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 extensive, do not include intrusion into the personal lives of his subjects.
Fletcher’s most notable solo work of those years—and the climax of the themes that run through his work—is A Wife for a Month. Evanthe is Fletcher’s greatest wholesome “clever maiden.” Her spurning of Frederick, acting king of Naples, sets off a chain of sexual and political imbroglios. The play also includes Fletcher’s enchanting masque of Cupid in act 2. Ben Jonson declared that, excepting himself and Shakespeare, only Fletcher and George Chapman could write real masques.
The first Beaumont and Fletcher folio was published in 1647. Only Shakespeare and Ben Jonson also had folios of their works published in that century. John Dryden’s An Essay on Dramatic Poesy (1688) cites Fletcher, Shakespeare, and Jonson as exemplars of the dramatic form. In later ages Fletcher’s reputation was questioned by Algernon Charles Swinburne, who credited Beaumont with writing most of the dramatic scenes in their plays, and many have followed in his path. Those seeking to explain the decline of English drama after the Elizabethan age focused on the tragicomedy as the cause and on Fletcher as that genre’s chief exponent. Some critics considered what John Dryden praised as the “certain gaiety in their comedies, and pathos in their more serious plays” as evidence that Fletcher’s contribution weakened the plays by eschewing elements of the Aristotelian thesis on “dramatic unity.”
Yet Fletcher created a legacy of works, collaborative and solo, that includes more than half a dozen plays that rank with all but the cream of Shakespeare’s work. For his strong-willed, independent female characters alone—from Clorin and Cloe through Hippolyta and Evanthe—Fletcher should be credited as one of the brightest stars of his generation, and certainly as more than simply a pale reflection of his predecessor Shakespeare.
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.