John Fletcher, the fourth son of Richard Fletcher, who rose through the ecclesiastical ranks by the grace of Queen Elizabeth I, initially followed in his father’s footsteps, beginning studies as a pensioner at Benét College, Cambridge, in 1591. Richard, who became bishop of London in 1595, fell from the queen’s grace after his hasty second marriage that year. His death in 1596 left his family severely in debt, and John Fletcher was too junior in the family to inherit any of the few assets. Little is known of his life between his father’s death and the mid-1600’s. The premiere of the first play he wrote alone, The Faithful Shepherdess, heralded Fletcher’s trademark use of the eleven-syllable line with a so-called feminine, or unaccented, ending. Although the title character is the wholesome Clorin, it is the licentious but clever Cloe, the first of Fletcher’s “clever maidens in love,” who with her pursuit of the chaste Daphnis enthralls or enrages audiences.
The 1609 quarto of this play sets forth Fletcher’s definition of the then-new form of theater that describes much of his work.[A] tragi-comedy is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants death, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy . . . so that a god is lawful in this as in a tragedy, and mean people as in a comedy.
Fletcher’s other early works were collaborations with Francis Beaumont, the son of a judge. The first evidence of their collaboration is revisions made by Fletcher to Beaumont’s The Woman Hater. Their earliest collaborations were staged by Paul’s Boys, a company of child actors, and by the Children of the Queen’s Revels at the Blackfriars Theatre. While at the Blackfriars, they came to the attention of the King’s Men. The pair continued to write for the Children of the Queen’s Revels, but Fletcher also began a fruitful relationship with William Shakespeare’s troupe.
The three major Beaumont and Fletcher dramas—Philaster: Or, Love Lies A-Bleeding, The Maid’s Tragedy, and A King and No King—are clearly joint efforts, in which most of the masques and moments of pure lyricism are certainly Fletcher’s. The three plays are notable also in challenging the idea of the divine right of kings, the touchstone of James I’s rule in England.
Soon thereafter Fletcher contracted to write exclusively for the King’s Men—one of only eight playwrights in that era so honored by any company. Bonduca, his first solo work for them, firmly established Fletcher as Shakespeare’s heir apparent. That play and Valentinian, also for the King’s Men, mark the high points of Fletcher’s solo dramas.
It was around that time that Fletcher and Shakespeare collaborated in a play titled Cardenio which was acted at court around Christmas of 1612, but whose text has been lost. The Two Noble Kinsmen is the only extant play on which the two definitely collaborated.
Fletcher’s influence on Shakespeare is apparent in Henry VIII. Because the duke of Buckingham’s farewell scene, for example, clearly evokes Fletcher’s style, poets and scholars, starting with Alfred, Lord Tennyson, have suggested that the play was a collaboration; however, Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623), compiled by two of the King’s Men, includes the play without mentioning Fletcher.
Fletcher succeeded Shakespeare as chief dramatist of the King’s Men around 1613, a position he held until his untimely death in the plague of 1625. His primary collaborator from 1616 on was another nobly born playwright, Philip Massinger. The highlight of their collaborations is The Custom of the Country, a bawdy comedy in which, as with The Faithful Shepherdess , chastity carries the day for reasons unknown. The play is graced with the lecherous Hippolyta, a more complex and mature theatrical rendering of Cloe, and makes clear that the “rights” of the ruler, no matter how...
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