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...
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John Fletcher was born in Rye, Sussex, where he was baptized on December 20, 1579. His father, Richard, was a clergyman who attended Cambridge and was later made president of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, dean of Peterborough, and eventually bishop of London. Elizabeth I reportedly admired his talent as a scholar and bestowed special favor on him. John Fletcher’s uncles, Giles and Phineas Fletcher, were poets with respected reputations, and their successes added honors to the family name. These conditions of birth and social standing were somewhat unusual among playwrights of the age and doubtless helped to reinforce Fletcher’s reputation as an entertainer of gentlemen.
Although Fletcher no doubt attended lectures at his father’s alma mater, he may have been forced to leave Cambridge in 1596 when, perhaps in part because of an ill-advised second marriage, Bishop Fletcher was suspended by the queen. Later in that same year, he died, and Fletcher was probably taken under the wing of his uncle Giles, who may have helped to pay off the family’s large debts. Just when Fletcher began writing plays is not known, but it is certain that he was hard at work in collaboration with Beaumont early in the first decade of the seventeenth century. After Beaumont left the profession in 1613, Fletcher continued as the chief playwright for the King’s Men, working alone or with Philip Massinger, William Shakespeare (on The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII), and several others. Fletcher’s death in August, 1625, was caused by the plague; he was buried in St. Saviours Church, Southwark, the district in which he had resided throughout his career in London.