Writing ‘Beaumont & Fletcher’

This section will feature guest posts from academics.

These short essays will be of an introductory nature, and will contain:

  • Biographical information about Beaumont, Fletcher, Field, Massinger, et al.
  • Information on Beaumont & Fletcher’s theatres.
  • Beaumont and Fletcher’s interaction with society, politics, and culture.
  • Contextualisation of Beaumont & Fletcher’s plays.
  • New readings of the plays and analysis of the major themes and issues stemming from them.

 

Francis Beaumont Biography

Francis Beaumont was born into a prominent Leicestershire family c. 1585. No baptismal records survive for young Francis, which has led to speculation about the family’s religious beliefs. Like other authors associated with the private playhouses (including Marston and Webster), Beaumont came from a legal background. His father was a judge in the court of common pleas, while two of his brothers studied at Inner Temple in London.

At the age of twelve, Beaumont was admitted to Broadgates Hall, Oxford (now Pembroke College). By 1600 he was resident at Inner Temple, one of the four Inns of Court where lawyers are trained to this day. The Inns taught more than law, and were a hotbed of literary activity for fashionable youths throughout the period. In 1606, Beaumont was involved in the revels at Inner Temple, writing a mock grammar lecture advising students to write to their parents asking for more money, blaming the cost of living in London.

Within a year we find Beaumont writing for the stage, beginning with the fashionable children’s companies popular at this time.  His first play, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, is the most experimental Jacobean play surviving, in the way that the fictional world of the play and the real world of the theatre overlap. Such an avant garde approach seems to have been too much for audiences of the time; Beaumont later complains that they missed the ‘privy mark of irony’ with which he was writing.

This initial failure may have been crucial for the young dramatist’s subsequent career, as he teams up with John Fletcher for one of the most famous writing partnerships in literary history. At first the pair wrote for the children’s companies, in particular the Children of the Queen’s Revels based at Blackfriars. When the King’s Men (including Shakespeare) took over the Blackfriars playhouse, Beaumont and Fletcher combined their talents and knowledge of the space to write for the adult company. This included experiments in the fashionable new form of tragic-comedy, like Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding (c. 1609), as well as a revenge play, The Maid’s Tragedy (c. 1610).

According to the early biographer John Aubrey, Beaumont and Fletcher lived together on Bankside, sharing not only their writing talents but also a bed and a ‘wench’. The pair were highly praised for their dramas by the likes of John Dryden, and Samuel Coleridge admits that he could not distinguish between the two when reading their works. Much ink has been spilled assigning sections to one or the other author, but the unity of their collaborations still remains.

Beaumont appears to have maintained his links with the Inner Temple, as in 1613 he wrote a masque for the Inn in celebration of a royal wedding. The same year saw Beaumont marry Ursula Isley, by whom he had two daughters. Unfortunately, Beaumont suffered a debilitating stroke soon after, which cut short his writing career. The author died in Westminster in 1616, and is buried in Poets’ Corner, close to Chaucer and Spenser.

Dr Derek Dunne


 

John Fletcher Biography

John Fletcher was born before December 20th, 1579 (the date of his baptismal record) in Rye, Sussex. His father Richard Fletcher was a prominent clergyman who ascended to the rank of bishop and even presided over the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots before falling out of favor with Queen Elizabeth. John Fletcher received his bachelor’s degree from Cambridge at the age of 15 and his master’s four years later before moving to London in 1598.

The historical record picks up in 1606, when Fletcher is mentioned as a member of a group of writers who gathered at the Mermaid Tavern near St. Paul’s Cathedral. Around this time he met his most well-known collaborator, Francis Beaumont. Their professional association began modestly enough when they both provided commendatory verses to Jonson’s Volpone (1607). Their close personal relationship is famously described by biographer John Aubrey thus: “They lived together on the Bank Side, not far from the Play-House, both bachelors; lay together; had one wench in the house between them, which they did so admire; the same clothes and cloak.”

Though known for his collaborations with others, Fletcher was the single author of many plays, including The Faithful Shepherdess, first performed in 1608 at the Blackfriars. Though the play was never popular, it established Fletcher’s reputation as a prominent writer of tragicomedy. In a preface to the 1609 quarto, Fletcher sought to explain the play’s failure by suggesting that the audience did not understand the genre: “A tragicomedy 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.” This definition has endured to this day as one of the most recognizable sentences Fletcher ever wrote. Tragicomedy—along with its most prominent proponent, Fletcher—was destined to remain popular in England for several decades.

