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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

§ 13. Tragedies; Romantic Dramas

Apart, then, from comedy, the first production was probably The Faithfull Shepheardesse, a pastoral drama by Fletcher alone. Though superior in liveliness of dramatic action to the Italian pastoral dramas which served as its models, it was unsuccessful on the stage—a fact attributed by its author to the absense of that peculiar combination of “mirth and killing” intermixed with “Whitsun ales and morris-dances” which the public expected from a “pastoral tragicomedy.” In respect of poetical beauty, The Faithfull Shepheardesse ranks very high, and Milton paid it the compliment of imitation in Comus. The greater part is in rime; but the opening scenes are mainly in blank verse, and it is noticeable that here Fletcher does not display the metrical peculiarities which are a marked feature of his style elsewhere, a fact which, perhaps, should make us cautious in the application of metrical tests to the earliest plays of the series, though in The Maides Tragedy Fletcher’s characteristics are already quite apparent.

Philaster is said by Dryden to have been the first play which brought Beaumont and Fletcher into notice, and it certainly enjoyed great popularity. Its merits, both dramatic and poetical, are undeniable; but the plot has been justly criticised because of the too ready credence given by Philaster to the charge against his mistress. The character of Euphrasia-Bellario, who follows in the disguise of a page the person to whom she is romantically attached, is, to some extent, a reproduction of Shakespeare’s Viola, and close resemblances have been noted between this play and others of Shakespeare; but the use which we have here of surprise as a means of dramatic effect is highly characteristic of the authors. The poetical merit of several passages in Philaster is well known, and especially the description of the first finding of Bellario.

The leading place among the dramas of Beaumont and Fletcher has always been held by The Maides Tragedy, and the justice of this popular judgment cannot reasonably be questioned. The plot, like those of Philaster and A King and no King, seems to be of the authors’ own invention. The tragic situation, unpleasing as it may be, is admirably developed, and the two principal characters, the brother and sister Melantius and Evadne, are powerfully presented and may fairly claim the merits of truth and consistency. There is a certain weakness, however, in the character of Amintor, whose reverence for the sacred name of king amounts to a disease; and Aspatia, in spite of the pathos of her situation and the poetical attractions with which she is invested, is lacking in reserve and dignity and displays too much extravagance in seeking her own death at the hands of Amintor. Little further fault is to be found with The Maides Tragedy, of which the action is developed in a series of scenes of great dramatic effectiveness, culminating in that between Melantius and Evadne at the crisis of the plot. The dramatists exhibit a true knowledge of human nature in showing us how the profligate effrontery of Evadne, against which the pure-minded Amintor is powerless, breaks down when confronted with her brother’s ruthless determination. Her sensuous nature is, at first, capable of being influenced only by physical terror, and it is through this motive that she is brought to realise the depth of infamy to which she has fallen. With equal truth, she is represented as readily accepting the idea of blotting out her guilt by a deed of violent revenge, and as imagining that she will pave the way to a reconciliation with Amintor by a deed which merely strikes him with new horror. Some of the minor characters are excellently drawn, and the scene in which Melantius urges Callianax in the very presence of the king to yield up to him the keys of the fort has true comic humour, while, at the same time it is strictly appropriate to the plot and the characters. A good deal of imitation of Shakespeare is again apparent—especially in the celebrated quarrel between Melantius and Amintor, which is partly suggested by that between Brutus and Cassius in Julius Caesar.

A King and no King, licensed for the stage in 1611, was hardly less celebrated than The Maides Tragedy, and undoubtedly it displays dramatic power of a very high order. The praise of this play must be qualified, however, by consideration of one capital fault. The supposed incestuous passion, with which the plot deals, instead of leading to a tragic catastrophe, is fully condoned on the strength of a merely accidental discovery. Apart from this, the drama is admirable. In the vainglorious and passionate character of Arbaces, we have an original creation of great merit, to which the blunt Mardonius, with his fearless plain-speaking, serves as an admirable foil; while Bessus, imitated, to some extent, from Bobadill, is one of the most amusing specimens of his class. There is a concentrated power in the development of this drama which creates a strong impression as to the dramatic ability of the authors, though, for the reason which has been stated, the total result remains not altogether satisfactory.

Cupid’s Revenge was, perhaps, acted in 1612. The plot has been found fault with as based upon mythology; but this does not seem to be a valid objection here. Whatever the machinery may be, we accept the actual results as the natural punishment of youthful arrogance, the brother and sister who have planned to put down the worship of love being themselves involved in ruin through their passion for unworthy objects. The real weakness of the drama lies in the want of concentration: the death of Hidaspes occurs in the second act, before the main complication has been fully developed, and the death of her brother Leucippus at the end of the fifth act is, after all, accidental and unnecessary. The characters of Leucippus and of Bacha are well sustained, and the scenes between them are effectively conducted. In the disguises of Urania and in the rescue of Leucippus by the citizens, we have a repetition of devices already used in Philaster.

