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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

V. Beaumont and Fletcher

§ 1. New influences on the Drama

THE COLLECTION of plays with which the names of Beaumont and Fletcher are traditionally associated constitutes the most important body of dramatic work which was produced by the successors of the Elizabethans, that is to say, by those dramatists whose activity belonged wholly to the Stewart period. With this new generation, a new fashion had come in. The genuinely national interest in the drama which especially characterised the last fifteen years of Elizabeth had, to a great extent, passed away, and the taste of the court had become gradually more and more the prevailing influence. This tendency had outwardly expressed itself, nearly at the beginning of the reign of James I, in the fact that all the companies of actors in London then came to be directly under the patronage of the royal family, while the production of plays was, at the same time, subjected to the control of the master of the revels; and, as the older generation of dramatists disappeared, the new fashion showed itself more and more in the character of the plays produced. Ben Jonson’s inductions are full of protests against the taste of the day in drama, and especially against the growing tyranny in the matter of criticism exercised by gallants who occupied seats on the stage and assumed the right to damn a play at their pleasure; but he found himself helpless to modify the prevailing fashions. The court of James I had lost the chivalrous aspirations of the earlier time, and the moral corruption which had been held in check, at least to some extent, by noble ideals, had become alarmingly prominent in the life of the upper classes of society. Shallowness and frivolity characterised the manners of the court, even where these were not tinged with gross vices, and a certain supeficial brilliancy had taken the place of more estimable qualities. Such a society was naturally disinclined to serious reflection upon the issues of human life, and Shakespearean tragedy was both too wide and too deep for its sympathies. It was, perhaps, a perception of this change of conditions, rather than any marked change in his own genius or temperament, that led Shakespeare to abandon tragedy during the latest years of his connection with the stage, and to entertain his public with dramatic romances. However this may be, a definite preference was manifested, in the period which was then beginning, for that hybrid form of drama which became specially characteristic of the English stage—tragi-comedy; in which serious matters are dealt with, but a tragic solution is avoided. Closely connected with this want of moral earnestness was the demand for theatrical entertainments which did not make any serious appeal to the intellect; and, hence, on the one hand, the exaggerated love of pageantry, which was gratified by the magnificence of the masques presented at court, and, on the other the growing preference, even of the better portion of the audiences at the playhouses, for plots full of interesting events and surprising turns of fortune, rather than such as were developed naturally from situations and characters: the result being a comparative neglect of character interest, and a disregard for the principle of artistic unity.