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 form of payback, is played out in The Maid’s Tragedy with some considerable style. Part of the revenge motif is its getting out of hand, often causing the death of those who do not deserve to die. In this play, the king gets what he deserves, but the play does not stop there; instead, it manages to draw in Evadne, who is less guilty than her lover, and Aspatia and Amintor, who are entirely innocent. This element of the play is typical of Jacobean drama.
Beaumont and Fletcher tend to put emphasis upon a love affair as a central theme for their dramas, and they take some care to allow for the poetic expression of amorous feeling. It is generally assumed that Beaumont probably wrote the more lyric passages, and that Fletcher, who is assumed to have had a temperament somewhat less romantic than that of Beaumont, is responsible for the sharper, conversational, sometimes comic material. This play is less comic than others, but the exchanges between Melantius and Calianax, however serious the context, display the kind of smart, combative dialogue enjoyed by the Jacobean audience. Calianax is a typical comic figure, the old man who is the butt of all jokes, however cruel they may be, simply because of his age.
What makes the play difficult for a contemporary reader is its seeming lack of serious substance. It is hardly a tragedy, since the matter at...
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hand is relatively unimportant. The issue has no great import to anyone except for the small handful of intimates, although it does eventually cause the death of a monarch, who is quickly replaced. The matter, however, is somewhat more exclusively personal than is usually the case in tragedy. Certainly in comparison to the psychological, social, and political densities of Shakespeare, the play seems less formidable.
The play is certainly less than consequential in its quick changes of mind. Evadne, seemingly besotted with the king and emotionally committed to deception, needs very little persuasion to reject her lover and to sink immediately into the despair that turns her into a killer. No attempt is made to use her dilemma as an opportunity for extended soliloquy in the Shakespearean style. There are several quick reversals in the play that bother a contemporary reader but that were accepted as part of the convention for this kind of romantic tragedy, which has a ludic aspect to it, since so many of the plays of the time were variations on the pattern. Credibility was unimportant for an audience with a taste for watching the aristocracy, usually in a foreign land, acting arbitrarily, unfairly, and eventually murderously. Characters who are shallow were expected to use language extravagantly and well.
In short, what the Jacobean audience came to see was another version of the old tale of foreign folk of aristocratic power living lives of wild extravagance, lashing about politically, socially, and personally in ways beyond the abilities of the commoners. In this respect, Jacobean plays are not unlike the violent fantasy of late twentieth century adventure films. The obvious difference is the language, which is always intelligent, sophisticated, and often touching.