Also in 1609, Fletcher’s first successful collaboration with Beaumont appeared, the popular tragicomedy Philaster, or Love Lies-a-Bleeding. They followed this success with

a tour de force called The Maid’s Tragedy—the only tragedy attributed to the duo—before returning to tragicomedy with the clever A King and No King, both in 1611. Captivating audiences with their use of violence, plot twists, and sensational themes of rape and incest, these plays helped usher in a new, post-Shakespearean theater in the early 1610s.

Indeed, as Shakespeare eased into semi-retirement around 1611, the company hired Beaumont and Fletcher to replace him. Beaumont, however, soon married a rich heiress and himself retired, leaving Fletcher as the principal dramatist of the company. In the final years before Shakespeare’s death, Fletcher would collaborate with him on at least three plays, Two Noble Kinsmen (1613), Henry VIII (1613), and the lost Cardenio (1612). Fletcher would also write (by himself) a sequel to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew titled The Woman’s Prize, or the Tamer Tamed (c. 1611), in which the roles are reversed and Petruchio is himself “tamed” by his second wife.

Fletcher’s other collaborators included Nathan Field, an actor turned playwright who had performed as a boy with the Children of the Queen’s Revels and as an adult with the King’s Men. Their collaboration produced Four Plays in One (1613), music-heavy mixed bag organized around the idea of “triumph,” as well as The Honest Man’s Fortune (1613), The Queen of Corinth (1617), and The Knight of Malta (1618), all tragicomedies. The plays that show Field’s hand were primarily tragicomedies and romances, a bit less serious in tone than many of Fletcher’s later works.

Ultimately, it would be Philip Massinger with whom Fletcher would collaborate most successfully after Beaumont’s retirement. Together they produced at least twelve plays, including bawdy fare such as the comedy Love’s Cure (1610) and the tragicomedy The Custom of the Country (1619). Fletcher and Massinger also produced tragedies, such as Sir John van Olden Barnavelt (1619), based on recent events in the Netherlands. This politically charged play was temporarily prevented from being performed by the Bishop of London, acting either on his own behalf or that of the privy council. Fletcher and Massinger drew inspiration from Shakespeare for The False One (1621), a prequel to Antony and Cleopatra, and The Sea Voyage (1622), an intriguing reimagining of The Tempest that includes an island populated entirely by women.

Fletcher continued writing prolifically until his death during an outbreak of the plague in 1625. According to Aubrey, Fletcher delayed leaving town to have a new suit made, “and while it was making, fell sick of the plague and died.” Fletcher was buried in Southwark Cathedral (next to Shakespeare’s brother Edward), and, according to contemporary witness Aston Cockayne, when Massinger died fifteen years later, his body was laid to rest in Fletcher’s own grave.

Whether writing alone or in collaboration with Beaumont, Shakespeare, Field, and Massinger—or with others like Rowley and Middleton—John Fletcher was one of the most prolific and influential playwrights of his time. His role in developing the genre of tragicomedy transformed Stuart theatre and shaped English drama for years to come. The hallmarks of his works include strange landscapes, the intermingling of characters of different ranks, intriguing historical and political scenes, and, most of all, a persistent interrogation of male-female relationships. His work has recently attracted—and will continue to attract—greater attention from scholars and theatrical companies alike.

Dr Joe Stephenson

Sources and Further Reading

Butler, John. “Life of John Fletcher.” Luminarium. 10 February 2000.

Cone, Mary. Fletcher without Beaumont: A Study of the Independent Plays of John Fletcher. Salzburg, Austria: University of Salzburg, 1976.

Finkelpearl, Daniel. Court and Country Politics in the Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Hoy, Cyrus. “Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher.” Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists. Ed. Fredson Bowers. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 58. Detroit: Gale, 1987. Print.

McMullan, Gordon. The Politics of Unease in the Plays of John Fletcher. Amherst, Mass.: U of Massachusetts, 1994. Print.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. Ed. David Scott Kastan. Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.

 

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