Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 978
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, ironically echoing the immorality of the royal pair.
Royal lunacy is only barely balanced by the good sense of Mardonius, by the quiet patience and courage of the defeated Tigranes, and by Spaconia. On the other hand, the posturings of Bessus are something of a comic parallel to the repetitive boasting of his king. It all looks a bit silly, and a close look reveals a kind of contrived madness, closer to fantasy than to real life, but Jacobean tragicomedy is often inclined to excess. The romantic expostulations of Arbaces and Panthea, taken on the inflated level of high drama, allow for a rich manipulation of poetic language, made all the more credible by the fact that both parties, tempted as they are to consummate their love, are torn deeply by the awareness of the forbidden nature of their love. What somewhat undermines this power is the revelation of their real situation, with its rather dubious implicit suggestion that unconsciously they know all along that their love is proper.
Quite as successful, if not more so, is the tale of Bessus, bluntly realistic in its exposure of a braggart who goes too far too often and still has enough gall to attempt to talk his way out of the beating he deserves. On a more serious level, he is used to prick the conscience of the king, when he eagerly agrees to facilitate any incestuous affair that the king may have in mind, and, in so doing, reveals to the monarch how morally low he sinks. The comic aspect of his story, however, is a good example of how these playwrights are able to relieve the afflatus of high declamatory language with blunt simplicities, and, in so doing, give the tragic matter a credibility in a world of common conduct.
For a modern reader, the ridiculous nature of the plot and the excessive conduct of the characters, especially the king, may blind one to the great success of the language. It is easiest appreciated in the Bessus material, with its quick, realistic ironies and insults, and it may be that this work is, in the main, the contribution of Fletcher. Harder to appreciate are the poetic intensities of the passages of deep feeling expressed by the king and his putative sister, both in tandem and in soliloquy. Here, the material has considerable power, if attention is paid, and it is sometimes suggested that it occasionally reaches the quality of William Shakespeare’s work. It is usually presumed that Beaumont is responsible for this poetic material. This matter of authorship is of lesser concern; the real question is how well these two men used the rather ludicrous motifs of Jacobean drama to make reasonably good theater and sometimes glorious language.
The seemingly vicious, and sometimes ridiculous excess of this typical Jacobean play should not, however, be dismissed out of hand as a simple example of bad theatrical taste. Many critics see the enthusiasm for violent, arbitrary conduct; for gratuitous cruelty; for the disdain for the lower orders, women, and the older generation; and for the exercise of irresponsible power by the rulers of the day as not very far from the truth of the times. The pessimism flaunted in a play like this may be, in part, simply an artistic expression of the prevailing social, political, and moral sensibility. Significantly, this form of tragicomedy had an influence on the drama that followed it.