Four Plays in One, of uncertain date, consists of an induction and four “Triumphs”—“of Honour,” “of Love,”“of Death” and “of Time”—the former two, probably, by Beaumont and the latter two by Fletcher. Beaumont’s contributions are here distinctly the more interesting and valuable. The Captaine is an ill constructed drama (as the authors seem to be aware), having two sets of characters with little connection between them. It has no merits sufficient to compensate for the odiousness of the character of Lelia, whose conversion is not rendered in the least credible. The play, however, contains two charming songs, “Tell me, dearest, what is love,” and “Away delights.”

The Honest mans Fortune was played in 1613; but it contains no apparent trace of Beaumont’s style. Several authors—probably Tourneur, Massinger and Field—were here concerned with Fletcher, and, between them, they produced a piece of patchwork which is far from satisfactory as a drama, though particular scenes and speeches deserve praise. Fletcher’s part, apparently, is confined to the fifth act. To nearly the same date belongs the first production of King Henry VIII, in which we find excellent work by Fletcher in combination with that of Shakespeare.

Bonduca, for which Fletcher was mainly responsible, is one of the most effective of the tragic romances. It is founded upon ancient British history; but the materials are very freely handled, the stories of Boadicea and Caractacus being brought into combination. The play presents a spirited succession of camp and battle scenes, made interesting, first, by the figures of Bonduca and her daughters, and then by those of the heroic Caractacus and the brave boy Hengo—the latter an original creation of the dramatist, which strongly engages our sympathies.

Valentinian, by Fletcher alone, is, in some respects, the most typical example of his work in tragedy. The situation is admirably prepared in the first act, and the events are successfully conducted through the scenes of the second to the second to a tragic climax in the third. From this point, however, the author’s desire to rouse interest by new and surprising developments gets the better of his feeling for dramatic propriety. A new series of events is introduced, for which we are totally unprepared; and the revolting treachery of Maximus towards his friend, together with the revelation of his selfish designs, turns our sympathy away from the quarter to which it was at first directed, and leaves us finally puzzled and dissatisfied. Aecius, perfectly plainspoken to his sovereign on the subject of his vices, but steadily maintaining the principle of loyalty and discipline, is an excellent character, and by no means deserves the reproach of servility which was cast upon him by Coleridge and has been repeated by other critics. It may be added that this tragedy is exceptionally rich in beautiful lyrics.

The date of The Bloody Brother, or Rollo, Duke of Normandy is uncertain; but it was probably produced about the year 1616. It is an effective drama, and was reckoned by Rymer with Philaster, The Maides Tragedy and A King and no King, as among the most celebrated tragedies of its age. Four authors seem to have been concerned in this play, and it is probable that the remarkable political reflections in the first scene of the fourth act are to be ascribed to Jonson. A small part only is by Fletcher, to whom, however, are due the striking scenes between Rollo and Edith in the third and fifth acts. Of the former of these scenes, Coleridge remarks that it exhibits “probably the grandest working of passion in all Beaumont and Fletcher’s dramas”; the latter he criticises severely because of the momentary weakening of Edith’s resolve, comparing her with lady Anne in Richard III. But it is one thing for a woman to hesitate in the execution of her purpose to kill, because of the apparent repentance of her victim, and quite another for her to yield to flattery and accept as a lover the murderer of her husband. Fletcher, Massinger and a third author, apparently, took part in the tragedy of Thierry and Theodoret, which probably belongs to the year 1617. Here, the purity and self-sacrifice of Ordella are well contrasted with the wantonness and cruelty of Brunhalt, and the scene in the fourth act between Thierry and Ordella has been justly admired. “I have always considered this to be the finest scene in Fletcher,” is Lamb’s remark, followed, nevertheless, by criticisms of the conduct of it, as slow and languid compared with Shakespeare’s best.

The Queen of Corinth is a poor play. The sympathy which Merione at first excites is totally destroyed by her subsequent behaviour. The Loyal Subject, licensed in the autumn of 1618, exhibits, in the person of its hero Archas, a partial repetition of Aecius. Like many of Fletcher’s plays, this is simply a dramatised romance, with no proper complication or resolution. The story is interesting enough; but the disguise of young Archas serves no such useful purpose as to compensate for its improbability, and the conversion of Boroskie can hardly be called natural.

The Knight of Malta has many of the lements of a fine drama, especially in the first and fifth acts, which are by an unknown author. The character of Oriana is exalted and yet human; while Mountferrat is genuinely romantic villain. But the device of Miranda in fighting against Oriana’s champion, in order to save her credit by voluntary defeat, has no merit except that of surprise.

