Philaster is the first tragicomedy on which Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher collaborated for London’s King’s Men company between approximately 1608 and 1613. Beaumont probably wrote most of the play, but it was likely Fletcher who made it a tragicomedy, following the pattern he had introduced in his first play, The Faithful Shepherdess (c. 1608). In that play’s preface, Fletcher explains, A tragi-comedy is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy, which must be a representation of familiar people, with such kind of trouble as no life be questioned.
Closely related to the sixteenth century Italian pastoral romance, Philaster and other tragicomedies also are distinguished by distant and exotic settings, plots that move quickly and often unrealistically, shallow and stereotypical characters, sudden character reversals for which an audience is unprepared, and contrasts between love and lust, and honor and deceit. Whereas uncertainty about the fate of the heroes assures some degree of tension in tragicomedy, happy conclusions are the norm, although they usually follow from surprises or sudden revelations.
Philaster shares traits with comedies and tragedies by William Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s As You Like It (pr. c. 1599-1600, pb. 1623), for example, a usurper rules, young women don male disguises, and there is a pastoral element. In Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will (pr. c. 1600-1602, pb. 1623), which also has an exotic setting, a young woman disguises herself as a man and becomes part of a love triangle. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603), like Philaster, opens with a young prince suffering the indignities of disenfranchisement in his usurper’s court. In Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604, pb. 1622), a father denounces his daughter for marrying without his advice and consent.
Despite its improbable plot and its rapid succession of short scenes, Philaster has dramatic integrity, which is largely attributable to the unifying presence of its title character, whose fate is the focal point. Widely admired and loved, Philaster initially is portrayed as honorable, loyal, and stoic, an icon of perfection. Later, however, his easy embrace of the false story of Arethusa and Bellario’s deception and his inexplicable wounding of Arethusa somewhat diminish him while also making him more...
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