1753 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Fletcher

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 1:156-60.



Mr. JOHN FLETCHER was scion of Dr. Richard Fletcher, Lord Bishop of London, and was born in Northamptonshire in the year 1576. He was educated at Cambridge, probably at Burnet-college, to which his father was by his last will and testament a benefactor. He wrote plays jointly with Mr. Beaumont, and Wood says he assisted Ben Johnson in a Comedy called the Widow. After Beaumont's death, it is said he consulted Mr. James Shirley in forming the plots of several of his plays, but which those were we have no means of discovering. The editor of Beaumont and Fletcher's plays in 1711 thinks it very probable that Shirley supplied many that were left imperfect, and that the players gave some remains of Fletcher's for Shirley to make up; and it is from hence (he says) that in the first act of Love's Pilgrimage, there is a scene of an ostler transcribed verbatim out of Ben Johnson's New Inn, Act I. Scene I. which play was written long after Fletcher died, and transplanted into Love's Pilgrimage, after printing the New Inn, which was in the year 1630, and two of the plays printed under Fletcher's name. The Coronation and The Little Thief have been claimed by Shirley as his; it is probable they were left imperfect by the one, and finished by the other. Mr. Fletcher died of the plague in the forty-ninth year of his age, the first of King Charles I. An. 1625, and was buried in St. Mary Overy's Church in Southwark.

Beaumont and Fletcher, as has been observed, wrote plays in concert, but what share each bore in forming the plots, writing the scenes, &c. is unknown. The general opinion is, that Beaumont's judgment was usually employed in correcting and retrenching the superfluities of Fletcher's wit, whose fault was, as Mr. Cartwright expresses it, to do too much, but if Winstanley may be credited, the former had his share likewise in the drama, for that author relates, that our poets meeting once at a tavern in order to form the rude draught of a tragedy, Fletcher undertook to kill the king, which words being overheard by a waiter, he was officious enough, in order to recommend himself, to lodge an information against them; but their loyalty being unquestioned, and the relation of the circumstance probable, that the vengeance was only aimed at a theatrical monarch, the affair ended in a jest.

The first play which brought them into esteem, as Dryden says, was Philaster, or Love lies a Bleeding; for, before that, they had written two or three very unsuccessfully, as the like is reported of Ben Johnson before he writ every Man in his Humour. These authors had with the advantage of the wit of Shakespear, which was their precedent, great natural gifts improved by study. Their plots are allowed generally more regular than Shakepear's; they touch the tender passions, and excite love in a very moving manner; their faults, notwithstanding Beaumont's castigation, consist in a certain luxuriance, and stretching their speeches to an immoderate length; however, it must be owned their wit is great, their language suited to the passions they raise, and the age in which they live is a sufficient apology for their defects. Mr. Dryden tells us, in his Essay on Dramatic Poetry, that Beaumont and Fletcher's plays in his time were the most pleasing and frequent entertainments of the stage, two of theirs being acted through the year for one of Shakespear's or Johnson's; and the reason he assigns is, because there is a certain gaiety in their comedies, and a pathos in their most serious plays which suits generally with all men's humours; but however it might be when Dryden writ, the case is now reversed, for Beaumont and Fletcher's plays are not acted above once a season, while one of Shakespear's is represented almost every third night. It may seem strange, that wits of the first magnitude should not be so much honoured in the age in which they live, as by posterity; it is now fashionable to be in raptures with Shakespear; editions are multiplied upon editions, and men of the greatest genius have employed all their power in illustrating his beauties, which ever grow upon the reader, and gain ground upon perusal. These noble authors have received incense of praise from the highest pens; they were loved and esteemed by their cotemporaries, who have not sailed to demonstrate their respect by various copies of verses at different times, and upon different occasions, addressed to them, the insertion of which would exceed the bounds proposed for this work. I shall only observe, that amongst the illustrious names of their admirers, are Denham, Waller, Cartwright, Ben Johnson, Sir John Berkenhead, and Dryden himself, a name more than equal to all the rest. But the works of our authors have not escaped the censure of critics, especially Mr. Rhymer the historiographer, who was really a man of wit and judgment, but somewhat ill natured; for he has laboured to expose the faults, without taking any notice of the beauties of Rollo Duke of Normandy, the King and No King, and the Maids Tragedy, in a piece of his called The Tragedies of the Last Age considered, and examined by the practice of the ancients, and by the common sense of all ages, in a letter to Fleetwood Shepherd esquire. Mr. Rymer sent one of his books as a present to Mr. Dryden, who in the blank leaves before the beginning, and after the end of the book, made several remarks, as if he intended to publish an answer to that critic, and his opinion of the work was this; "My judgment" (says he) "of this piece, is that it is extremely learned, but the author seems better acquainted with the Greek, than the English poets; that all writers ought to study this critic as the best account I have seen of the ancients; that the model of tragedy he has here given is extremely correct, but that it is not the only model of tragedy, because it is too much circumscribed in the plot, characters, &c. And lastly, that we may be taught here justly to admire and imitate the ancients, without giving them the preference, with this author, in prejudice to our own country."

Some of Beaumont and Fletcher's plays were printed in quarto during the lives of their authors; and in the year 1645 twenty years after Fletcher's death, there was published in folio a collection of their plays which had not been printed before, amounting to between thirty and forty. At the beginning of this volume are inserted a great number of commendatory verses, written by the most eminent wits of that age. This collection was published by Mr. Shirley after shutting up the Theatres, and dedicated to the earl of Pembroke by ten of the most famous actors. In 1679 there was an edition of all their plays published in folio. Another edition in 1711 by Tonson in seven volumes 8vo. containing all the verses in praise of the authors, and supplying a large omission of part of the last act of Thierry and Theodoret. There was also another edition in 1751 [List of works omitted].