the playwrights to accomplish almost without our noticing it the dangerous transition from deliberation on Amintor's plight to action against the King.

Particular attention has been given to the details that show Melantius to be not only a gentleman concerned with the honor of his family but also a just and pious man who accepts the part he must play in the King's punishment fully aware of what will be required of him. In depicting the revenge that Melantius effects, the playwrights are careful "to touch all the bases." Although quick to act, Melantius is not over hasty: having heard—and believed—Amintor's accusations, he nevertheless seeks confirmation of what his friend has told him: having bullied a confession from Evadne, he patiently allows her to corroborate Amintor's charges by herself identifying the King as her lover. Assured of the King's guilt, Melantius rightly perceives that the King's crimes are offenses against the heavens and that the revengers are the agents of the gods' vengeance: "All the gods require it [i.e., the killing of the King]," Melantius tells his sister: "They are dishonored in him" (4.1.144-45). Finally, having successfully contrived the King's death and secured the safety of himself and his followers, Melantius casts aside the dissimulation that he has so skillfully employed, accepting responsibility for all that he has done and submitting his cause for judgment. Melantius has sought no material benefit for himself from the King's death; he is prepared to serve the new king as a loyal subject. That his actions have been scrupulous and his cause just is suggested by the choric observations of Strato ("He looks as if he had the better cause, … I do beleeve him noble …" [5.2.14, 19]) and by the promptness of Lysippus in pardoning him.

Evadne, to whom falls the actual killing of the King, is a character so filled with contradictions and so lacking in moral substance that it is difficult to attach moral significance to the regicide she commits. When we first see her, she is proud of her position as the King's mistress, but she is not altogether comfortable with the burdens that the necessity of concealing her liaison have placed upon her. She pities Amintor, yet she is able cold-bloodedly to make him accept the cruel realities of the shameful position into which she has helped to maneuver him. Her confession to Melantius is extracted by brute force instead of being freely given, and her "reformation" seems dictated as much by fear of her irate brother as by sincere repentance. Although Evadne accepts the killing of the King as a form of penance, she sees it also as a way of winning Amintor. Unlike Melantius, Evadne is quite unaware that the King has offended the gods and that in punishing him she is acting as the heavens' agent; instead, she sees herself as avenging her much-injured husband, her dishonored brother, and her own lost purity. Her suicide, which she regards as proof of her love for Amintor, is merely another indication of her emotional instability and inability to recognize the moral principles that should be guiding her actions; having substituted love for ambition as her summum bonum, she dies, like another "reformed" criminal who seeks belatedly to avenge his own victim, in a mist. She is, to use the familiar image that James employs in The Trew Law, an instrument that the heavens have employed to scourge a wicked king and that, having served its purpose, will be cast into the fire.

Perhaps the most effective means by which The Maid's Tragedy contrives not to be a play about divine right is by being a play about divine retribution. The chain of incidents by which the adultery of the King and Evadne is revealed and the adulterers are punished is conceived and presented in accordance with the formulaic sequence of events that on the Renaissance English stage was reserved for portrayals of the ways in which the heavens bring secret crimes to light and mete out justice to secret criminals. There is the secret crime exposed by the miscarriage of the very scheme intended to conceal it; there is the twist of plot by which the criminals are made the instruments of their own undoing; and there is the liberal use of dramatic irony to underline the limitations of the cunning in which the criminals have trusted to help them escape retribution. For a Jacobean audience, the presence of these conventions of action and dramaturgy would have indicated unequivocally that The Maid's Tragedy belongs to the tradition of plays concerned with the implementation of God's Justice and the operation of Divine Providence.

All of the events that constitute the action of The Maid's Tragedy have their origin in the adultery of the King and Evadne. To provide against exposure should Evadne conceive, the lovers devise the ingenious stratagem of marrying Evadne to Amintor, a highly regarded young man whose respect for the Crown will, they cynically assume, protect them from his wrath when he learns how he is being used. This cruel ploy backfires, however, when Amintor, having discovered the truth about his bride, proves too transparent to hide it from his friend Melantius. Having satisfied himself of the King's guilt and his sister's dishonor, Melantius does not hesitate in deciding between his allegiance to the King who has betrayed him and his duty to the gods and his own honor; he binds Evadne by oath to kill the King, and sets about himself to secure support for his enterprise. When the King next commands Evadne to his bed, all the circumstances of their illicit relationship combine to aid her in fulfilling her vow. The courtiers who guide Evadne to the royal chamber are told that it is the King's pleasure that "none be neere," and, obeying what they take to be their sovereign's command, they are too far away to hear him when he calls for help. Tied to the bed lest his strength prove too great for Evadne, the King at first thinks his bonds part of a new amorous game; when he has at last been convinced of Evadne's fatal intent, it is too late for him to offer effective resistance. But the ultimate irony of the King's death lies in the fact that in summoning Evadne to his bed on this occasion, the King has been the instrument of his own punishment.

Evadne, too, finds that irony attends her end. Having sought to redeem herself before Amintor, whose merits she has belatedly recognized, Evadne finds him appalled by the regicide that she proudly confesses to him: the same uncritical respect for the royal person upon which she and the King had earlier relied now condemns her in Amintor's eyes. Disappointed by Amintor's unexpected yet predictable response, Evadne kills herself.

As is often the case in Renaissance English plays dealing with divine retribution, the plot of The Maid's Tragedy consists of a chain of incidents in which each link is a logical but not inevitable consequence of the preceding one. Events grow out of one another in obedience to rigorously applied principles of cause and effect, but at crucial junctures a higher power determines which course among several equally plausible ones events will follow. That the direction that events take at these crucial junctures is not only consistent but also yields a conclusion that affirms the very justice that the adulterers have sought to circumvent suggests that the higher power is not chance but Divine Providence.

The elaborate machinery of crime and retribution that the liaison of the King and Evadne sets in motion not only brings about the punishment of the two adulterers but also claims the lives of Aspatia, Amintor, and Melantius, the three characters who have suffered most from the adulterers' ill-conceived attempt at concealment. The tragedies of these "victims," who, with best meaning incur the worst, are shaped by the same principles of cause and effect and the same fatal combinations of character and circumstance that determine the careers of the King and Evadne.

Aspatia, who has never recovered from the severe depression induced by Amintor's betrayal, remains ignorant of the failure of Amintor's marriage. Resolving to seek her death at Amintor's hands, she disguises herself as her soldier brother and delivers a challenge to the unhappy young man to whom she had thought she would be married. Aspatia's motives are difficult to identify: on the one hand, she seems prompted by a sincere desire to end her suffering, but, on the other, she seems attracted by the idea of a perverse vengeance, which will fix upon Amintor the responsibility for terminating literally the life that his broken promise has already figuratively destroyed. Declining to defend herself, Aspatia receives the fatal wound she has sought; before expiring, however, she reveals herself to Amintor, and the two exchange expressions of love. Amintor, whose intense suffering has already suggested thoughts of suicide, proves unable to withstand this latest blow; taking up the sword by which Aspatia has died, he slays himself. Melantius, seeing the corpse of the youth whose friendship he had valued more than his own family's honor, prepares to take his own life; restrained, he vows that

           I will never eate
Or drinke, or sleepe, or have to doe with that
That may presrve life, this I sweare to keepe.

There is no reason to suppose that Melantius will not honor this oath.

It is the untimeliness of Aspatia's response to her painful situation that puts the seal of tragedy upon events that to all appearances might otherwise have yielded a happy conclusion. When Aspatia confronts Amintor with her challenge, the King has already met his death, and Melantius has already received his pardon; in another instant, Evadne, having been rejected by Amintor, will kill her-self. The sense of tragedy is heightened by the feeling that a matter of moments has made the difference between the happy outcome that for a brief minute had seemed possible and the catastrophe we witness. Lysippus, who, intuiting the justice of his brother's death, had expressed the hope that "heaven forgive all" (5.2.22), now, surveying the bloody scene, realizes that his hope had been vain; soberly, he draws the moral implicit in the events we have watched unfold:

May this a faire example be to me,
To rule with temper, for on lustfull Kings
Unlookt for suddaine deaths from God are sent,
But curst is he that is their instrument.

For a Jacobean audience, conditioned by religious training, by political propaganda, and by repeated exposure to plays embodying orthodox views on divine retribution and kingship, Lysippus's comments would have constituted an appropriate—indeed, a self-evident—interpretation of the tragedies of the King, Evadne, Aspatia, Amintor, and Melantius. The adultery of the King and Evadne has offended the heavens, and the adulterers must certainly be punished. The punishment of the King by means of human agents, however, necessarily entails a new offense. The deaths of Aspatia, Amintor, and Melantius make up the price required by the heavens in order to wipe out both the transgression of which the adulterers have been guilty and the transgression that must be committed in punishing them.

For a modern audience, skeptical about the operation of Divine Providence and reluctant to regard kingship as sacrosanct, the temptation is strong to dismiss Lysippus's curtain speech as post facto moralizing that has no organic relationship to the events of the play. To discount Lysippus's comments, however, is to run the danger of reading the play not as tragedy but as a study of neurotic characters who suffer the inevitable consequences of their own self-indulgence, weakness, and perversity. It is, however, the validity within the world of The Maid's Tragedy of the principles that Lysippus invokes—the sanctity of kingship and the concern of divine Providence to affirm this sanctity even while punishing a wicked king—that creates the tragic predicament in which Aspatia, Amintor, and Melantius find themselves.

To acknowledge the operation of Divine Providence in The Maid's Tragedy, however, is not necessarily to acquiesce in the justice that Divine Providence is represented as upholding. Christian acceptance of the heavens' will is not the only possible response to the glimpse we are granted of an inscrutable power that insists that even criminal rulers may not be deposed without penalty and that exacts a terrible price in suffering and death in return for maintaining order in the universe. Horror and outrage are responses equally appropriate to the spectacle of stern laws being implemented pitilessly, and such responses are not necessarily incompatible with the pious awe and enlightened resignation that such "demonstrations" of God's justice were traditionally supposed to induce. In The Maid's Tragedy—as in similar Elizabethan and Jacobean plays—important elements of our response depend upon the discrepancy between what, on the one hand, we, as mortals with limited vision, perceive as "just" with respect to particular characters and situations, and what on the other hand, we are asked to accept as the manifest will of the omniscient and omnipotent powers whose Purpose is by definition identical with Justice. The more rigid, repressive, and arbitrary seem the principles we are required to acknowledge as established by these powers for the common good or the glory of God, the greater is the potential for tragedy. In Jacobean England, the tension between the extreme and uncompromising views on royal authority that James espoused and the broad range of alternative positions readily accessible to well-informed Englishmen provided favorable conditions for the creation of tragedy, which, by portraying a universe which functions in strict obedience to royalist principles, could generate situations in which intense and seemingly unmerited suffering might be seen to confirm the criticism of these principles implicit in the existence of rival political theories. The Maid's Tragedy adroitly exploited this tension, simultaneously affirming and questioning the religious and political doctrines upon which the events it portrays depend for their meaning.

A King And No King

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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, the most approaching to antiquity, and the most conducing to move pity." Apparently it was the play's power to move him which determined this opinion, for he added: " 'Tis true, the faults of the plot are so evidently proved, that they can no longer be denied. The beauties of it must therefore lie. … in the lively touches of the passion." These remarks come very close to implying that a play can be formally ordered, given design, in terms of "the lively touches of the passion" rather than assuming, as most neoclassic theory does, that these "lively touches" are minor elements which have by their nature to be subordinated to a design largely determined by the plot. And Dryden goes on to do some very queer things to the seventeenth-century concept of Nature in order to defend Beaumont and Fletcher on something like these grounds. ["The beauties of [A King and No King] must therefore lie either in the lively touches of the passion; or we must conclude, as I think we may, that even in imperfect plots there are less degrees of Nature, by which some faint emotions of pity and terror are raised in us: … for nothing can move our nature, but by some natural reason, which works upon passions. And, since we acknowledge the effect, there must be something in the cause."] The reason for this stretching of the neoclassic theory is that Dryden feels A King and No King to be a better play than it can be shown to be by any analysis based on the strict interpretation of neoclassic theory which [Thomas] Rymer adopted [in The Tragedies of the Last Age Considered, 1692]. This is in effect to argue that the play is not a bad example of the best kind of tragedy but a good example of an "inferior sort of tragedies."

