Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy is a typical example of the kind of play written and produced in the Jacobean period (the reign of King James I, 1603-1625), which also encompasses the later plays of William Shakespeare and the work of Ben Jonson. Although there were very few theaters at that time, audiences constantly demanded new plays, and there was opportunity for many playwrights to try their hands.
The plays of the Jacobean era are, in the main, very similar and use ideas, motifs, and characters that were interesting to the audiences of the time but are somewhat lacking to a contemporary reader. This is one of the reasons why Jacobean dramas are rarely produced even in Great Britain, where only Shakespeare and, to a lesser extent, Jonson are regularly presented.
Most Jacobean plays have all the trappings of a Shakespearean play, but little of the content. This play, in which the grandeur of court life and the disastrous, bloody fate of several characters, including a king, are explored, is a rather thin story of the secret love affair of the king of Rhodes and the sister of his greatest general. There is some lack of credibility immediately apparent in his insistence on marrying her to one of his nobles, Amintor, despite Amintor’s betrothal to another noblewoman, Aspatia. The king must marry her off to avoid scandal if she becomes pregnant, but why he marries her off to Amintor, who is engaged, is something of a mystery. One of the marks of a second-rate drama is a tendency to pay little attention to credibility. The audiences of the time liked odd conduct, and they seemed quite prepared to accept arbitrary actions, particularly from monarchs. The historical ironies are clear; the literary legacy is clouded. The higher the rank, the less dependable the characters or their actions.
The characters in the plays also expect questionable conduct from their rulers, and the king of Rhodes is typical. Equally Jacobean is the way in which problems are solved, usually, by violent action. The revenge theme, in which personal or family affronts are not so much solved as aggravated by further affront, in the...
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