Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 10. His weakness in characterisation

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

§ 10. His weakness in characterisation

Characterisation is naturally weakened by the excess of incident in the plot. As Dryden says, “the manners can never be evident where the surprises of fortune take up all the business of the stage, and where the poet is more in pain to tell you what happened to such a man than what he was.” Fletcher’s character drawing, in fact, is rather superficial, and his tendency is to follow certain well marked lines, so that types, rather than individuals, are produced. We have, to some extent, a recurrence of the types already presented in the Beaumont plays; the wicked and lustful monarch reappearing in Valentinian, Antigonus and Frederick, the impossibly loyal subject in Aecius and Archas, the blunt soldier in Memnon and Leontius. On the other hand, Fletcher seems especially responsible for the types of superhuman virtue and of incredible vice in women, which appear in his serious drama, Lucina, Ordella and Evanthe, on the one hand, and, on the other, Brunhalt, Lelia and Hippolyta. About all these there is a certain element of exaggeration: Fletcher’s imagination is not fully to be trusted to present the simple and natural effects of true modesty and chastity in women, and this is an undeniable blot upon his work in the higher drama. In the characters which properly belong to comedy, he draws from the life and is often highly successful. There is the young man of wit and gallantry, brilliant and irresponsible, who may or may not be in love, but is entirely free from romantic sensibility: Monsieur Thomas, for example, or Don John, Mirabel or Valentine. These, we feel, are the men whom Fletcher has actually known in living society: their profligacy is rather a matter of fashion than anything else; they are generous and good-hearted, as a rule, and the vice which colours their conversation and behaviour is not of a very deep dye. Then, we have the corresponding young woman, witty and resourceful, well able to take care of herself for the most part, but wanting in the poetical tenderness of a Viola or an Aspatia. There is a certain charm about these girls; but their chastity is too much of the formal order, and, if we are to judge them by their speech, we must condemn them as wanting in delicacy. Nevertheless, Fletcher’s Celia and Oriana, Mary and Alinda, are, to some extent, akin to Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Rosalind.