Throughout the nineteenth century, however, the possibility of explaining the success of the Beaumont and Fletcher plays (for they are all alike in this respect) in this way was lost sight of. The nineteenth-century critics were intent on showing that all successful plays were functional in terms of character as they conceived it and presented the human situation in terms of their moral predilections. They therefore undertook to show, and nothing is easier, that A King and No King was defective in plot, that is, that it was not formally ordered in terms of the narrative, and that, where it was not defective in plot, it was painfully lacking in regard for nineteenth-century decorum. This conclusion ought to have proved, as Rymer's conclusion ought to have, that Beaumont and Fletcher's play was a failure. Yet the best of the nineteenth-century critics continued to admit that the play in some sense succeeds. [William] Hazlitt is a good example; he found, on the one hand, that "what may be called the love-scenes. … have all the indecency and familiarity of a brothel," and, on the other, that the play was "superior in power and effect" ["Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth"].

The more or less explicit contradiction in these nineteenth-century judgments between the theoretical conclusion and the actual response to the play is the result of the assumption that narrative form is the only kind of form a play can have, that the narrative form must therefore of necessity be the bearer of the play's meaning and value, and that "the lively touches of the passion" must be subordinated to it. With the very greatest kind of plays this assumption is probably justified, for in the final analysis we are not satisfied to be moved by what we find on consideration not to be natural or morally true in the deepest sense. But there are not very many plays of this kind, and Beaumont and Fletcher's are not among them. Their plays are of a different kind, and critics who analyze them on an assumption not relevant to this kind are bound, if they are at all sensitive, to land in a contradiction between what they prove by analysis and what they feel about the plays.

It is the object of this essay to try to define the kind of play Beaumont and Fletcher wrote and to try to show how successfully they did so. The primary concern of their kind of play is to order its material, not in terms of narrative form, but in terms of what might be called emotional or psychological form. Beaumont and Fletcher's aim was to generate in the audience a patterned sequence of responses, a complex series of feelings and attitudes so stimulated and related as to give to each its maximum effectiveness and yet to keep all in harmonious balance. The ultimate ordering form in their plays is this emotional form, and the narrative, though necessarily the ostensible object, is actually with them only a means to the end of establishing this rich and careful arrangement of responses.

There is nothing particularly novel about the idea that a complex of emotions generated by a loosely bound set of scenes—loosely bound, that is, as narrative—was the primary object of a Jacobean play. The consequences of approaching Beaumont and Fletcher this way have not, however, been very much considered. Yet Beaumont and Fletcher, perhaps more skilfully than most of their contemporaries, directed all the resources of their plays to the induction of such complexes of emotions; they learned, as so many Jacobean dramatists did not, how to manage character and event so that they became useful to this kind of play rather than irrelevant or at best intolerably confused. This is not to say that Webster, for example, constructed a less valuable pattern of responses. I mean only that Beaumont and Fletcher showed more skill in using narrative elements such as character and event to this end. While Webster, Ford, and Tourneur frequently sacrificed the narrative to the demands of emotional form, Beaumont and Fletcher not only showed less willingness to lose the advantage of the representational illusion of an ordered narrative but succeeded in finding out how to use it to further the effect of the emotional form.

It is probably at least in part because Beaumont and Fletcher constructed the narrative so carefully as a means of supporting and enriching the emotional form that critics have been able to suppose it was the end, the ultimate ordering form, and not merely a means, in their plays. There is not much chance that a critic will focus his attention exclusively on the narrative in Webster, for example. But the skill with which Beaumont and Fletcher construct the narrative of their plays invites just this kind of misunderstanding.

There is plainly another reason, however, why critics have been unwilling to approach Beaumont and Fletcher as they approach Webster. Webster, though his range of feelings is narrow, appears sincere; it is felt that the mood his plays explore is serious. Critics are willing, therefore, not only to pass over the defective narrative in his plays but even to forgive him what are at least for us faults of the emotional form. But, though the range of feelings presented in a Beaumont and Fletcher play is by no means narrow, the lightness of the mood which seems to lie behind their emotional effects offends many critics.

I do not intend in this paper to argue with this judgment of the moral shortcomings which are supposed to inhere in the mood which Beaumont and Fletcher project with such skill in their plays. It has already been discussed too much at the expense of ignoring the skill itself. Beaumont and Fletcher succeeded in writing plays embodying a mood into which their audience could enter wholeheartedly, and so found "(that which is the only grace and setting forth of a Tragedy) a full and understanding Auditory." And the dramatic presentation of that mood was accomplished through the use of a set of moral and dramatic conventions which were understood and accepted in Beaumont and Fletcher's day. Many of the charges, for example, which are made against their plays are the result of a failure to remember that "it was the letter and not the spirit of action that counted with Elizabethan [and to an even greater extent Jacobean] audiences" [M. C. Brad-brook, Themes and Conventions in Elizabethan Tragedy]. The substitution of one woman for another, the repentance of villains, such tricks of plot as those by which an Arbaces or an Angelo is freed from the guilt of his evil impulses apparently had for these audiences no "moral valency" at all. It is perfectly understandable that such a baroque art as Beaumont and Fletcher's should offend critics of a serious cast of mind. But if there is to be any understanding of the exact nature of the mood embodied in their best plays, we shall simply have to grant them their right to the moral and dramatic conventions of their day by means of which that mood is given body and life. It will be time enough to condemn the mood of their plays, if we wish to, after they are understood.

A reader normally notices the narrative of a play first, and as you examine the narrative of A King and No King you are surprised—if you have read the textbooks—not only to discover how carefully planned the plot is, but to realize that there is a moral plainly implicit in that plot. To be sure, Beaumont and Fletcher are not particularly in earnest about it; they apparently care for it not so much because it is moral as because it can be used to arouse certain feelings in the audience. Nonetheless it is there, as it were, to justify the play at this level of interest. Arbaces, for all his good qualities, is so domineering and proud that Gobrias feels he cannot reveal the truth until Arbaces' pride has been broken. He chooses as his means for breaking that pride, Panthea. If Arbaces comes to love Panthea enough, Gobrias is to be thought of as reasoning, his sense of omnipotence will be destroyed, and he will gladly give up his claim to royal birth. This scheme is a particularly clever one for Gobrias to have devised because it will also serve his desire to retain a high place for his son by making him Panthea's husband. The psychology of character in this plot is simplified, as it so often is in Elizabethan plays, and one may question the probability of many of the incidents which the dramatists force to play into Gobrias' hands, as Shakespeare forces chance to favor Iago and not to favor Romeo and Juliet. But these are the conventional short cuts of all drama of the period; grant them, and this central plot is tightly knit.

Parallel to this main plot runs the minor story of Tigranes, Spaconia, and Lygones. It is attached to the main plot not only by the careful interrelation of the characters but by the balancing of the emotional relations between the four characters. In general, this subplot is used as a contrast to the main plot. It is the Everlasting's canon against incest which hinders Arbaces and Panthea, and the helplessness of Arbaces' earthly power to destroy that canon is emphasized; what hinders Tigranes and Spaconia is mainly a lack of earthly power, the Everlasting being, presumably, a supporter of romantic love. Finally, there is the comic subplot built around Bessus. Bessus' plight is the comic version of Arbaces'. Like Arbaces, Bessus is boastful, and his troubles, like Arbaces', are the consequences of his boastfulness.

It is impossible not to admire the ingenuity of this construction; yet most readers will probably feel that it is more ingenious than satisfying. The difficulty is most apparent in the case of Bessus; for all their skilful management of it, Beaumont and Fletcher do not seem really to care about the parallel between Bessus and Arbaces. The complex comparison of the attitudes of different kinds of people in the same basic dilemma in the typical Shakespeare play gives the reader a sense not only that the possible implications of the comparison are almost as multitudinous as those of life itself but that Shakespeare is serious about those implications. The form of the narrative, once one has granted the conventions of the Elizabethan theater, is a correlative of Shakespeare's own sense of the world; it is both verisimilar and meaningful. The reader feels none of this fundamental seriousness in Beaumont and Fletcher's parallel, and he does not because their narrative is not the correlative of a serious sense of the world, but only of a convenient and conventional one. Most of the Jacobean dramatists gave up trying to make their plays accord with both "reality and justice," with the moving and significant worlds of their imagination and the always more or less—but in their apprehensions unconquerably—discordant facts of the actual world. Most of them set about organizing the worlds of their plays in accord with their ideas of justice; but they succeeded only at the expense of keeping the narrative in accord with their sense of reality. Beaumont and Fletcher so organized the world of their plays, too, if one can describe the underlying mood which determined the pattern of the emotional form of their plays as a sense of justice. But they did not, in the process, allow the narrative form to lose all formal order. They gave the narrative of their plays a pattern; but it is not a morally significant pattern, and its great complexity is not determined by any complexity of meaning but exists because a complex narrative is itself exciting, as well as the means of providing the maximum number of exciting moments.

It is for this reason that the reader feels none of the seriousness, finds none of the moral significance, in the parallel between Arbaces and Bessus which he does in the structurally similar parallels in Shakespeare's plays. And this same lack of significance can be traced through the rest of the play's structure. There is no serious meaning to be found in the elaborate interrelation of the main plot and the subplot. And in the main plot the light of our attention is, if the narrative were actually the means for giving the play form and significance, in the wrong place: Gobrias' scheming, which provides the trial of Arbaces and Panthea, is so in the shadow that we are scarcely able to detect it, and the tragic moral implications of that trial are not only never fully developed, but sometimes scandalously neglected; Beaumont and Fletcher's only contingent interest in them is most apparent when the characters are moralizing most violently. We are forced into the realization that, despite the care and skill with which Beaumont and Fletcher have constructed the narrative of this play, they are interested not so much in having it carry a serious meaning as in using it to support and enrich an emotional form; this is the significant form of the play. In spite of their great care for the narrative, the focus of attention in A King and No King, as in all their plays, is the emotional form, just as it is in the plays of any typical Jacobean dramatist. No more than in the case of Webster or Tourneur or Ford, therefore, is it a really relevant objection to Beaumont and Fletcher that the feelings displayed by a character or generated in the audience by a scene are found, on close examination, to be out of proportion to the narrative situation which ostensibly justifies their existence.

The successful creation of a formal structure of this kind depends, in the first place, on an ability to display with elegance, with a kind of detached eloquence, the attitudes presented. It depends, in the second place, on an ability to vary and repeat these attitudes in such a way as to give the pattern which they form richness and interest. The coolness, the artificiality, the "insincerity" of the emotional displays in Beaumont and Fletcher's plays is the deliberately calculated means by which they give the necessary weight to the particular attitude presented. Consider, for example, Arbaces' great speech in the first scene of Act III of A King and No King:

My sister!—Is she dead? If it be so,
Speak boldly to me, for I am a man,
And dare not quarrel with divinity;
And do not think to cozen me with this.
I see you all are mute, and stand amazed,
Fearful to answer me: it is too true,
A decreed instant cuts off every life,
For which to mourn is to repine: she died
A virgin though, more innocent than sleep,
As clear as her own eyes; and blessedness
Eternal waits upon her where she is:
I know she could not make a wish to change
Her state for new; and you shall see me bear
My crosses like a man. We all must die;
And she hath taught us how.

This speech would verge on the extravagant in almost any play. It is in a manner the simplicity and grandeur of which is reserved by the greatest dramatists for the moment when the hero becomes morally certain of the tragic fact of the play, in this case the death of Arbaces' sister. "Detached from its context," to quote [T. S. Eliot, in his Selected Essays, 1917-1932] … , "this looks like the verse of the greater poets." But if you turn to the context of the speech, you find that it is not, as it would be in "the greater poets," any such climactic speech; it is not, that is to say, the poetic exploitation of a situation carefully built up in terms of plot and character; it has not, in this sense, any roots in the soil of the narrative form. And when you look at the speech more closely, you detect in it a kind of elegant and controlled exaggeration which is almost never found in Shakespeare's verse, as if the dramatists and their audience wished to make the most they could of a particular feeling short of allowing it to become patently absurd in its exaggeration, because their interest was in that feeling and not in the character and situation of which it is supposedly the result.

