Both Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher were products of the English upper class. Fletcher, born in 1579, was the second son (the fourth of nine children) of Richard Fletcher, a leading Anglican clergyman. His father served as president of Bene’t College (Corpus Christi), Cambridge; was dean of Peterborough, officiating at the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots; and was successively bishop of Bristol, Worcester, and London, this last position making him Queen Elizabeth’s chaplain. The families of both Beaumont and Fletcher had a number of poets, including Beaumont’s older brother John and Fletcher’s younger first cousins, the Spenserian poets Phineas and Giles Fletcher.
Thus, the social circle—educated, urbane, and artistic—in which they were reared gave Beaumont and Fletcher a running start as Renaissance playwrights. They grew up with clever, informed talk and, unlike fellow playwright William Shakespeare, did not have to imagine how the upper classes who populated Renaissance drama lived. Their educations were rounded off at Cambridge and Oxford and at the London Inns of Court, England’s law school but also a center of literary and dramatic activity. Fletcher entered Bene’t College, Cambridge, in 1591 and probably moved on to the Inns of Court in 1594 or 1595, after his father became bishop of London. It is uncertain whether he received a Cambridge degree.
Neither Beaumont nor Fletcher completed his legal studies. In Fletcher’s case, there were financial reasons. His father lost Queen Elizabeth’s favor in 1595 and died in 1596, leaving the family in debt. Fletcher was forced to drop out, and there is no record of his activities for the next ten years. The next sure record, however, is in 1606, when Beaumont and Fletcher were practicing playwrights.
At first, each of the two playwrights apparently practiced on his own, experiencing the kind of uneven success typical of apprentices. Both wrote for the private theaters, indoor playhouses that drew a more exclusive audience than the outdoor public theaters, and their first plays were acted by boys’ companies, then-popular offshoots of choir schools. An early tragicomedy attributed solely or mostly to Fletcher, The Faithful Shepherdess (c. 1608-1609), was unsuccessful. The young playwright might have overestimated the sophistication of audiences or of the child actors.
When and why Beaumont and Fletcher began collaborating are not exactly known, but the two were probably drawn together by similar backgrounds and common ties. As their commendatory verses to Ben Jonson’s Volpone: Or, The Fox (1606) make clear, both were “Sons of Ben.” Johnson’s satirical and critical inclinations undoubtedly influenced the two younger men; both socialized with Jonson’s famous circle at the Mermaid Tavern.
Beaumont and Fletcher not only became collaborators but also lived with each other, according to seventeenth century biographer John Aubrey in Brief Lives (1898): “They lived together on the Banke-side, not far from the Play-house, both batchelors; lay together (from Sir James Hales, etc.); had one wench in the house between them, which they did so admire, the same cloaths and cloake, etc., between them.” It is uncertain how much of this colorful bohemian picture can be attributed generally to the Renaissance cult of friendship and specifically to the Castor and Pollux myth that grew up around the “twins of poetry.” As a matter of fact, however, Beaumont and Fletcher do look somewhat like twins in the extant portraits (which might have been created with the myth in mind or might reflect typical idealization); both are depicted as Van Dyck cavalier types with wide poetic eyes, large, slightly aquiline noses, and reddish or light brown hair (curly in some portraits), mustaches, and beards (Beaumont’s trimmed square, Fletcher’s pointed).
Some of the performances of their collaborative plays were by the Children of the Queen’s Revels, but most were by the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, with which Beaumont and Fletcher became associated when the company took over the private Blackfriars Theater in 1608. Their best collaborations are two tragicomedies, Philaster: Or, Love Lies A-Bleeding (c. 1609) and A King and No King (1611), and The Maid’s Tragedy (c. 1611), in all of which Beaumont’s hand predominates. Collaborative works in which Fletcher’s hand predominates include the uneven tragedy Cupid’s Revenge (1612) and three comedies, The Coxcomb (c. 1608-1610), The Captain (c. 1690-1612), and The Scornful Lady (c. 1615-1616). Other plays, such as The Tragedy of Thierry, King of France, and His Brother Theodoret (c. 1617), involved a third collaborator (or later, reviser), usually Philip Massinger.
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