Beaumont and Fletcher

When the first collected folio of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, containing a masque and some thirty-four plays, none of the latter having previously been printed, was published in 1647, long after the deaths of its authors, no attempt was made to discriminate between the parts of the famous collaborators; nor did the 1679 folio, in spite of its eighteen additional plays, suggest that a separation was desirable or feasible. But recent investigation has tended more and more strongly toward such a distinction, until, for instance, C.M. Gayley in his Beaumont the Dramatist is sure of only six plays as the joint product of Swinburne's Castor and Pollux of the English drama--although E.H.C. Oliphant in his The Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher prefers eight and allows the two men three more with the assistance of Massinger. Moreover, contrary to the older impression growing out of the longer dramatic career and larger output of Fletcher, virtually all modern critics insist that Beaumont was the greater dramatist. But the disentangling of the web has not ended here, since the hands of Massinger and Field, not to mention those of William Rowley, Shirley, Shakespeare, and others have been identified in a considerable part of the work which for many years masqueraded under the label of "Beaumont and Fletcher." The whole situation provides a striking commentary on the conditions of Elizabethan dramatic publication and authorship.

Both Beaumont and Fletcher brought a new respectability to the Stuart drama, for both came from excellent families and were able to picture the life of the upper classes, especially in comedies of manners and "fashion," with ease and authenticity. Fletcher's father eventually became Bishop of London, and his uncle, Giles Fletcher, himself an author, was the parent of the two Spenserian poets, Phineas and Giles the Younger. Beaumont (born about 1584) was the youngest son of a prominent judge, and his brother John early became recognized as a poet. Fletcher entered Cambridge about 1591, when he was some twelve years of age, and perhaps intended to take orders like his father, but the latter's loss of Elizabeth's favor soon afterward may account for the lack of any record of the boy's graduation; Beaumont went to Oxford in 1597, but by 1600 had transferred himself to the Inner Temple, though not necessarily because of any particular ambition to follow his father's profession of the law. The date at which the two men began to write, and even the date of their first collaboration, cannot be exactly established, but Beaumont published his first poetry about 1602, and seems soon to have become a friend of Jonson and a member of his circle--Dryden, in fact, preserving the story that Jonson had such a regard for the other's judgment that he submitted all his plays to him for criticism, especially as regarded plot. Probably both of the future collaborators had independently written a play or two apiece before their intimacy began, sometime between 1604 and 1606; but they rapidly became such friends that a tradition runs to the effect that they shared rooms at the Bankside and owned all things in common. Since almost no one holds to a date much earlier than 1606 for their first significant collaboration, and since Beaumont's marriage in 1613 and his non-professional attitude toward the drama led to an almost complete cessation of activity in literary creation after that date, the partnership was not actually bery long in duration. After the year 1616 had seen the deaths of both Beaumont and his twenty-year senior, Shakespeare, Fletcher continued to write so prolifically and successfully, both alone and in his favorite collaboration, as to become the leading English dramatist, easily overshadowing Jonson in popularity. Fletcher died of the plague in 1625.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is generally considered to have been written about 1607-8, although Oliphant, on the evidence of the printer's epistle, etc., prefers 1610. Some critics also believe it to have been written entirely by Beaumont, at least in its initial composition, but Oliphant, saying that none of Beaumont's unaided work is extant, agrees with earlier critics in attributing a small portion of it to Fletcher. According to the frank admission of the publisher in the prefatory epistle to the anonymous first quarto edition in 1613, the play was composed in little more than a week, and upon being produced at the Blackfriars by the Children of the Queen's Revels, was promptly rejected by its audience, which obviously must have been restless under its satire as well as bored by its form. For, in addition to poking fun at the taste and manners of the London tradesman, the play is a burlesque not only of such popular romantic dramas as Mucedorus and Heywood's The Four Prentices of London but also of such fictional romances, in both verse and prose, as Rafe's own favorite Palmerin of England. The question of Beaumont's debt to Don Quixote has likewise produced much controversy, since no English translation of Cervantes work has definitely been shown to have been printed before 1612, although the manuscript was apparently circulated before this date; moreover, though Fletcher used much Spanish material in later plays, Beaumont never did, and there is no evidence to show that either could read Spanish. French or English translations were usually available in some form or other. Scholarly opinion today inclines toward the rejection of the Spanish influence on the play and toward the stressing of the English motives, conventions, and tendencies of the time.

No serious question has ever been raised as to Fletcher's complete authorship of The Faithful Shepherdess, since the first quarto (undated, but probably issued about 1609-10, a year or two after the production by the Children of the Queen's Revels) bears his name, as do the four other editions preceding the second folio, in which there was no distinction of authors. This pastoral drama, or rather pastoral "tragi-comedy," which Fletcher carefully defines in his premise, is in the Italian tradition of Guarini's Il Pastor Fido, itself modeled after Tasso's Aminta; but these authors, as well as Spenser, merely furnished some general suggestions and a few incidental details without in any way detracting from Fletcher's originality. The plot, largely because of the several pairings of lovers necessitated by the author's desire to illustrate all the gradations of love from the most sensual to the most chaste, is rather complicated, but the poetry is fresh and graceful. Though the play was not a stage success, it has retained the enthusiasm of readers, and its influence is shown in Milton's Comus, both in theme and in versification.

Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding, produced about 1609 and first printed in an imperfect quarto in 1620, was the earliest play of its authors, either singly or together, to achieve a popular success; it was the first important play to spring from their collaboration, and it was their first play to be acted by Shakespeare's company. It belongs to the type of romantic drama or tragi-comedy which was then coming into vogue, with its rapidity of action, its spectacular scenes, its contrast of love and lust, its mingling of humor and seriousness, its sentimentalities, its glittering but shallow characters drawn from the nobility, and its poetical passages. In spite of Thorndike's opinion, expressed in 1901, that these tragi-comedies of Beaumont's and Fletcher influenced Shakespeare's Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale, the general view today is that the influence was in the opposite direction. Philaster, although held by Oliphant to be mostly by Beaumont, has given scholars an excellent opportunity to apply their tests of authorship to its various parts. These tests, after eliminating the negligible external evidence, depend upon the following internal elements: versification, especially Fletcher's free approximation of conversational prose effects by the use of weak (i.e., double, triple, or even quadruple) endings for his lines, with a general avoidance of rhyme (The Faithful Shepherdess is an obvious exception), and a favoring of the end-stop; diction and recurring rhetorical devices, such as repetition of words, constructions, and ideas; and mental attitude, shown in the use of certain types of material, such as Fletcher's greater fondness for questionable moral situations and furtive innuendo, and Beaumont's more truly philosophical and speculative outlook. No source for Philaster has been discovered, though resemblances to parts of Sidney's Arcadia and Montemayor's Diana have been noted.

The Maid's Tragedy was apparently produced about 1611, and was printed anonymously in 1619. A revised edition was brought out in 1622, and another in 1630, containing the author's names. Both the record of publications and the stage history of the play attest its extreme popularity, for it went through many editions, and leading actors appeared in it, or adaptations of it, on into the nineteenth century. Although Beaumont, famed for his plotting ability, is usually given credit for the major part of the tragedy, there are still some rather unnatural and unplausible aspects of both plot and motivation, but these are almost overlooked in the intensity and interest of the action. The tragedy of blood, lust, and revenge reaches one of its highest points in this play. No source for the plot is known, but the character and some of the acts of Aspatia are not unlike those of Sidney's deserted Parthenia.

†This article was originally published in Elizabethan and Stuart Plays ed. Charles Read Baskervill. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1934. pp. 1099-1101.

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Beaumont and Fletcher

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