What this speech shows, in other words, is that Beaumont and Fletcher had a highly developed sense of just how far they could push a given feeling without pitching the whole speech over the edge into the abyss of absurdity. Their insistencoi on retaining for the speech its appearance of being justified by situation and character is largely owing to their realization that by giving the speech an appearance of justification they could push the feeling a good deal further without producing this disaster. Thus, though neither the kind nor degree of response demanded by this speech is actually justified in terms of Arbaces' character and the situation, Beaumont and Fletcher show an immense and deceptive ingenuity in making it appear that it is. And they elaborate this deception with such ingenuity because by doing so they can lull themselves and the audience into accepting and enjoying a kind and degree of emotion which would otherwise seem merely absurd. Consider this ingenuity for a moment. Arbaces knows that his sister is not dead but kneeling before him, and he knows too that he is in love with her. Looked at from the point of view of the narrative, therefore, these are the words of a proud man driven to playing for time in a desperate situation, and there is much in the speech which, for an audience with its attention not fixed directly on the moral significance of character, will encourage this view of its purpose. It is clever dramatic irony on the authors' part, for example, to have the man who has just discovered himself desperately in love with his sister say that for him she is dead. It may seem to the audience simply further evidence of the authors' concern for the moral implications of character that Arbaces, who has always thought of himself as a godlike hero, should, in this moment of discovering his own sinfulness, realize that "I am a man / And dare not quarrel with divinity." And Arbaces' tender concern for his sister's virginity may easily be thought to have no other function than to reveal his revulsion from his incestuous impulse. Even his closing words may appear to be a necessarily concealed prayer for strength to bear his own crosses.

All this is calculated to encourage an audience to believe that this stimulating speech is no more than a legitimate exploitation of character and situation, that the excitement really has been justified by them. Yet on careful examination it is quite clear that character and situation are not the center of Beaumont and Fletcher's interest here, that everything in the speech is primarily directed to arousing in the audience a feeling which is both in degree and in kind not so justified. The speech lacks the tone of irony and bitterness which it must have if it is to be taken as the words of a man in the midst of self-discovery. Its tone is one of elegiac simplicity and dignity, of graceful pathos. It was plainly written with a view to extracting all the pity possible from the thought of a sister dead, in spite of the narrative irrelevance of that pity at this point. All the details of the speech, including those discussed in the previous paragraph, are so presented as to demand of the audience, not such a response as the situation and character might be justified in demanding, but a response which could be justified only if Panthea were really dead, and only then if this were the culminating disaster of the play for Arbaces.

This is the characteristic relationship in Beaumont and Fletcher between the narrative and "the lively touches of the passion." A dramatic situation is created which, usually with some ingenuity, is made to appear to justify the speech; that speech is then written, not so much for the purpose of exploiting the feelings which grow out of character and situation, the feelings which in terms of the narrative justify the speech—though that purpose is never wholly neglected. It is written primarily to exploit a feeling which contrasts with, parallels, or resolves the patterned sequences of emotions which have, in precisely the same way, been exploited in the speeches which form its context.

Arbaces' speech is climactic, then, not in the sense that it forms a climax in the narrative development; any reader looking at it in its context will see that its appearance of climaxing a tragic narrative is a skilfully devised trick. It is climactic in the sense that it resolves a complex sequence of emotional tones, the tension of which has become almost intolerable. The sequence is worth looking at closely, since it is, in little, a Beaumont and Fletcher play: the method of its construction is the method they use in dealing with the larger units of the play as a whole.

This sequence begins with an introductory passage in which Arbaces' supposed mother, Arane, kneeling before him, is graciously forgiven for having plotted his death. Panthea then kneels before Arbaces and speaks as if the whole purpose of her life had been fulfilled by the mere privilege of looking at him; the attitude is adoration, an emotion ostensibly justified by the fact that Arbaces is supposedly Panthea's kingly brother; but it is plainly out of all proportion to this narrative justification. Arbaces' response to this speech is in startling contrast, not only with Panthea's words, but with his treatment of Arane a moment before, though Arane would have murdered him and Panthea is all adoration.

Gobrias. Why does not your majesty speak?
Arbaces.                               To whom?
Gobrias.                      To the princess.

Panthea then strikes another note, trembling fear that Arbaces looks upon her as "some loathed thing." Once more Gobrias intervenes.

Gobrias. Sir, you should speak to her.
Arbaces.                                 Ha!

And once more Panthea strikes in, now with the attitude of one conscious of her unworthiness, who pleads for a word of kindness for simple mercy's sake.

This time it is Tigranes who is shocked by Arbaces' apparent brutality and who urges him to speak. Tigranes, Arbaces' prisoner and the man he has chosen for his sister's husband, is secretly pledged to Spaconia. Throughout this scene the theme of his growing love for Panthea gradually emerges until, for a moment near the end, it dominates the scene. This speech is its first appearance; Arbaces answers it with a long aside which makes it clear to the audience that he has been confounded by the discovery that he is passionately in love with his own sister. This aside is followed by an aside from Tigranes in which he indicates his growing love for Panthea.

Once more Panthea speaks; this time with half-jesting pathos she begs Arbaces to speak, if only to save her modesty. Now it is Mardonius, the bluff soldier, who urges Arbaces to speak; and, with another startling shift in emotional tone, Arbaces turns to Panthea with grave courtesy.

You mean this lady: lift her from the earth;
Why do you kneel so long?—Alas,
Madam, your beauty uses to command,
And not to beg! What is your suit to me?
It shall be granted; yet the time is short,
And my affairs are great.—But where's my sister?
I bade she should be brought.

The tension of this moment is then held through a series of short speeches, each of which seems inevitably to be the last which can be spoken before Arbaces must publicly recognize Panthea:

Mardonius (aside).               What, is he mad?
Arbaces. Gobrias, where is she?
Gobrias.                            Sir?
Arbaces.                            Where is she, man?
Gobrias. Who, sir?
Arbaces. Who! hast thou forgot? my sister.
Gobrias. Your sister, sir!
Arbaces. Your sister, sir! Some one that hath a wit,
                Answer where is she.
Gobrias. Do you not see her there?
Arbaces. Where?
Gobrias.      There?
Arbaces.           There! Where?
Mardonius.           'Slight, there: are you blind?
Arbaces. Which do you mean? that little one?
Gobrias.                               No, sir.
Arbaces. No, sir! Why, do you mock me? I can see
                No other here but that petitioning lady.
Gobrias. That's she.
Arbaces.           Away!
Gobrias.              Sir, it is she.
Arbaces.                                 'Tis false.
Gobrias. Is it?
Arbaces.      As hell! by Heaven, as false as hell!

And then, after the anger and fear and bewilderment of this sequence, after the intolerable pitch of tension that has been reached and then held through this virtuoso passage, the sequence is resolved by Arbaces' astonishing elegy for his dead sister.

Throughout this passage Beaumont and Fletcher are concerned primarily neither to develop the characters nor to bring out the moral implications of the action. Their primary concern is to arouse in the audience, at each step, the feeling which is a psychologically dramatic successor to the feeling aroused by the previous speech. And this purpose requires the introduction of a series of attitudes on the part of the characters which makes it appear, from the point of view of the narrative, that these characters are not only strained to the breaking point for a mere momentary effect which comes to nothing but made to speak at great length while only apparently advancing the plot.

The scene-by-scene and act-by-act construction of the play has the same purpose in view and the same consequences. The remainder of the first scene of Act III, for example, is made up of a series of passages of exactly the same kind as the one analyzed above; and each of these passages is adjusted to the preceding and succeeding passages with the same care for the emotional pattern in the audience's mind as is shown in the arrangement of the individual speeches within these passages. As soon as the elegiac mood of Arbaces' speech which closes the first passage has been exhausted, Gobrias once more reminds the king that Panthea is his sister. At this Arbaces takes another line:

             Here I pronounce him traitor,
The direct plotter of my death, that names
Or thinks her for my sister. …

In terms of the narrative, Arbaces is here displaying the passionate side of his nature, established in Act I. In terms of the emotional form, this speech is a skilful modulation of the pathos of his previous elegiac speech; for, though this is the impassioned anger of a man unaccustomed to denial, it is asserted on a hopeless case, against nature itself; the more angry Arbaces becomes, the more pathetic he appears, "a sight most pitiful in the meanest wretch, / Past speaking of in a king."

After a speech from Panthea, Arbaces is given a third modulation of pathos:

                   I will hear no more.
Why should there be such music in a voice,
And sin for me to hear it. … ?

a speech which ends with his sinking exhausted on the throne.

At this pause Tigranes steps forward to address Panthea. The passage which follows is beautifully balanced against the preceding passage. Panthea, distracted by grief and uncertainty, is yet gentle and gracious; the simple pathos which has been hers from the start shows in this passage with a new and touching dignity. Tigranes is eager to show his devotion to her but is restrained by the presence of Spaconia, whose asides are at once a choral commentary on the dialogue and, as the expression of another much-wronged woman's sorrows, a kind of complementary grief to Panthea's. The passage, so far as the feelings presented are concerned, is a variation on the previous one, with Tigranes replacing Arbaces. Gradually Arbaces recovers, and the audience's attention is brought back to his feeling—now jealous suspicion of Tigranes—by the series of ominously cryptic questions which he asks. Tigranes becomes more and more angry under this questioning, and Arbaces more and more certain that his jealousy is justified, until, in helpless rage, he orders Tigranes imprisoned.

As the clashing anger of this passage dies away, Gobrias once more reminds Arbaces of the presence of his sister, and, in immediate and striking contrast to his anger of the moment before, Arbaces turns to Panthea, kneels, and begs her forgiveness. Panthea kneels with him, and there follows a passage of suspiciously extravagant affection, tense with the audience's knowledge that certainly Arbaces and perhaps Panthea are playing with fire in this attempt to pretend that their mutual feelings are only natural. Arbaces kisses Panthea "to make this knot the stronger" and then, with a brief aside—"I wade in sin, / And foolishly entice myself along"—turns abruptly away and orders Panthea imprisoned. Thus the scene shifts back to anger and violence, though to a kind subtly different from that of the exchange between Arbaces and Tigranes a moment before. As Panthea is carried off to prison, Arbaces returns to the despairing rage at his own powerlessness which appeared in his second speeech in the scene, though now that feeling is more despair than rage:

Why should you, that have made me stand in war
Like Fate itself, cutting what threads I pleased,
Decree such an unworthy end of me
And all my glories?

At the end of this speech, once more faint with exhaustion, he is led off by Mardonius, and the emotional pattern of the scene is completed with a Hamlet-inspired dying fall:

Wilt thou hereafter, when they talk of me,
As thou shalt hear, nothing but infamy,
Remember some of these things? . …
I prithee, do;
For thou shalt never see me so again.

From the narrative point of view this scene is full of wild starts and changes on the part of the characters and of bewildering and apparently profitless backing and filling on the part of the story. But in terms of the audience's psychology the form of the scene is firm and clear, for all its richness and variety.

The form of the act can also be defined only in these terms. Miss Bradbrook has remarked that the coarsening of the poetic fiber can be clearly seen in Beaumont and Fletcher's blurring of the tragic and comic. In the sense that the contrasting of the tragic and comic, like the contrasting of other moods in the audience, has no serious functional purpose in terms of the narrative, this comment is true. But in terms of the emotional form, Beaumont and Fletcher's comic contrasts are clear cut and carefully calculated. The first scene of Act III, for example, is followed by a comic scene in which Bessus faces the ridiculous consequences of his newly acquired and embarrassing reputation for courage, as Arbaces has just faced the tragic fact of his sudden and passionate love for Panthea. This contrast, as Miss Bradbrook suggests, proves nothing morally, and there appears to be little justification for the considerable space which is devoted to the rather pointless business of Bessus' cowardice; in terms of the narrative, in other words, the variation from tragic to comic here and throughout the play seems to be purposeless and random. The scene can, in fact, be justified only in terms of the psychology of the audience; its relationship to the previous scene is of the same kind as the relationship which exists between speech and speech within the scene. In terms of the narrative, such justification as it has is tricky but meaningless, but psychologically it shifts the audience's attention to a set of feelings, parallel but of a different kind, and it also prevents the law of diminishing returns from asserting itself, as it would if the dramatists attempted to follow scene i immediately with scene iii.

