This Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher play is richer in texture and plot than The Maid’s Tragedy (1610-1611), which is less ambitious and tends to satisfy itself with a simple tragic plot. In A King and No King, however, the matter is somewhat more complicated by parallelisms between the major theme and the conduct of lesser figures. Like many of the Jacobean tragicomedies, the play is set in a foreign land, at the highest levels of aristocratic power, and one of the major figures, as in The Maid’s Tragedy, has just successfully defended his country from the enemy. In this case, the contest comes down to single combat between Arbaces, the king of Iberia, and Tigranes, the king of Armenia. Arbaces wins but intends to act magnanimously by wedding his sister Panthea to the conquered king. There are obvious signs, however, that Arbaces is not an entirely stable character, and he is given to public declamations of his political and military prowess, which are comically echoed in the conduct of one of his lieutenants, Mardonius, a cowardly, loud-mouthed fool. Mardonius, a wiser, courageous soldier, chastises both men and seems to be able to talk some sense into the king, but there is always a feeling that the king is inclined to wild swings of mood and conduct, which culminate in his sudden infatuation with his sister, who returns his ardor. Their passion throws the two of them into a desperate indecision which is only resolved by the revelation that they are not, in fact, related to each other. This comes just in time to forestall a bloodbath of considerable proportion.
Thus the play satisfies its description as a tragicomedy. The play begins with all the potential for serious damage, and flirts with the possibility of carnage until very late, when it turns both in structure and in narrative into a comedy when the king learns that he is, in fact, not by birth the king and, more happily, discovers that the woman with whom he is dangerously infatuated is not his sister and therefore can be his wife. They can live happily ever after, not only as lovers but also as rulers, since she is of royal birth. Played against this agonizing extravaganza of uncontrolled and menacing arbitrariness is the parallel, proper love affair of Tigranes, the defeated king, and his loved one, Spaconia, which provides opportunity for the lyric expression of legitimate love,...
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