In SIR JOHN VAN OLDEN BARNAVELT, Fletcher and Massinger apparently intended to present the character of a noble and virtuous man of high station who was brought to ruin by ambition. This intention is never realized dramatically. We are told of Barnavelt’s service to the state, of the love the common people had for him, and of his many fine personal qualities; but we are never shown these things. Thus Barnavelt emerges from the play as a proud and crotchety old man whose unreasonable machinations lead eventually to a well-deserved beheading. Hence he never achieves tragic dimensions. Any other positive effects the play might have achieved are inhibited by distinctly second-rate plotting and versification. But Jacobean audiences seem to have reacted to the play quite favorably. The historical Barnavelt had been executed in May, 1619, and to them the reenactment of the end of his career was an exciting contemporary chronicle, rendered all the more interesting because a number of dangerous political questions were raised. For this reason, perhaps, the play was not printed during the seventeenth century. It survived in the form of a heavily censored manuscript prompt book, which was not generally available until its publication in 1883.


(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. July 4, 1995, p. 24.

The Christian Science Monitor. July 27, 1995, p. B1.

Los Angeles Times. June 21, 1995, p. E4.

The New York Review of Books. XLII, July 13, 1995, p. 42.

The New York Times Book Review. C, June 25, 1995, p. 9.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, June 4, 1995, p. 3.