After this comic scene, however, it is possible to return to the tragic theme of Panthea and Arbaces. The basic form of scene iii is simpler than that of scene i; the audience watches Arbaces slowly working himself up to the point where he can request Mardonius' aid in fulfilling his shameful desire, and presumably it thrills to Mardonius' manful refusal and pities Arbaces as he wilts before Mardonius' righteousness. Scarcely has Arbaces repented his request when Bessus enters and Arbaces is once more tempted. Bessus accepts the commission eagerly, so eagerly that Arbaces is horrified and once more repents. The scene is Beaumont and Fletcher's version of the familiar good-angel, bad-angel scene and, in the way it plays down the larger implications of such a scene, it is an instructive example of the skill with which Beaumont and Fletcher collected the cash while only pretending not to let the credit go.

Probably Beaumont and Fletcher's very real talent for narrative construction shows most clearly in the act-by-act organization of the play. The complicated story which is necessary for their kind of play, if the emotional climaxes it requires are not to be obviously arbitrary and therefore difficult to accept, is handled with such ease and with so very little direct exposition, and the narrative interest is so carefully carried over when new material is introduced, that only detailed analysis is likely to reveal how elaborate the plot really is. Yet, for all this display of narrative skill, Beaumont and Fletcher build their play around emotional, rather than narrative, climaxes. The climax of Act I, for example, is clearly Arbaces' display of passionate anger; true, this passionate quality is the "tragic flaw" in Arbaces' character, but it is not the cause of his tragic dilemma; it exists not so much for the sake of the action as a whole as because, in conjunction with the plot, it provides some sort of narrative justification for Arbaces' extravagant and varied emotions, which are so important a part of the emotional form. The climax of Act II is perhaps Spaconia's display of pathos; in any event, there is no narrative climax in this act, no obligatory scene. The last three acts have similar climaxes, each a little tenser than its predecessor. In so far as they depend on suspense—on whether Arbaces will yield to desire—they depend on the narrative for their effect. But in the sense that the narrative is the local habitation of an important meaning, as in Doctor Faustus, which has some superficially comparable scenes, and the climaxes moments when the choice between good and evil must be made, they are not narrative climaxes at all. Once more Beaumont and Fletcher are in these scenes using the narrative effect of suspense to support and enrich an emotional climax, rather than using emotional effects to support and enrich a narrative climax.

The climax of the third act is the first meeting between Panthea and Arbaces, with its elaborate emotional composition, its use of events as one more way of inducing a patterned sequence of psychologically effective attitudes in the audience. The climax of the fourth act is the second meeting between the two lovers, a meeting perceptibly tenser for the audience than that of the third act because Arbaces' confession to Panthea and Panthea's "For I could wish as heartily as you, /I were no sister to you" bring the two so much closer to disaster. This sequence reaches its logical culmination in the fifth act, when Arbaces finally surrenders to his desire. The expectation of action aroused by Arbaces'

It is resolved: I bore it whilst I could;
I can no more. Hell, open all thy gates,
And I will through them: . …

is held suspended through a passage between him and Mardonius in which he displays the tortured cynicism of his determination to do what he knows to be sin, and through a passage in which he accuses Gobrias of having fostered his love for Panthea. The audience's attention is then partly deflected from the expectation that Arbaces will act on his sinful desire by the first part of Gobrias' revelation and Arbaces' anger at Arane as he understands Gobrias to be telling him he is a bastard. Each of these notes is held as long as possible, both for its own sake and for the sake of maintaining the suspense. Finally, however, Gobrias is permitted to tell Arbaces enough to make him listen to the rest, and Arbaces shifts abruptly from anger and despair to what G. C. Macaulay well called "a sudden violent patience":

I'll lie, and listen here as reverently (Lies down)
As to an angel: if I breath too loud,
Tell me; for I would be as still as night.

Gobrias' story is quickly told, Arbaces rises almost mad with joy, and on this note the play is quickly brought to an end.

The ordering form of A King and No King—and it is the form of all the tragedies and tragicomedies that Beaumont and Fletcher wrote together—is a pattern of responses in the mind of the audience, a subtle and artful arrangement of "the lively touches of the passion." Like A King and No King, the typical Beaumont and Fletcher play is an excitingly elaborate affair of lath and plaster whose imposing pretense that it is a massive narrative structure is in part a device for making the audience accept the elaboration and in part a means of adding to the excitement by the charm of its own ingenuity. Its characters and narrative are given the maximum of decorative elaboration, and, though Beaumont and Fletcher are careful that the decoration shall always appear to be a part of some functional detail in the narrative, actually the significant and ordering form of the structure is not the narrative pattern, clever as that always is, but the pattern of decoration. Just as in another kind of play the meaning implicit in character and situation is intensified by a subordinate pattern of more narrowly poetic effects, so in Beaumont and Fletcher these carefully ordered poetic effects are made richer and more complex by the narrative pattern. If the ideal play of the critical imagination of the nineteenth century may be said to have been functional in terms of character and narrative, then Beaumont and Fletcher's plays are strictly baroque.

Most critics would, I believe, agree that plays which are functional in terms of Nature, in the widest sense of the word, constitute a superior kind; if they do, then Beaumont and Fletcher's baroque plays represent an inferior kind. But that kind is certainly superior to the kind represented by the ideal play of the nineteenth-century critics' imagination, which is functional in terms of character only in a very mundane and individualist sense, and in terms of a nature whose vitality has been dissipated by a scientific and utilitarian conception of it. There is something to be said for Rymer's attitude toward Beaumont and Fletcher; he knew what they were up to and damned them by comparison with a kind of play whose superiority is at least arguable. But the nineteenth century, misunderstanding them, damned their plays as bad examples of a kind which they do not represent and which is inferior to the kind they do.

There is not much to be gained from a discussion of Beaumont and Fletcher's plays which assumes that they represent a kind they do not, nor is the situation visibly improved if the critic goes on to offer a simple moralistic explanation of their failure to be something their authors never sought to make them. It seems to me obvious that there is something radically wrong with the usual approach to Beaumont and Fletcher when it can lead so acute a critic as Miss Bradbrook into the assumption of a simple relationship between the historical, the strictly literary, and the moral kinds of decadence.

We would be nearer to understanding Beaumont and Fletcher and thus to being able to judge them justly if we had never strayed from the conception of their purpose, which lies behind Herrick's lines for the First Folio:

Here's words with lines, and lines with Scenes
To raise an Act to full astonishment;. …
Love lyes a bleeding here, Evadne there
Swells with brave rage, yet comely every where,
Here's a mad lover, there that high designe
Of King and no King

Robert K. Turner, Jr. (essay date 1958-1960)

SOURCE: "The Morality of A King and No King," in Renaissance Papers 1958, 1959, 1960, edited by Peter G. Phialas and George Walton Williams, The Southeastern Renaissance Conference, 1961, pp. 93-103.

[In the essay below, Turner asserts that A King and No King presents an immoral value system in which "indulgence becomes not only respectable but very nearly sanctified."]

Many of our greatest critics of Renaissance literature have commented upon the sense of defeat, spiritual emptiness, and decadence which sets the tone of Jacobean drama. The relationship of Beaumont and Fletcher's tragicomedies to the spirit of their age is variously expressed, perhaps most typically by Miss Ellis-Fermor who sees them as romantic escape literature from a reality of despondency and anxiety [Una Ellis-Fermor, The Jacobean Drama, 1953]. Miss Bradbrook feels that the slackening of the moral fibre which these plays reflect had a deleterious effect upon their literary quality. "The final test of these plays," she says, "is their language and here they are strikingly apart from the earlier drama. There is no verbal framework of any kind; the collapse of the poetic is to be directly related to the collapse of the moral structure, for they were interdependent" [M. C. Bradbrook, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy, 1935]. Professor Arthur Mizener, however, defends the playwrights against a specific charge of immorality by pointing out that they were no more immoral than anybody else: "… I cannot believe," he writes,

that the attitude toward life implied by Beaumont and Fletcher's plays is not a reflection of the attitude which dominated the society for which they wrote and of which they were a part, rather than the result of any special immorality in them. Unlike Webster and Jonson, they were not seriously in revolt against the values of a large part of their world. Their plays are complex and delicate projections of one of the attitudes wide-spread in their day, just as Dekker's plays are a confused and crude projection of another. The moral quality implicit in both is not primarily a personal, but a group attitude … [Modern Philology XXXVIII, 1940].

It is generally agreed that the dramatists had an unusually well developed sense of theater; the tragicomedies are held to be very skillfully constructed to the end of exploiting all of the emotional possibilities of their rather gaudy themes. Yet the consensus remains that these plays, lacking any high seriousness of intention, are morally shabby.

Some light can be cast not only on this judgment but also on the reasons for the contemporary popularity of the tragi-comedies by examining one of them, A King and No King, from the intellectual point of view of the Jacobean audience. During the preceding age tragedy had shared little of its popularity with tragicomedy, although the "mongrel" form, to use Sidney's epithet, was being acted at least as early as the mid-sixteenth century. One aspect of Elizabethan tragedy was its general lack of sentimentality; it was founded on a tough code in which sin was invariably paid for with death. As we all know, human evil was explained in terms of a Christianized version of Peripatetic doctrine: sin resulted from a victory of Will over Reason, the conflict of these two psychological factors being one of the most disastrous legacies of Adam's fall from grace. The nature of sin was in part determined by the degree of stimulation received by the Will from the passions: if the stimulation was great enough to cause Will to override a reluctant Reason, venial sin resulted, but if the stimulation was so great that Reason itself became perverted and enslaved by Will, mortal sin resulted. Thus, as Professor Lily Campbell has explained [in Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes, 1959], tragic heroes were distinguished from villains by the extent to which reason played a part in the commission of their sins. But the point to be emphasized here is that in Elizabethan tragedy, although salvation was open to the protagonist who was not tainted with mortal sin, there was no human happiness for him; the tragic view saw in the universe a system of unalterable justice which demanded the life of the protagonist as payment for his evil deeds.

In the tragic system of values, the unspeakable crime of incest led straight to mortal sin, yet it is just this crime which provides the focal point of A King and No King. Arbaces, brilliant young king of Iberia and Beaumont and Fletcher's protagonist, has not seen his sister Panthea since her childhood, having been many years away at the wars. When he returns home victorious, her beauty strikes him such a blow that he falls hopelessly and irretrievably in love with her. Turning on this central situation, the play develops a conventional conflict between Arbaces' passion-stimulated Will and his reluctant Reason, and Beaumont and Fletcher enhance the dramatic value of this conflict by making Arbaces a man of high psychological complexity. He is "vain-glorious and humble, and angry and patient, and merry and dull, and joyful and sorrowful, in extremities, in an hour" (I, i, 88-90). To emphasize his internal conflict further, they construct the play, as Professor Mizener has shown, in the manner of the old moralities, with Mardonius, a loyal follower, as the good and Bessus, a foolish coward, as the evil angel. Mardonius is all that is reasonable and humane in Arbaces' personality; Bessus, who also has the comic characteristics of the Vice, is all that is unreasonable and bestial. Thus, Arbaces stands between Mardonius and Bessus very much as Prince Hal stands between the Lord Chief Justice and Falstaff [in Shakespeare's 1 and 2 Henry IV].

