1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Fletcher

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:203-04.



The literary partnerships of the drama which we have had occasion to notice were generally brief and incidental, confined to a few scenes or a single play. In BEAUMONT and FLETCHER, we have the interesting spectacle of two young men of high genius, of good birth and connexions, living together for ten years, and writing in union a series of dramas, passionate, romantic, and comic, thus blending together their genius and their fame in indissoluble connexion. Shakspeare was undoubtedly the inspirer of these kindred spirits. They appeared when his genius was in its meridian splendour, and they were completely subdued by its overpowering influence. They reflected its leading characteristics, not as slavish copyists, but as men of high powers and attainments, proud of borrowing inspiration from a source which they could so well appreciate, and which was at once ennobling and inexhaustible. Francis Beaumont was the son of Judge Beaumont, a member of an ancient family settled at Grace Dieu, in Leicestershire. He was born in 1586, and educated at Cambridge. He became a student of the Inner Temple, probably to gratify his father, but does not seem to have prosecuted the study of the law. He was married to the daughter and co-heiress of Sir Henry Isley of Kent, by whom he had two daughters. He died before he had completed his thirtieth year, and was buried, March 9, 1615-6, at the entrance to St. Benedict's chapel, Westminster Abbey. John Fletcher was the son of Dr Richard Fletcher, bishop of Bristol, and afterwards of Worcester. He was born ten years before his friend, in 1576, and he survived him ten years, dying of the great plague in 1625, and was buried in St Mary Overy's church, Southwark, on the 19th of August.

The dramas of Beaumont and Fletcher are fifty-two in number. The greater part of them were not printed till 1647, and hence it is impossible to assign the respective dates to each. Dryden mentions, that Philaster was the first play that brought them into esteem with the public, though they had written two or three before. It is improbable in plot, but interesting in character and situations. The jealousy of Philaster is forced and unnatural; the character of Euphrasia, disguised as Bellario, the page, is a copy from Viola, yet there is something peculiarly delicate in the following account of her hopeless attachment to Philaster:—

My father oft would speak
Your worth and virtue; and, as I did grow
More and more apprehensive, I did thirst
To see the man so prais'd; but yet all this
Was but a maiden longing, to be lost
As soon as found; till, sitting in my window,
Printing my thoughts in lawn, I saw a god,
I thought (but it was you), enter our gates.
My blood flew out, and back again as fast
As I had puff'd it forth and suck'd it in
Like breath. Then was I called away in haste
To entertain you. Never was a man
Heav'd from a sheep-cote to a sceptre raised
So high in thoughts as I: you left a kiss
Upon these lips then, which I mean to keep
From you for ever. I did hear you talk,
Far above singing! After you were gone,
I grew acquainted with my heart, and search'd
What stirr'd it so. Alas! I found it love;
Yet far from lust; for could I but have lived
In presence of you, I had had my end.
For this I did delude my noble father
With a feign'd pilgrimage, and dress'd myself
In habit of a boy; and for I knew
My birth no match for you, I was past hope
Of having you. And, understanding well
That when I made discovery of my sex,
I could not stay with you, I made avow,
By all the most religious things a maid
Could call together, never to be known,
Whilst there was hope to hide me from men's eyes,
For other than I seem'd, that I might ever
Abide with you: then sat I by the fount
Where first you took me up.

Philaster had previously described his finding the disguised maiden by the fount, and the description is highly poetical and picturesque:—

Hunting the buck,
I found him sitting by a fountain-side,
Of which he borrow'd some to quench his thirst,
And paid the nymph again as much in tears.
A garland lay him by, made by himself,
Of many several flowers, bred in the bay,
Stuck in that mystic order, that the rareness
Delighted me: But ever when he turn'd
His tender eyes upon them he would weep,
As if he meant to make them grow again.
Seeing such pretty helpless innocence
Dwell in his face, I ask'd him all his story.
He told me that his parents gentle died,
Leaving him to the mercy of the fields,
Which gave him roots; and of the crystal springs,
Which did not stop their courses; and the sun,
Which still, he thank'd him, yielded him his light
Then took he up his garland, and did show
What every flower, as country people hold,
Did signify; and how all, order'd thus,
Express'd his grief: and to my thoughts did read
The prettiest lecture of his country art
That could be wish'd; so that methought I could
Have studied it. I gladly entertain'd him
Who was as glad to follow.