The plot of The Mad Lover is hopelessly absurd, and very deficient in respect of unity; but the courtship of Memnon is certainly amusing, and the conclusion of the play is well managed. There is a poor attempt at a fool, the only character of the kind in Beaumont and Fletcher’s plays. Women pleas’d is still more faulty in construction. It contains two very distinct plots, with two separate sets of characters, which have little or nothing to do with one another, a practicer too often followed in the later plays. There are some interesting scenes, but the drama cannot be said to be of much value as a whole.

The tragedy of Sir John van Olden Barnavelt, by Fletcher and Massinger, has special interest as a dramatisation of contemporary history, and is remarkable as an indication of the readiness with which these authors were able to utilise such materials as presented themselves. It is a somewhat hasty piece of work, produced in August, 1619, and dealing with events which had taken place in May of the same year. The trial scene is rhetorically effective; but the character of Barnavelt is not represented in a sufficiently consistent manner, and the necessity of reproducing the actual course of events was not facourable to a strictly dramatic development.

The Custome of the Countrey, by Fletcher and Massinger, founded on the Persiles y Sigismunda of Cervantes, is a drama of considerable merit, but unfortunately marred by grossness in some of the scenes. The scene in which Guiomar conceals the supposed slayer of her son is admirably managed, and the contrast of Zenocia and Hippolyta is effective; but the conversion of Hippolyta is one of those sudden turns to which Fletcher too frequently sacrifices consistency of character.

It is doubtful whether Fletcher had any hand in The Lawes of Candy, and certainly no scene can be attricuted to him as a whole. Massinger probably was the principal author, and the judical pleading between father and son is quite characteristic of him. The double Marriage, by Fletcher and Massinger, is a poor play, with a confused plot and no sufficient reason for the catastrophe. On the other hand, The False One, produced by the same authors at about the same time, is a drama of considerable interest, and conains much brilliant rhetoric, especially in the speeches of Caesar in the second act. At the same time, it cannot be said to have a genuinely dramatic structure, and, though the conclusion involves the death of several persons, the play, peroperly speaking, is not a tragedy.

In the plays which immediately follow, romantic interest decidedly predominates. The Pilgrim, usually classed as a comedy, is, in fact, as Coleridge calls it, a “romantic entertainment,” and one of considerable merit, though the high promise of the opening scenes is not fully kept. We could very well dispense with the madhouse; but the public of that day evidently found such representations attractive. The Prophetesse, The Island Princesse and The Sea Voyage have little merit as dramas and such interest as they possess is due partly to the remoteness from ordinary experience of the circumstances and localities represented. In The Beggars Bush, on the other hand, though the plot is romantic, the interest of the play depends not on this, but upon the attempt at a realistic representation of vagabond life. In this it has distinct originality, and the authors have gone direct to native English sources. The liveliness and truth to nature of these scenes are sufficient to account for the exceptional popularity of the play.

The Lovers Progress is an interesting drama, originally, perhaps, by Fletcher, but extensively revised and altered by Massinger. The play exhibits love and friendship in an exalted and poetical manner: the speech of Clarange near the beginning of the second act, describing his friendship with Lidius, reads like a personal reminiscence by Fletcher of his own relations with Beaumont. The ghost scene at the inn, which was greatly admired by Scott, has some comic humour, but serves chiefly to show how incapable Fletcher was of dealing with the supernatural. The later appearance of the ghost, which is more impressive, occurs in a scene which, in its present forms, is due to Massinger.

The Maid in the Mill, by Fletcher and William Rowley, is an ill constructed play, with some poetry, and some fairly good comic business.

A Wife for a Month, by Fletcher alone, has an ingeniously complicated plot, and is far superior construction to most of the author’s dramatic romances. The rather unpleasant situation is developed with considerable power and skill, and the play contains many poetical passages. The immodest speeches of the “chaste wife” Evanthe, and the easy forgiveness of Frederick and his instruments of villainy, are character istic of Fletcher.

The vexed question of authorship connected with The Two Noble Kinsmen cannot here be discussed. Fletcher’s contribution to this fine heroic romance is, on the whole, of secondary importance; but one of his scenes, the last in the third act, is, dramatically, perhaps the most effective in the play.Loves Pilgrimage is a romance from Cervantes, apparently rewritten by Shirley with insertions from Jonson’s New Inne. It has some merit as a story, and the serious scenes are unusually thoughtful. The Faire Maide of the Inne was produced after Fletcher’s death, and it is doubtful whether he had any hand in it, for his style is not clearly perceptible in any scene. The plot, derived from Spanish sources, is badly put together and extremely improbable. Another example of a drama wrongly ascribed to Beaumont and Fletcher in the secenteenth century is The Coronation, which is contained in the folio of 1679, but is known to be by Shirley. On the other hand, A Very Woman, or The Prince of Tarent, ascribed to Massinger, is, apparently, in part by Fletcher, to whom we may reasonably ascribe the whole of the third act, including the lively slave-market scene, and a part of the fourth. The Faithful Friends, printed for the first time in 1812, has no sufficient claim to be included among Beaumont and Fletcher’s works.