These relationships are made quite clear in the play. Mardonius, the bluff and outspoken old soldier, is cast in the role of Arbaces' mentor; it is he who can discern and preserve the virtue that is intermixed with Arbaces' folly. Therefore, he is necessary to Arbaces, and both he and the king know it:

Arb. How darest thou so often forfeit thy life?
     Thou knowest it is in my power to take it.
Mar. Yes, and I know you wo'not; or if you do,
     You'll miss it quickly.
Arb.                        Why?
Mar. Who shall then tell you of these childish
     When I am dead? who shall put-to his power
      To draw those virtues out of a flood of
      Where they are drown'd, and make 'em shine
                                            (IV, ii, 166-173)

Being an honorable man, Mardonius is completely honest. Although he loves the king, his attitude toward him is ambivalent—"thy valour and thy passions sever'd, would have made two excellent fellows in their kinds" (I, i, 177-179)—and he will not demean himself by flattering. He is never in doubt, as Gobrias and Bacurius temporarily are, about Bessus' true nature. Thus, Mardonius serves symbolically as a projection of Arbaces' Reason, a quality which, according to Arbaces, binds man's actions with curious rules, restricting and confining the Will. It is just this function that Mardonius performs with respect to Arbaces on the narrative level of the play.

Bessus, the airy, thin, unbodied coward, operates on two levels, and his dual roles reinforce and inform one another. He is, of course, the comic relief, and as such his buffoonery stands in contrast to the high emotionalism of the Arbaces theme. Furthermore, on a much debased level, he exhibits, and at the same time parodies, Arbaces' boastfulness. But in his direct relationship to Arbaces himself, he becomes much more sinister. Unlike Mardonius, he does not seek literally to control the king, but he does suggest foolishly (and amusingly) that at least from his own point of view he can be set on the same level with him. "By my troth, I wished myself wi' you," he says to Arbaces with regard to the combat in which Tigranes was vanquished (I, i, 227), and, in replying to Panthea's question about the king's health, he states that Arbaces is as well "as the rest of us that fought are" (II, i, 81). Nobody takes this very seriously, of course, but apparently the dramatists want us to see Bessus as something more than just a humorous poltroon. His bestiality is several times hinted at: to Bacurius he is "Captain Stockfish" (specifically because he is the object of much cudgelling), and when the king rages he slinks away like an animal (I, i, 298). But his sub-human qualities are revealed most clearly in the excellent scene in which Arbaces seeks a bawd to approach Panthea, first in Mardonius and then in him (III, iii). The passionate and heavy mood of the king's conversation with Mardonius is broken when Bessus enters making a ridiculous jest. "Away you fool! the King is serious, and cannot now admit your vanities," cries Mardonius. But Arbaces is quite ready to reject Reason and to surrender to Will. He interjects, "No; let him stay, Mardonius, let him stay; I have occasions with him very weighty, and I can spare you now." Mardonius once gone, the king can speak without the hedging that characterized his earlier approach to the question. Previously Arbaces had stated that "he that undertakes my cure must first o'erthrow divinity, all moral laws …" (III, i, 188-189), and Bessus is not only willing but eager to serve him. Bessus' bland equanimity in the face of the terrible proposition so horrifies Arbaces that he recoils:

But thou appear'st to me, after thy grant,
The ugliest, loathed, detestable thing,
That I have ever met with. …
Hung round with curses, take thy fearful flight
Into the deserts; where, 'mongst all the monsters,
If thou find'st one so beastly as thyself,
Thou shalt be held as innocent.
                             (III, iii, 163-165, 184-187)

Arbaces, driving Bessus out, resolves to control his passions, but Bessus takes no fearful flight. The king has only temporarily renounced the domination of his Will, and Bessus remains on the scene just as Arbaces' unlawful lust continues to burn.

Tigranes, a captured prince intended at first by Arbaces to be Panthea's husband, is also used symbolically to comment on Arbaces' plight. The parallel between the two is strongly enforced. Like Arbaces, Tigranes is a young and powerful king. He too falls in love with Panthea at first sight, and his passion is also illicit, only it is so in terms of a breach of faith with Spaconia, a lady of his own land, rather than a breach of fundamental moral law. He is acutely aware of his own humanity—"I know I have the passions of a man" (V, ii, 90-91)—and he conceives of his desertion of Spaconia as something "unmanly, beastly" (IV, ii, 28), in other words, as a lapse from human status. Nevertheless, through Reason he masters his desire for Panthea and returns honorably to Spaconia. He appears as about what we would expect Arbaces to be were he not so much ruled by his passions; however, Tigranes has been overcome by Arbaces, and as a prisoner he must endure the indignities and insults that Arbaces, often unwittingly, subjects him to. Mardonius recognizes Arbaces' victory over his noble enemy as the cause of the king's downfall (IV, ii, 117); in a sense, by defeating Tigranes the king has subjugated the better half of himself and has on the symbolic level enslaved himself just as on the narrative level he has enslaved Tigranes. Tigranes' remark that Arbaces' treatment of him violates "the law of nature, and of nations" (III, i, 238) thus acquires special meaning.

The symbolic relationship of Mardonius, Bessus, and Tigranes to Arbaces helps to emphasize the alteration which his character undergoes during the course of the action. As Professor Mizener has pointed out, Arbaces is a man who is being purged of pride, and the imagery of the play suggests that the authors conceived of this purgation in terms of a descent of the chain of being. At the outset, Arbaces thinks of himself as a hero-king who is especially favored of the gods; in fact, as a king he stands in a relationship to his enemies and his subjects roughly equiv alent to that in which a god stands with respect to man- kind in general. His victorious arm is "propt by divinity" (I, i, 133); his mission has been to "teach the neighbour-world humility" (I, i, 138), and his conquest of Tigranes has been "an act fit for a God to do upon his foe" (I, i, 144-145). Simply because she is his sister, Panthea "deserves the empire of the world" (I, i, 168). In his orgy of self-glorification, he sets himself on a level with the gods by degrading his followers to the level of animals: when Mardonius reproaches him for boasting, he retorts:

Will you confine my words? By Heaven and earth,
I were much better be a king of beasts
Than such a people! If I had not patience
Above a god, I should be call'd a tyrant
Throughout the world. …
                                           (I, i, 239-243)

Those who cross him lose claim to humanity. Once again to the censuring Mardonius he says,

                   O, that thy name
Were great as mine! would I had paid my wealth
It were as great, as I might combat thee!
I would through all the regions habitable
Search thee, and, having found thee, with my sword
Drive thee about the world, till I had met
Some place that yet man's curiosity
Had miss'd of; there, there would I strike thee dead:
Forgotten of mankind, such funeral rites
As beasts would give thee, thou shouldst have.
                                     (I, i, 288-296)

And Mardonius, who always speaks honestly, must admit that there is some truth in Arbaces' exaggerated opinion of himself:

            Sir, that I have ever loved you
My sword hath spoken for me; that I do,
If I be doubted, I dare call an oath,
A great one, to my witness; and were

You not my King, from amongst men I should
Have chose you out, to love above the rest:
Nor can this challenge thanks; for my own sake
I should have done it, because I would have loved
The most deserving man, for so you are.
                                     (I, i, 323-331)

In fact, it is only Arbaces' passions that keep men from taking him to be a god (I, i, 370-372).

But such language as we have just heard Arbaces use is a characteristic of him only when he is in the grip of his passions; a shift in his mood results in a change in his concept of himself. He then becomes a man among men, concerned about the world's opinion (I, i, 489-490). His sudden love for Panthea makes him especially aware of his manhood. He sees himself no longer as semi-divine but as palpably human ("for I am a man, and dare not quarrel with divinity" [III, i, 122-123]). In fact, the initial shock of his meeting with Panthea pushes him far down the chain of being. "Am I what I was?" he asks himself, and, as he stares at his kneeling sister through an extraordinary silence, Mardonius asks,

Have you no life at all? for manhood sake,
Let her not kneel, and talk neglected thus:
A tree would find a tongue to answer her,
Did she but give it such a loved respect.
                                        (III, i, 99-102)

As Arbaces tries to regain his former dominant status, once again his language becomes that of the hero-king:

She is no kin to me, nor shall she be,
If she were ever, I create her none:
And which of you can question this? My power
Is like the sea, that is to be obey'd,
And not disputed with. …
                                (III, i, 157-161)

To this absurdity the sycophantic Bessus answers for Arbaces' own Will, "No, marry, she is not, an't please your majesty; I never thought she was; she's nothing like you" (III, i, 166-167). For the last time the king thinks of himself as super-human: "I stood stubborn and regardless by and, like a god incensed, gave no ear to all your prayers" (III, i, 273-275). However, as he later recognizes, sin has robbed him of his god-like power (III, iii, 90-94).

Mardonius knows that Arbaces' lust is a scourge justly laid upon him by Heaven (III, iii, 2-4). Indeed, the scourge is applied so heavily that Arbaces fears that he has slipped through the level of humanity to the level of the beasts. Figuratively he becomes a bull, an animal whose destructive power and overt sexuality are especially appropriate to Arbaces' state. That part of himself which he has given over to lust he acknowledges as bestial; his resistance to lust, which deteriorates with increasing rapidity, is "all that's man" about him (IV, iv, 21). Having lost his Reason through his rejection of Mardonius, he has lost "the only difference between man and beast" (IV, iv, 65). Why, then, he asks himself, should he not enjoy the freedom of the beast, since "who ever saw the bull fearfully leave the heifer that he liked, because they had one dam?" (IV, iv, 136-138).

Throughout the play the corrupting power of the Will, manifesting itself primarily as lust, is imaginatively equated with poison, infection, and disease. Thus, Panthea begs the overwrought Arbaces to speak to her, even though the speech be "poison'd with anger, that may strike me dead" (III, i, 98). To Arbaces Panthea is a witch, a poisoner, "for she has given me poison in a kiss" (III, i, 312); yet he recognizes that she is a perfect woman and is evil only because he makes her so. To her pathetic question, "Alas, sir, am I venom?", he replies,

                   Yes, to me;
Though, of myself, I think thee to be in
As equal a degree of heat or cold
As nature can make; yet, as unsound men
Convert the sweetest and the nourishing'st meats
Into diseases, so shall I, distemper'd,
Do thee. …
                                (IV, iv, 27-32)

An earlier occurrence of this idea brings the disease imagery into conjunction with the beast imagery:

         You are fair and wise,
And virtuous, I think; and he is blest
That is so near you as your brother is;
But you are nought to me but a disease,
Continual torment without hope of ease.
Such an ungodly sickness I have got,
That he that undertakes my cure must first
O'erthrow divinity, all moral laws,
And leave mankind as unconfined as beasts
Allowing them to do all actions
As freely as they drink, when they desire.
                                     (III, i, 182-192)

Arbaces' lust not only infects Panthea in stimulating a responding passion in her, but, like the plague, it permeates the atmosphere in which all of his followers move. Mardonius comments,

This love, or what a devil it is, I know not, begets more mischief than a wake. I had rather be well beaten, starved, or lousy, than live within the air on't.

(IV, ii, 217-220)

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising to find Bessus associated with the idea of disease. To him Arbaces says,

          Thou hast eyes
Like flames of sulphur, which, methinks, do dart
Infection on me. …
                                (III, iii, 165-167)

This imagery, which is linked to the narrative level of the play through the attempt of Arane, the queen mother, to poison Arbaces, is especially apparent in the discovery scene. There Arbaces, whose passion will not let him hear Arane and Gobrias out, rails at her:

          Adulterous witch,
I know now why thou wouldst have poison'd me;
I was thy lust, which thou wouldst have forgot:
Thou wicked mother of my sins and me,
Show me the way to the inheritance
I have by thee, which is a spacious world
Of impious acts, that I may soon possess it!
Plagues rot thee as thou liv'st, and such diseases
As use to pay lust recompense thy deed!
                                   (V, iv, 160-168)

To the discovery scene the theme being developed and the imagery, which is organic to it, convey tragic implications. The imagery is drawn from the same subject matter, if not presented with the same poetic skill, as that which dominates, for instance, Hamlet, King Lear, The Duchess of Malfi, and The White Devil; it is used with great skill to link the narrative and the symbolic levels of the drama, to create and sustain the atmosphere in which the action takes place, and to lend a unity to the whole composition, increasing its emotional impact. On the level of theme, Beaumont and Fletcher show Arbaces' Reason so crumbling before his Will that at the beginning of the discovery scene he stands on the lip of mortal sin. He announces:

It is resolved: I bore it whilst I could;
I can no more. Hell, open all thy gates,
And I Will thorough them: if they be shut,
I'll batter 'em, but I will find the place
Where the most damn'd have dwelling. Ere I end,
Amongst them all they shall not have a sin,
But I may call it mine: I must begin
With murder of my friend, and so go on
To an incestuous ravishing, and end
My life and sins with a forbidden blow
Upon myself!
                                       (V, iv, 1-11)

Later in the scene, however, the tragic mood is completely dispelled; Arbaces learns that he is not Panthea's brother, and thus his illicit lust is transformed into legitimate love. Not only that, even though the revelation of his true parentage makes him no king, his marriage to Panthea will restore him to the throne. With the incest problem side-stepped, it turns out that Will, not Reason, had been right all along, a point driven home by Bessus' fatuous, yet significant, remark—"Why, if you remember, fellow-subject Arbaces, I told you once she was not your sister; ay, and she look'd nothing like you" (V, iv, 293-295).