The Maid's Tragedy, supposed to be written about the same time, is a drama of a powerful but unpleasing character. The purity of female virtue in Amintor and Aspatia, is well contrasted with the guilty boldness of Evadne; and the rough soldier-like bearing and manly feeling of Melantius, render the selfish sensuality of the king more hateful and disgusting. Unfortunately, there is much licentiousness in this fine play — whole scenes and dialogues are disfigured by this master vice of the theatre of Beaumont and Fletcher. Their dramas are "a rank unweeded garden," which grew only the more disorderly and vicious as it advanced to maturity. Fletcher must bear the chief blame of this defect, for he wrote longer than his associate, and is generally understood to have been the most copious and fertile composer. Before Beaumont's death, they lead, in addition to "Philaster," and the "Maid's Tragedy," produced King and no King. Bonduca, The Laws of Candy (tragedies); and The Woman Hater, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, The Honest Man's Fortune, The Coxcomb, and The Captain (comedies). Fletcher afterwards produced three tragic dramas, and nine comedies, the best of which are, The Chances, The Spanish Curate, The Beggar's Bush, and Rule a Wife and Have a Wife. He also wrote an exquisite pastoral drama, The Faithful Shepherdess, which Milton followed pretty closely in the design, and partly in the language and imagery, of Comus. A higher though more doubtful honour has been assigned to the twin authors; for Shakspeare is said to have assisted them in the composition of one of their works, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and his name is joined with Fletcher's on the title page of the first edition. The bookseller's authority in such matters is of no weight; and it seems unlikely that our great poet, after the production of some of his best dramas, should enter into a partnership of this description. The "Two Noble Kinsmen" is certainly not superior to some of the other plays of Beaumont and Fletcher.

The genius of Beaumont is said to have been more correct, and more strongly inclined to tragedy, than that of his friend. The later works of Fletcher are chiefly of a comic character. His plots are sometimes inartificial and loosely connected, but he is always lively and entertaining. There is a rapid succession of incidents, and the dialogue is witty, elegant, and amusing. Dryden considered that they understood and imitated the conversation of gentlemen much better than Shakspeare; and he states that their plays were, in his day, the most pleasant and frequent entertainments of the stage; "two of theirs being acted through the year, for one of Shakspeare's or Jonson's." It was different some forty years previous to this. In 1627, the King's Company bribed the Master of the Revels with £5, to interfere in preventing the players of the theatre called the Red Bull, from performing the dramas of Shakspeare. One cause of the preference of Beaumont and Fletcher, may have been the license of their dramas, suited to the perverted taste of the court of Charles II., and the spirit of intrigue which they adopted from the Spanish stage, and naturalised on the English. "We cannot deny," remarks Hallam, "that the depths of Shakspeare's mind were often unfathomable by an audience; the bow was drawn by a matchless hand, but the shaft, went out of sight. All might listen to Fletcher's pleasing, though not profound or vigorous, language; his thoughts are noble, and tinged with the ideality of romance; his metaphors vivid, though sometimes too forced; he possesses the idiom of English without much pedantry, though in many passages he strains it beyond common use; his versification, though studiously irregular, is often rhythmical and sweet; yet we are seldom arrested by striking beauties. Good lines occur in every page, fine ones but rarely. We lay down the volume with a sense of admiration of what we have read, best little of it remains distinctly in the memory. Fletcher is not much quoted, and has not even afforded copious materials to those who cull the beauties of ancient lore." His comic powers are certainly far superior to his tragic. Massinger impresses the reader more deeply, and has a moral beauty not possessed by Beaumont and Fletcher, but in comedy he falls infinitely below them. Though their characters are deficient in variety, their knowledge of stage-effect and contrivance, their fertility of invention, and the airy liveliness of their dialogue, give the charm of novelty and interest to their scenes. Mr. Macaulay considers that the models which Fletcher had principally in his eye, even for his most serious and elevated compositions, were not Shakspeare's tragedies, but his comedies. "It was these, with their idealised troth of character, their poetic beauty of imagery, their mixture of the grave with the playful in thought, their rapid yet skilful transitions from the tragic to the comic in feeling; it was these, the pictures in which Shakspeare had made his nearest approach to portraying actual life, and not those pieces in which he transports the imagination into his own vast and awful world of tragic action, and suffering, and emotion — that attracted Fletcher's fancy, and proved congenial to his cast of feeling." This observation is strikingly just, applied to Shakspeare's mixed comedies or plays, like the "Twelfth Night," the "Winter's Tale," "As You Like It," &c. The rich and genial comedy of Falstaff, Shallow, and Slender, was not imitated by Fletcher. His "Knight of the Burning Pestle" is an admirable burlesque of the false taste of the citizens of London for chivalrous and romantic adventures, without regard to situation or probability. On the whole, the dramas of Beaumont and Fletcher impress us with a high idea of their powers as poets and dramatists. The vast variety and luxuriance of their genius seem to elevate them above Jonson, though they were destitute of his regularity and solidity, and to place them on the borders of the "magic circle" of Shakspeare. The confidence and buoyancy of youth are visible in their productions. They had not tasted of adversity, like Jonson or Massinger; and they had not the profoundly-meditative spirit of their great master, cognisant of all human feelings and sympathies; life was to them a scene of enjoyment and pleasure, and the exercise of their genius a source of refined delight and ambition. They were gentlemen who wrote for the stage, as gentlemen have rarely done before or since.