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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

§ 12. Rapidity of production; Classification of the Plays

Fletcher’s rapidity of production, evidently, was very considerable, and a tolerably correct estimate may be formed of it from the work of some of his later years, which, owing to the existence of official records, may be dated with tolerable accuracy. In the four years 1619–22, he seems to have produced at least sixteen plays, six by himself alone and the remainder in combination with Massinger. The total reckoning of about forty plays for the last twelve years of his life, of which fourteen or fifteen were written by himself alone, and the remainder in combination with other authors, gives a result not very different from this, and implies a ceaseless activity in production which would leave little leisure for reflection. He was not a great literary artist, but a highly gifted craftsman, with much fertility of invention and a thorough mastery of the practical requirements of the stage; while, at the same time, his work bears witness to a true vein of poetical feeling, and has an easy grace of style which must attract even those who are most repelled by his want of high ideals. In this connection, it seems opportune to call attention to the exceptional excellence of the songs which appear throughout this collection of dramas. Massinger does not introduce songs into the plays of which he is sole author, and, though Beaumont was certainly a songwriter—there is an excellent song in The Woman Hater, for example, and some of those in The Maides Tragedy are probably bly his—yet it is evident that the songs which we find in the plays must be due, for the most part, to the lyrical genius of Fletcher. Altogether, there are upwards of seventy; and, of these, at least twenty are extremely good. Besides being of exquisite quality, the lyrics have a remarkable range of subject and treatment: “Hence all you vain delights,” the poet’s celebration of melancholy, is followed, in the same play, after the lapse of a few scenes, by the spirited laughing-song “O how my lungs do tickle”; in Valentinian, “Care-charming Sleep” stands side by side with the drinking song, “God Lyaeus, ever young.” “All ye woods and trees and bowers” in The Faithfull Shepheardesse, “Tell me, dearest, what is love” in The Captaine and “Beauty clear and fair” in The Elder Brother are examples of the more gracefully poetical form of lyric; while a more popular and spirited kind is exemplified in the battle song “Arm, Arm,” the convivial lyrics “Sit, soldiers, sit and sing” and “’T is late and cold,” the beggars’ songs in The Beggars Bush, “Cast our caps and cares away,” and the rest, the kitchen song, “Three merry boys,” in The Bloody Brother, and the spirited ballad “Let the bells ring” of The Spanish Curate. It may fairly be said that no dramatist of the age except Shakespeare has given such undeniable proof of lyrical inspiration as Fletcher.

The plays of Beaumont and Fletcher are traditionally classified as tragedies, tragicomedies and comedies, and, in the preface to The Faithfull Shepheardesse, Fletcher defines the second of these forms in a characteristically superficial manner, as follows:

  • 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, which must be a representation of familiar people, with such kind of trouble as no life be questioned.
  • The happy ending of what Dryden calls “serious plays” was, as we have seen, more in accordance with the taste of the public than the tragic castastrophe, and, like Beaumont and Fletcher, Shakespeare also accommodated himself to the popular demand. Of the whole collection which passes under the names of Beaumont and Fletcher, twelve dramas rank as tragedies, in the strict sense of the term, and about twenty may be called tragicomedies. There would, however, be no advantage in attaching importance to this distinction: the tragedies and tragicomedies belong essentially to the same class—plays in which the romantic interest predominates; while, at the same time, though there may be a difficulty, sometimes, in drawing the line between tragicomedy and comedy, the latter, on the whole, is to be regarded as a distinct genus, and may properly be dealt with separately.