Thematically the play turns out to be a kind of philosophical pipedream in which Will has its way while Reason stands by and nods approvingly. Punishment for surrender to the passions vanishes, a complete subversion of the moral and intellectual code which had formed the basis for tragedy. It is for this reason, I believe, that A King and No King and the other tragicomedies, in which much the same thing happens, seem immoral—indulgence becomes not only respectable but very nearly sanctified. And it is no wonder that these plays gained a quick popularity. What member of a society which was characterized by a "falling off in the general discipline" would not like to see his own licentious fantasies symbolically projected with such dramatic effectiveness? Not only was it titillating, but it must have been rather a relief to learn that there was a world where the ideals and standards of Christian humanism did not hold—where technicalities existed which permitted one to sleep with one's sister or perhaps to gorge on such other exotic emotional confections as suited one's palate without having to pay with a fatal moral bellyache that might last an eternity.

William C. Woodson (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "The Casuistry of Innocence in A King and No King and Its Implications for Tragicomedy," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 8, No. 3, Autumn, 1978, pp. 312-28.

[In the following essay, Woodson counters previous critical estimations of A King and No King, arguing that the play presents a "morally coherent dramatic sequence. " Beaumont and Fletcher's drama, he maintains, presents an ironic critique of Protestant beliefs regarding the "paradox of innocent sinners."]

While Beaumont and Fletcher's A King and No King (1611) is generally recognized as a landmark in the development of Jacobean tragicomedy, it is also true that the play has perplexed virtually all its commentators beginning with Thomas Rymer [in The Tragedies of the Last Age Considered, 1692]. Written only a short time after the authors' Philaster (c. 1609), A King and No King clearly abandons the meandering romance structure of the earlier tragicomedy. Yet while the presence of a new dramatic logic is widely acknowledged, it has not been convincingly identified: the consensus is with Mizener, that the play has no "morally significant pattern," and with Risiine, that rational dramatic meaning has been sacrificed "for theatrical effects" [Arthur Mizener, in Modern Philosophy XXXVIII, No. 2, 1940]. Thus the play languishes in the suburbs of disapprobation, a supposed piece of episodic theatricalism, intended primarily for a coterie audience which presumably took prurient delight in the dramatization of threatened incest.

Against this critical orthodoxy, however, it may be submitted that Fletcher's tragicomedies, including A King and No King, gained considerable popularity at the public Globe theater, where it is far less likely that a naughty topic could undo the traditional need for meaningful dramatic coherence in the action. Nor could Fletcher, as principal dramatist for the King's Men, afford to cater exclusively to a decadent coterie. What criticism has not offered, in short, is an estimate of the play's appeal to its historical middle-class audience at the Globe, whose applause is actually remarked on the title page of the first quarto (1619). This general audience, I assume, expected, and certainly in this play was given, a morally coherent dramatic sequence.


The significant innovation Beaumont and Fletcher brought to the conventional tragicomic formula of the triumph of the innocents was to borrow from the Puritans their casuistry regarding the immutability of election. What is more surprising, in view of the authors' disrepute, is that they framed the jeopardizing action in a context of a providential concern for the elect. Thus they may be regarded as the first British dramatists to make explicit structural use of the theological assumptions of "poetic justice," which in turn is among their major legacies to the Restoration stage. Curiously, however, because the excessive sentimentality of the recovery of innocence is burlesqued throughout the subplot, Beaumont and Fletcher probably did not endorse the moral laxness with which they imbued the main action, and I will explore this discrepancy also as a secondary but decisive feature of the play.

Unlike the riddling moral dilemmas which critics find in Shakespeare's "problem plays," the main action of A King and No King presents a casuistical situation that is rather simple to solve once the key is established. The play threatens again and again the consummation of an incestuous courtship between the young king Arbaces and Panthea; only in the last scene of the fifth act is it revealed that the supposed brother and sister are not related. Rymer, whose critical displeasure with the play has had lasting influence, considered the happy ending a violation of tragic expectations and argued that the protagonists deserve tragic suffering for their intended sin, not the prospect of marriage. His attack on the play as an inadequate tragedia di lieto fin assumes that the play in fact establishes unambiguously evil intentions for the courtship. But the sympathetic presentation of Arbaces and Panthea systematically frustrates a rigorous interpretation like Rymer's and compels instead a sentimentally lax interpretation of the wrong-doing, for the play follows a casuistical pattern in which the young innocents are merely jeopardized by an alien and unwanted desire. Thus, as Rymer complained, there is no indication that they are tragically purged of pride by their ordeal. On the contrary, in order to share in the joyful conclusion the audience is required to forgive them at once, on the charitable assumption that they have preserved their wonderful innocence intact. A strong indication that the audience accepted the conclusion with joy and relief is found on the title page of the first quarto, where an emblem depicts the benevolent hand of God emerging from the clouds to settle the crown on Arbaces' head. The emblem suggests the sentimental theme of the play, the transcendent power of the hero's innocence to find divine favor in the midst of jeopardy, and thus it displays the theological basis for the hope of rescue which unifies the action.

It would appear obvious, then, that a rhetorical interpretation of the play indicates the choice of benevolent and lax moral principles. The choice is made difficult, however, because Elizabethan scholarship conventionally recognizes only a rigorous set of moral principles which derive from an ecumenical conflation of Roman Catholic and Aristotelean moral thinking. It is necessary to note, therefore, that the Reformers consistently rejected the established Catholic casuistry so as to develop a new moral system more in keeping with their special attitude towards justification and forgiveness of the sinner. When the Council of Trent affirmed the legalistic basis of rigorous casuistry, the distinction between mortal and venial sin, it did so largely because the Reformers denied the doctrine that some sins were in their nature minor, while others were by definition major. All sins, the Reformers insisted, were equally mortal and so equally jeopardized one's salvation.

If with this change the Reformers made their casuistry more rigorous, as was their hope, they also made it more lax, as their critics said, for now the external and legal fact of sin was potentially secondary to the psychological feeling of the individual—and a subjective belief in one's own rectitude could understandably lead to a lax accounting for sin. This casuistical topic of assurance and justification is admittedly complex, but Calvin's reluctance to discuss it was not shown in England by William Perkins and his followers, who "made it into a commonplace of the religious life" and thereby established a wide knowledge of the principles of the new casuistry in Jacobean London [see Basil Hall, "Calvin against the Calvinists," in John Calvin, Courtenay Studies in Reformation Theology I, ed. G. E. Duffield, 1966].

The decidedly lax dramatic pattern of temptation and rescue in the new tragicomedy follows the paradigmatic case in Puritan casuistry of the justified man who nevertheless sins because of the imperfect nature of all mankind. For a justified individual, however, these occasional lapses would pose a mild danger, because at the moment of ceasing from sin, he would be assured of his original justification. In fact, the possibility of instant rescue from sin is implicit in this system, for when the inward assurance of justification has not been seriously damaged or discarded, it provides ready pardon for trespasses against the moral law. While repentance is still important, a pragmatic measure of the original justification would be the duress of the penitential experience. Moreover, as Richard Field and his fellow Puritans admit, satisfaction "is so imputed unto us, as that it freeth us from all punishment whatsoever" [Richard Field, Of the Church, 1606]. This view of divine justice, as Field states later, significantly differs from the Tridentine position regarding mortal sin, which entails a required period of expiation, precisely what Rymer considered the necessary tragic suffering in Panthea and Arbaces.

Tragic suffering, however, is not required for what Perkins calls "sins of infirmity." By this term Perkins means exclusively the sins of the regenerate. Perkins in effect distinguishes between the existential and essential selves, and he finds in the case of regenerate that outward sinful acts or passing desires do not necessarily damage the inward essence: "A sinne of infirmitie is, when there is a purpose in the heart not to sinne: and yet for all this, the sinne is committed, by reason the will is overcarried by temptation, or by violence of affection, as by feare, anger, lust" [A Commentane … on Galatians]. In discussing such cases, the primary question was the extent to which sin has harmed faith and grace: "the man that is regenerate, sinneth neither when he would, because hee is restrained by the grace of God that is in him: nor in what manner he would, partly because he sinneth not with al his hart, the strength of his flesh beeing abated by the Spirit; and partly for that beeing fallen, he lies not still, but recovers himselfe by speedie repentance" [The Whole Treatise of the Cases of Conscience]. The popular audience would be generally familiar not only with the laxity implied by this casuistry, but also with its related assumption of a providential concern for the "children of God": "If he cast them into the fire, it is not to consume them, but to purge and refine them. … He presseth us, that we might cry: we crie, that we may be heard: we are heard, that we might be delivered. So that here is no hurt done: we are worse scared, then hurt" [Arthur Dent, The Plain Man's Path-Way to Heaven, 1607]. This passage by Arthur Dent, the great popularizer of Puritanism, aptly summarizes the moral sequence of the action in A King and No King and relates it to immediate concerns of the vast majority of Londoners. Thus in structuring the tragicomedy Beaumont and Fletcher were not appealing simply to a decadent coterie audience, as is commonly alleged, but rather they were directing their play to the widest possible interests.

Because of its new moral assumptions Beaumont and Fletcher's tragicomedy, of course, lacks the pattern of penitential remorse which is common in earlier prototypes of the genre. Chapman's The Gentleman Usher (pub. 1606), for example, is directly allied with the morality play tradition, since it enacts the mortification of the errant characters before they are extended literary sympathy. Thus the erring Duke Alphonso is granted dramatic reinstatement only after his explicitly painful conversion from sin; the religious emphasis of the moment is reinforced by the wicked character Medice, an unchristened former gypsy king, who flees from the scene of forgiveness to "hide … from the sight of heaven" because he has a soul which he regards as being "too foul to expiate" (V.iv.280, 273). Dramatic sympathy for Leontes in The Winter's Tale similarly follows sixteen years of expiation, while in The Tempest Prospero intentionally arouses guilt and remorse in his enemies so as to share with them the lesson of forgiveness. Unlike these characters who must be purged of pride, however, Arbaces and Panthea are established at the outset as wonderfully innocent characters who are rescued from the jeopardy of sin before their sentimental innocence is irrecoverably lost. Many critics, not seeing how A King and No King breaks with tradition, have felt that the sudden recovery of the protagonists is a cheap contrivance that illogically abandons the tragic burden of the play. But that is to judge character and action apart from the new casuistry, which integrally relates the fortunate discovery, the theme and the narrative meaning of the play to the dominant fact of the enduring and triumphant innocence of the characters.

The decisive moral innocence of Arbaces and Panthea is dramatically suggested by making them childlike. As may be seen in Dent's reference, the association of childhood with moral innocence was familiar in contemporary theology. "At the board," wrote Hooker, "it very well becometh children's innocency to pray, and their elders to say Amen" [The Works of Richard Hooker]. "Children in maliciousnesse," according to [Thomas Wilson's] The Christian Dictionary (1612), indicated the low degree of sin said to obtain in the regenerate: "Such as be like little children, voyde of malice, and unharmefull. 1 Cor. 14, 20. But as concerning maliciousnesse be ye children." Children's moral transgressions, because they lacked malice, thus were defined in the Dictionary as "foolishnes or folly," precisely the terms used in the play to describe the actions of Arbaces and Panthea. Bishop John Earle's character "A Child" [in his Microcosmography, 1633] reveals a remarkably prelapsarian belief in a child's innocence: "His soul is yet a white paper unscribbled with observations of the world, wherewith, at length, it becomes a blurred note-book. He is purely happy, because he knows no evil, nor hath made means by sin to be acquainted with misery." These morally sentimental attitudes towards childhood are carefully invoked by A King and No King, which seeks directly to be "a proof / Whether the gods have care of innocents" (IV.iv.62-63).

