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