Critical Evaluation

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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 human—a good person, although flawed.

From the beginning, the playwrights develop a clear contrast between Philaster and Pharamond, a prince of Spain who comes to Sicily as official suitor to claim a bride and thus eventually gain control of the kingdom. Pharamond, who is boorish and sexually promiscuous, is marrying Arethusa solely for dynastic reasons. The courtier Dion says that Pharamond is prince only by accident of birth and just as easily could have been born a slave. In other words, there is nothing inherently princely about him. His quick liaison with the lascivious Megra not only heightens the contrast between him and the regal Philaster, setting the stage for inevitable conflict, but also ironically victimizes the unlawful king. At the end, however, the monarch benevolently pardons Pharamond and Megra and blesses the forthcoming marriage of his daughter to Philaster, who will inherit the throne.

The king is a peripheral figure in the play despite his office, an ineffectual villain with only minor bouts of conscience. His failure to gain the citizenry’s acceptance of his usurpation, his impotence during the uprising crisis, and his inability to orchestrate a political marriage for Arethusa dramatize the public and private consequences of his earlier illegal actions. These details may...

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be oblique allusions by Beaumont and Fletcher to intemperate behavior in the court of King James I. Indeed, the prominence of the three courtiers, led by Dion, keeps politics in the forefront. Functioning as chorus, they are superficially loyal to the present monarch while retaining a reservoir of affection and respect for Philaster. Dion hopes to encourage Philaster to lead an insurrection, but one erupts without Philaster’s leadership and ironically he ends it.

The king’s acceptance of the marriage between Arethusa and Philaster initially seems incredible because his daughter, in an affront to traditional parental responsibility, not only has wed secretly but also has made a match with her father’s blood rival. In fact, the king has no choice, for he is informed only after the marriage has taken place, and his preferred suitor proved to be totally unacceptable. Importantly, Philaster, the putative rival, saves the king’s crown by putting down the rebellion, thus demonstrating not only loyalty and usefulness but also worthiness as a future ruler.

Although Beaumont and Fletcher do not develop Arethusa in any depth, the princess is an important figure in the action and comes across as strong-willed and independent, in the tradition of such Shakespearean comic heroines as Beatrice, Rosalind, and Viola; in her willful disregard in the conflict with her father she outdoes Desdemona. Arethusa also has other forebears. When in trouble, she flees to the country, like the heroines of Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590, as The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia) and other sixteenth century pastoral romances. The page who serves her, supposedly the male Bellario but actually Dion’s daughter, Euphrasia, is also a stock character of the pastoral.

Emerging from both the love and political plots, the play’s primary theme is a Renaissance commonplace: Virtue is rewarded. Beaumont and Fletcher use their characters to dramatize various manifestations of love: Philaster and Arethusa exemplify romantic love that culminates in marriage; the behavior of Pharamond and Megra illustrates lust and base sexuality; and Bellario (Euphrasia) represents the ideal of platonic love and selfless, disinterested friendship.

Successful when it was initially performed at the public Globe theater and the private Blackfriars theater, Philaster continued to be popular both on stage and in print throughout the seventeenth century. Its lasting appeal can be attributed in part to its being a forerunner of Restoration heroic drama, tragic epic plays in which love and honor are presented in an exaggerated and improbable manner, usually in the context of political or military conflict. In 1695, Elkanah Settle wrote an opera based on the play, and an adaptation (attributed to the duke of Buckingham) was presented in 1714: The Restauration: Or, Right Will Take Place.