The childlike innocence of Arbaces accordingly is asserted throughout the play. His prayer for "tears / Enough to wash me white, that I may feel / A childlike innocence within my breast" (I.i.456-58) comes early in the play so as to clearly establish the moral status that the audience hopes he will recover. Thus when he kneels "with the obedience of a child" (V.iv.183) to hear the revelation of his true identity, the dramatic expectation that he will recover his innocence is fulfilled. Panthea, six years younger than Arbaces, is scarcely nubile. She also is introduced as being "arm'd" with "innocence" (II.i.75), but later confesses during the temptation that "Children and fools are ever credulous, / And I am both" (IV.iv.42-43). Mardonius, the blunt captain who is Arbaces' closest friend, knowns of his desires but regards them primarily as "childish follies" (IV.ii.172).

Yet because they are marriageable, Arbaces and Panthea are not, from a chronological standpoint, children, despite continual assertions in the play to that effect. Danby properly calls attention to their adolescence, which he finds revealed especially in their desire to regain the "petrarchan nexus" of their self-idealizing personalities [John Danby, Poets on Fortune's Hill, 1952]. But while Danby thus corroborates the pattern of perfect recovery in the play, his secular analysis does not account for the psychological fear of sin that prevents Arbaces from enacting his desires. For although Arbaces resists as best he can, he and the audience know from the first that he is being tempted into damnation. Consequently the sudden claim to recovered innocence that he and Panthea share at the conclusion cannot be based on petrarchan assumptions, nor on the prelapsarian beliefs of Bishop Earle; rather, their claim to innocence rests squarely on the Puritan casuistry of forgiveness for sins of infirmity.

The supposedly incestuous courtship which begins in Act III now may be seen to follow a remarkably clear pattern of infirm temptation and full recovery. When Arbaces returns to court from years of war, he and Panthea are the melodramatic victims of love at first sight. Arbaces complains that Cupid has given him an "ungodly sickness" which can be cured only by deeds that will "O'er throw divinity, all moral laws, / And leave mankind as unconfin'd as beasts" (III.i. 197-98). He fights temptation, but he cannot expel it, and soon he kisses Panthea. He then rejects his foolishness and, to protect them both temporarily, he orders her under house arrest. As the scene ends he prays to the inscrutable power above for mercy and assistance.

His precarious situation worsens at his next appearance, for he tries to enlist his friend Mardonius as his pander, even though the idea is morally repugnant, "To do a sin that needs must damn us both / And thee too" (III.iii.79-80). Mardonius refuses the role, warns him against sin, and leaves him alone on stage. The scene develops as an obvious tableau of morality, for when the comic Bessus enters, he offers to "do anything without exception, be it a good, bad, or indifferent thing" (11. 140-41). Still unconfirmed in sin, Arbaces cautions that what he intends "Thy conscience will not suffer thee to do" (1. 145). Consequently he is taken by surprise when Bessus offers gleefully to arrange "a bout," and the resulting shock revives moral strength in Arbaces. He rightly accuses Bessus of being a demonic tempter, an accusation which Bessus counters with the offer to help Arbaces to his mother, too. The calculated contrast between the turpitude of Bessus and the naiveté of Arbaces has major significance now and in the conclusion of the play. At present it relieves Arbaces' moral jeopardy:

My mother!—Heaven forgive me to hear this;
I am inspir'd with horror.—I hate thee
Worse than my sin, which, if I could come by,
Should suffer death eternal. …

Thus recovered from temptation, Arbaces beats the demonic Bessus from the stage with an equivocal curse that ironically will return to haunt him: "If thou find'st one so beastly as thyself, / Thou shalt be held as innocent" (11. 183-84). "I will not do this sin," he resolves, "I'll press it here till it do break my breast" (11. 192-93).

In spite of this encouraging resolution Arbaces almost succumbs to sin twice more in the play. When he meets Panthea alone late in the fourth act, he finally confesses the full scope of his feelings to her. She, however, would rather be "in a grave sleep with my innocence / Than welcome such a sin" (IV.iv.89-90). True to the casuistical pattern of the temptation, Arbaces recovers, asks her prayers, and bids farewell. Then quite unexpectedly she confesses that she loves him in return. They hold hands, and as the tension grows, they kiss. She is startled to feel "a sin growing upon my blood," an image Arbaces repeats: "Sin grows upon us" (11. 159, 164). The image of sin as an alien presence opposed to their essential selves is determinative for the casuistical meaning of the play. The scene ends with the lovers fleeing from each other, and so momentarily from temptation.

As the play gathers momentum towards its apparent resolution, sin is seriously jeopardizing these young characters. Indeed, it might seem that Arbaces finally repudiates his remaining innocence. So impious is his tragic declaration that the bracketed part of the speech was omitted from the seven quartos following the first and from the folio of 1679:

Enter Arbaces with his sword drawn.
It is resolv'd. I bore it whilst I could;
I can no more. [Hell, open all thy gates,
And I will through them; if they be shut,
I'll batter 'em, but I will find the place
Where the most damn'd have dwelling. Ere I end,
Amongst them all they shall not have a sin
But I may call it mine.] I must begin
With murder of my friend, and so go on
To an incestuous ravishing, and end
My life and sins with a forbidden blow
Upon myself.

The spark of remaining innocence reveals itself to a sympathetic audience in his moral repulsion at the "forbidden" deeds he feels compelled to do. More importantly, even at this late stage, his proclaimed resolution to enter remorselessly into sin is not irrevocable. To help establish the tentative quality of his commitment to sin, the pace of the action slows immediately. Mardonius pleads with him to put up his sword, and the extended conversation that follows (11. 11-61) not only lowers the dramatic tension, but it also puts Arbaces in an altogether different frame of mind: "Why should the hasty errors of my youth / Be so unpardonable, to draw a sin / Helpless upon me?" (11. 62-64). The authors skillfully manage the transition from Arbaces as the seemingly resolved sinner to Arbaces as the infirm victim of sin, and so prepare the audience for the happy conclusion.

The remainder of the play serves to complete the dramatic reinstatement of Arbaces as an innocent childlike character. Gobrius now steps forward to announce that he is Arbaces' father, who gave Arbaces at birth to the Queen to raise. The pathetic reconciliation of the child to his father is both a dramatic and a moral representation for the sympathetic audience: "Bring it out, good father; / I'll lie and listen here as reverently / As to an angel" (11. 198-200). Thus by special intervention the extreme jeopardy of an infirm sinner is happily redeemed, and at the end of the long explanation Arbaces halloes the court to enter and be "Partakers of my joy!" (1. 262).

The sympathetic response of the audience at the conclusion has been carefully guided by the moral characterization of Arbaces. Sin does not have for him a significant or painful duration because he never abandons his belief in his innocence. His redemption from improper behavior relieves the anxious audience and creates a dramatic situation in which it is possible to forgive the wrongdoing. Easy forgiveness already has been extended to other characters, precisely on grounds of their supposed infirmity. Arbaces forgave the Queen her wicked plots in exactly these casuistical terms: "As far be all your faults from your own soul / As from my memory; then you shall be / As white as innocence herself" (III.i. 51-53). Another lover was forgiven his infidelity with similar unquestioning generosity:

 Good sir, be pleas'd
To think it was a fault of love, not malice,
And do as I will do—forgive it, prince;
I do, and can, forgive the greatest sins
To me you can repent of.

Indeed the magnanimous mode of lax contemplation encouraged by the resolution of the jeopardy is best explained by William Perkins [in his A Treatise of Christian Equity and Moderation]:

Our nature is given to take men at the worst, to deprave mens deeds and words, and to pervert them to the worst sense that may be: and this is commonly the cause of debate and dissention in the world.

But the dutie of Christian Equitie is contrarie hereunto; namely, to thinke the best they can of all men, to construe all doubtfull actions in the better part, and to make the best sense of all doubtfull speeches, if we have any probable reason to induce us to it.

Although many critics rigorously take the play in "the worst sense that may be," the moral presentation of Arbaces and Panthea unquestionably induced the popular audience to forgive them quickly, on the casuistical assumption that they were probably innocent even in the seeming act of sin. The narrative pattern of the play thus concludes intelligibly for the audience at the Globe.


The sentimental satisfaction that A King and No King offered the Globe audience was theological in confirming the providential bias of the new casuistry and in suggesting the doctrine of the immutability of election. The peculiar pattern of jeopardy and total rescue became a leading characteristic of later Jacobean tragicomedy and probably influenced the practice of grafting poetic justice to Shakespearean tragedy during the Restoration. But if the new casuistry was thus made popular in London, it also was vigorously attacked by Catholics on the Continent, where it was sporadically insisted that Protestants were ridiculously lax in assuming easy forgiveness for sins of infirmity. Beaumont and Fletcher surely recognized this objection, for the play eschews smugness, both through the ironic presentation of Arbaces in the main plot and through the sustained parody of his innocence in the subplot, which has not been explained since Dryden wished it were "thrown away" [John Dryden, "Preface to Troilus and Cressida, 1679]. When this satire is considered together with the authors' previous dislike for the audience, there is good reason to believe that Beaumont and Fletcher meant all along to ridicule the sentimental taste of the London audience.

Only George Pierce Baker [in Select Plays of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher) has postulated that throughout their career "Beaumont and Fletcher wrote in half-amused contempt of their public." Yet it is clear that Beaumont satirized the court and the current anti-Catholic mania in The Woman Hater (1606) and the vapid love of chivalric romance in The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1608). Some critics suspect that Fletcher was ironic in his early venture, The Faithful Shepherdess (c. 1608), a pastoral love play in which few characters are properly chaste. Both plays of 1608 were failures in performance. Ben Jonson blamed the audience of "fools" for the ill reception of Fletcher's play; Beaumont's commendatory verses similarly attacked the audience for its hostility to art and wit, while Chapman consoled Fletcher for cruel treatment by "the multitude, / With no one limb of any art endued …" [see The Works of Beaumont and Fletcher, ed. A. H. Bullen, 1908]. Thus if Fletcher felt martyred by the audience, and was not simply the unsuccessful ironist, then the reason for his later estrangement from the public is understandable. In either event he soon went partners with an established satirical dramatist.

Beaumont's disdain for the public was unmistakable after The Knight of the Burning Pestle. In verses written for the publication of Volpone a year earlier, he had attacked the pretentious gallants in the audience and threatened to ridicule them on the stage and have them "like it." Making good this threat, in The Knight Beaumont interrupts the action of a prodigal play so that Rafe, a gallant apprentice with outspoken preferences for Spanish romances, may come on stage to enact his chivalric fantasies in absurdly contrapuntal fashion to the ongoing play. Rafe's master and mistress meanwhile speak occasionally throughout the performance, revealing themselves to be "artistically and morally stupid." This was heavy-handed stuff, and in the first quarto Walter Burre took opportunity in his publisher's preface to acknowledge the play's poor reception, and to call for a second play, to "revenge his quarrel, and challenge the world either of fond and merely literal interpretation or illiterate misprision." Since Burre had published many of Jonson's plays and presumably knew the dramatists' current dislike for their audience, his preface is a valuable secondary indication of the satirical technique used in A King and No King—for here, the open burlesque of the audience changes to a sophisticated comment on their "merely literal" responses to the new Puritan casuistry.

Beaumont and Fletcher were by their upbringing in a position to be more than usually knowledgeable about counter-Reformation polemics. Fletcher's high-living father had been Bishop of Bristol, Worcester, and London, from which post he was removed. What is more interesting, Beaumont's grandmother received the last rites from Henry Garnet, Superior of the Jesuits in England, who also referred to Beaumont's mother as a devout Catholic. Her influence on at least one of her sons is apparent.

Beaumont's brother John, with whom he lived for a time in London, married Elizabeth Fortesque, whose entire family was imprisoned for recusancy before the marriage.

John himself is cited for recusancy in 1607, and his own son later became a Jesuit. It might be added that the dramatists' friend Ben Jonson was haled into consistory court in 1606 on charges of recusancy and of proselytizing youths to the Catholic faith.

A further piece of circumstantial evidence regarding the dramatists' anti-Puritanism is worth notice despite its uncertain provenance: the verse letter from Beaumont to Jonson (c. 1609). In the letter Beaumont familiarly alludes to and invites contempt for Matthew Sutcliffe, who was informally recognized as King James's minister of Protestant propaganda. The letter begins with banter about high times at the Mermaid Tavern and, after mockery of the Puritans' drinking wine so weak it is almost water, there comes the slap at Sutcliffe: '"Tis licquor that will finde out Sutcliffs witt, / Lye where it will, and make him write worse yet." Sutcliffe was the leading Puritan controversialist in England, and one of his major opponents at this time was Matthew Kellison, who served on the faculty at Douay [a Catholic Seminary in France]. In three book-length critiques of Reformation theology Kellison had singled out for special ridicule the casuistical paradox of innocent sinners. Sutcliffe in 1606 responded to each of Kellison's arguments and attempted to refute them all. This was a significant exchange over fundamental issues in the counter-Reformation, and while we cannot know if they read it, Beaumont and Fletcher apparently knew the tenor of Kellison's objections to sins of infirmity.

Kellison argued [in A Survey of the New Religion, 1603] what the play satirically demonstrates, that the doctrine of sins of infirmity leads to sentimentalism and finally to moral anarchy, since this doctrine makes the legal fact of sin only a passing jeopardy to the elect:

. … soe when I am moved to sinne by the devil or my owne concupiscence, yea even then when I ame in the acte of sinne, 1 may apprehend that thoughe there is noe goodnesse in me of myne owne, yet Christes justice is myne, of which, if even in the acte of sinne, I assure my selfe, I maye assure my selfe also, that noe sinne can hurte mee. … And so the way is open to all vice and wickednes, because if a man will beleeve that he is juste, and hold faste by this faith, noe sinne can hurte him, bicause that assuraunce of justice dothe justifie him.

As we have seen, the calculated sentimental response of the audience to Arbaces is based entirely on the alluring faith in a sudden recovery of innocence. Kellison scorns the lax attitude towards sins of infirmity with a directness that is not found in the play; what makes the dramatic satire unmistakable, however, is the ironic disparagement of Arbaces' imperturbable assurance in both plots.


In the main action Arbaces' vacuous self-esteem is ridiculed occasionally: when the citizens mock him for bringing "peas" to their land (II.ii), and especially in the final scene of the play, when he conveys his good fortune to the court. Here his sense of moral relief transcends all bounds of common sense. The extravagant imagery of his speeches reveals an unconnected view of reality. He orders Mardonius, preposterously enough, to conduct Tigranes home "as never man went." "Shall go on's head?" Mardonius quips, but the barb goes unnoticed:

He shall have chariots easier than air
That I will have invented, and ne'er think
He shall pay any ransom; and thyself,
That art the messenger, shall ride before him
On a horse cut out of an entire diamond
That shall be made to go with golden wheels
I know not how yet.

This sort of fairy tale language at one level makes the happy ending an escapist's fantasy, but at an ironic level, the vain imprecision of the imagery and thought is the poetic measure of Arbaces' detachment from experience. In this light his promise to Spaconia reveals a silliness that is also morally insincere:

She shall have some strange thing; we'll have the
Sold utterly and put into a toy
Which she shall wear about her carelessly
Somewhere or other.

Arbaces' superficial but self-assured toying with reality is inescapably associated with the happy laxity of the play and thus with a complacently cheerful audience that accepts such laxity.

It may not be very damaging for the main plot to suggest that Arbaces' self-satisfaction has its markedly foolish side: the subplot, however, develops the comic presentation of Bessus into a witty parody of Arbaces' self-assurance. As the play ends with Arbaces' miraculous recovery from theological sin, so it begins with "Bessus' Desperate Redemption" from secular cowardice (I.i.52). Bessus, retreat ing in the wrong direction, fell upon the enemy and in the confusion won the day. Before this known everywhere as a coward, he now boasts he is famed for valor by "The Christian World" (I.i.42). His "conversion from a coward" (III.ii.113-14) is challenged repeatedly. Bacurius especially denies his new assurance of valor, beats him into admitting he is still a coward, and takes away the outward sign of his honor, his sword, leaving Bessus only his "impudence" to maintain his reputation (III.ii. 102-60). He seeks out two casuistical "bilbo-men" (that is, two master swordsmen, with a likely pun on "Bible-men") to analyze the case of his honor. The bilbo-men decide in a definitive statement of ethical theory that his sword was "forc'd but not lost" (IV.ii.61) and therefore that he is still "a very valiant man" (1. 147). But when all three confront Bacurius with their findings, he beats and kicks the swordsmen and takes away their swords too. After he is gone they nonetheless shake hands all around "to our honors" (V.iii.99). "We are valiant / To ourselves, and there's an end" concludes Bessus (11. 101-02).

The weakness of Arbaces' pretension to recovered innocence is ironically exposed by his distorted reflection in Bessus, for in a reductive sense both are "valiant" to themselves. The subplot pointedly burlesques the recovered reputation that Arbaces lays claim to, on the presumption that his innocence, like Bessus' sword, was "forced but not lost" during the long temptation. In the world of the play, society forgives the sinner at his behest while it tests the bravura of a coward. Yet from a psychological standpoint there is no easy public method to detect unwarranted moral self-assurance, which is of course precisely the casuistical dilemma which Kellison had predicted for the Protestants. The potent sin of incest loses its significance in the play, therefore, because it has no importance to the conscienceless Bessus and is of no lasting consequences to the reassured Arbaces. They are both characters whom no sin can hurt, and in this ironic sense they are equals.

The interaction between Bessus and Arbaces further exposes the tendency towards anarchy in Puritan casuistry. Arbaces, it may be recalled, drove Bessus from the stage in the third act because he properly recognized him as a demonic tempter. Yet at their next meeting, during the joyful final scene, Arbaces blithely forgets the painful moral lesson he has learned and greets him cheerfully as "good Captain Bessus" (V.iv.296). With this reunion the psychology of infirmity is neatly demonstrated to be based, in its extreme laxist form, on self-willed intellectual oblivion. Arbaces has regained his innocence only at the price of dissociation from his past behavior and especially from any moral knowledge he has gained; apparently he is doomed to an unending pretence of innocence. He reveals then a necessary myopia when he greets the recognized devil of the play as his "fellow subject" and invites him to the marriage of the "innocents." But the riddling curse with which Arbaces had banished Bessus now brilliantly returns to define the paradox of their new-found equality: "If thou find'st one so innocent as thyself, / Thou shalt be held as beastly" (III.iii. 183-84). Like the situation, the crucial terms (in italics) have been reversed.

The conventional scene of forgiveness in tragicomedy thus leads to an outrageous conclusion that I think intentionally undercuts the cozy moral formula of the play. By incorporating a twofold treatment of lax casuistry, A King and No King was at once a successful exploitation of and a fey triumph over an alien sentimental audience. Still it is disturbing to think that this play and Macbeth were both acted at the Globe in 1611 to the applause of the same audience, for the plays present diametrically opposed views of moral retribution. Surely the sentimental possibilities for drama permitted by the new casuistry were not missed by the authors of either play; they of all people were aware of the onset of a new epoch in English drama. Beaumont and Fletcher's irresponsibility, if it may be called such, was to understand and accept the change, rather than fight against it. Yet remarkably enough A King and No King demonstrates a serious recognition of the danger of laxity, and thus indicates that Beaumont and Fletcher were themselves disturbed by the sentimental tragicomedy which their audience seemed to demand. The clear implication is that although Beaumont and Fletcher structured a casuistical action to which lax and even decadent responses are possible, the authors are not in consequence "morally hollow," as alleged by Coleridge and Eliot. If anything, the play leads to quite the opposite conclusion—that the authors disparage the sentimental myopia which their casuistical drama craftily invites.

Further Reading

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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.

Cunningham, John E. "Beaumont and Fletcher." In his Elizabethan and Early Stuart Drama, pp. 73-88. London: Evans Brothers, 1965.

Examines Beaumont and Fletcher's plays in the context of Elizabethan social, cultural, literary, and theatrical conventions.

Ellis-Fermor, Una. "Beaumont and Fletcher." In her The Jacobean Drama: An Interpretation, pp. 201-26. London: Methuen & Co., 1936.

Comments that the tragicomedies of Beaumont and Fletcher differ from other Jacobean dramas by offering a "sanctuary from the agonies of spiritual tragedy and the cynicism of observant comedy."

Finkelpearl, Philip J. "Beaumont, Fletcher, and 'Beaumont & Fletcher': Some Distinctions." English Literary Renaissance 1, No. 2 (Spring 1971): 144-64.

Contends that the inflated rhetoric of Beaumont and Fletcher's plays intentionally "dramatize a moral vacuum and hollow center," and are not demonstrations of the decadence of the Jacobean theater.

——. Court and Country Politics in the Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1990, 263 p.

Locates both the initial success and subsequent decline in critical estimation of Beaumont and Fletcher's plays in their political content.

Herndl, George C. "The New Meaning of Tragedy: Tourneur, Beaumont & Fletcher, Ford." In his The High Design: English Renaissance Tragedy and the Natural Law, pp. 218-80. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1970.

Traces the "distinctive characteristics" of Beaumont and Fletcher's drama, finding the "realism of its language [gives] substance to its fairyland characters."

Hoy, Cyrus. "The Shares of Fletcher and His Collaborators in the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon." Studies in Bibliography 8-15 (1956-1962).

Seven-part examination of the respective shares of Beaumont and Fletcher in their joint works and of the possibility that other writers contributed to the dramas.

Masefield, John. "Beaumont and Fletcher." The Atlantic Monthly 199, No. 6 (June 1957): 71-4.

Offers compact biographical information.

Mincoff, Marco. "The Social Background of Beaumont and Fletcher." English Miscellany I (1950): 1-30.

Places Beaumont and Fletcher within the atmosphere of change, social crisis, and revolt in the Jacobean period.

Ornstein, Robert. "John Marston. Beaumont and Fletcher." In his The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy, pp. 151-69. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960.

Focuses particularly on Fletcher's plays, which, Ornstein claims, "indicate all too clearly the decline of the Jacobean stage after its first golden decade."

Thorndike, Ashley H. The Influence of Beaumont and Fletcher on Shakspere. 1901. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1965, 176 p.

Compares the characteristics, dates of composition, and stage histories of the plays of Shakespeare and of Beaumont and Fletcher. Thorndike concludes that Shakespeare was likely influenced by the younger dramatists.

Waith, Eugene. The Pattern of Tragicomedy in Beaumont and Fletcher. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1952, 214 p.

Interprets the "distinctive features" of Beaumont and Fletcher's tragicomedies "in the light of certain contemporary literary forms and, ultimately, of the rhetorical tradition."

Wallis, Lawrence B. Fletcher, Beaumont & Company: Entertainers to the Jacobean Gentry. Morningside Heights, N.Y.: King's Crown Press, 1947, 315 p.

Presents a survey of Beaumont and Fletcher criticism from their own time to the twentieth century.

Wilson, John Harold. The Influence of Beaumont and Fletcher on Restoration Drama. 1928. Reprint. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1968, 156 p.

Assesses the degree to which the plots, characters, settings, and tone of Beaumont and Fletcher's plays affected those of their successors.


Danby, John F. "The Maid's Tragedy." In his Poets on Fortune's Hill, pp. 184-206. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1952.

Analyzes the play as a composition aimed at an aristocratic audience.


Neill, Michael. 'The Defence of Contraries: Skeptical Paradox in A King and No King." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 XXI, No. 2 (Spring 1981): 319-32.

Examines the play as a kind of "discordia concors" which reconciles the "contrary demands of tragedy and comedy."

Additional coverage of Beaumont's and Additional coverage of Beaumont's and Fletcher's lives and careers is contained in the following source published by Gale Research: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 58.