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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

§ 14. Comedies

The list of comedies begins with The Woman Hater, which, apparently, is by a single author, and is now generally attributed to Beaumont alone. It exhibits strongly the influence of Jonson, and, though not a comedy of humours, in the full sense of the term, turns entirely upon the “humorous” eccentricity of the principal character. This feature is still discernible, though much less obvious, in The Scornful Ladie, an excellent comedy of its kind, dealing with English domestic manners. This was one of the most popular plays of the series, and exercised a considerable influence on the later comedy, especially by virtue of the character of the steward Savile, and his relations with his masters. The conversion of Morecraft, which is criticised by Dryden as unnatural, is not really open to this objection. The usurer has become convinced by experience that what pays best is extravagance, and, therefore, he is following his natural instincts in becoming a prodigal. The mock heroic style, which is one of Beaumont’s characteristics, appears, to some extent, in these comedies, and reaches full development in The Knight of the Burning Pestle, a masterpiece in its own kind. The idea suggested by Don Quixote was here ingeniously and brilliantly applied to the purpose of ridiculing the taste of the city in drama—a fact which probably accounts for its being coldly received by the popular audience before which it was first acted. Its comic merits are, undoubtedly, of a high order, especially in the characteristic figures of the citizen and his wife and in their criticisms of the performance.

In The Coxcombe, we have a romantic comedy with two distinct plots. For the Ricardo and Viola story, Beaumont is mainly responsible, and this little romance is treated in a charming manner. The tinker and his trull are represented, probably by Fletcher, with effective realism, and the scenes at the farmhouse are interesting and natural. Side by side with this, we have a comedy of intrigue, taken, perhaps, from the Curioso Impertinente of Cervantes. Some of Antonio’s tricks recall those of Loveless in The Scornful Ladie.

It cannot be said with certainty that Beaumont had a part in any of the remaining comedies, and the genius of Fletcher is decisively dominant from this point onwards, though other writers sometimes worked with him. The faults of Fletcher as a dramatist—looseness of construction and superficiality in character—are less fatal in comedy than in serious drama, while his abundance of lively incident and his brilliant dialogue produce their full effect. Nevertheless, his comedies suffer too frequently from want of vital connection between the various intrigues utilised by the plot, and even the best of them succeed rather by clever stagecraft than by genuinely artistic merit.

Several of these plays may be classed together as exhibiting the Jonsonian principle of “humour,” though hardly in the Jonsonian manner. These are, especially, The Little French Lawyer, The Nice Valour and The Humorous Lieutenant. In the first, by Fletcher and Massinger, the character of La Writ, who gives a title to the play, is genuinely comic, but not absolutely necessary to the plot. The Nice Valour is a poor play, notwithstanding a confident assertion to the contrary in the epilogue; but it contains several good lyrics, including the song, “Hence all you vain delights.” The Humorous Lieutenant, by Fletcher alone, takes its name, like The Little French Lawyer, from a character which has no very essential connection with the principal plot. The part which concerns the lieutenant is pure farce, lively and amusing enough; while, in the main plot, we have the romance of an unusually attractive pair of lovers, though it must be remarked that their situation is a very improbable one.

This combination, or juxtaposition, of a romantic with a comic plot, which has been noted as a frequent feature of the so-called tragicomedies, is exemplified, also, in the The Spanish Curate, which consists, in fact, of a romance and a comedy, combined under a title which belongs properly to the comedy. We have here two distinct stories with very small connection between them, though an attempt is made at the conclusion to unite them under a single moral lesson. Roughly speaking, it may be said that the romance is by Massinger and the comedy by Fletcher: each is excellent, but the comedy is the better of the two. The character of the curate and his relations with his parishioners are presented with the greatest comic vigour, and the intrigue of Leandro and Amaranta furnishes a good example of the manner in which Fletcher anticipated the comedy of the Restoration.

The co-operation of two or more dramatists was evidently favourable to the production of this class of drama. But there is to be found, chiefly among the plays which are ascribed to Fletcher alone, a type of pure comedy which is less liable to the charge of want of unity. Some of these plays, as Wit At severall Weapons, Wit Without Money, The Womans Prize and The Night-Walker have London for their locality and represent, more or less, the manners of contemporary English life. Wit At severall Weapons is a poor play, and the authorship is very uncertain. Wit Without Money, by Fletcher alone, is much better, having, at least, a tolerably well connected plot and lively dialogue. The Womans Prize: or, The Tamer Tamed is a supposed continuation of the marriage experiences of Petruchio, the tamer of the shrew. His Katherine being dead, he has been transplanted to English ground and is united in marriage to an English wife, who turns the tables upon him in an exhilarating manner. This comedy is a good example of Fletcher’s more farcical style. The Night-Walker, or the Little Theife has more of London local colour than any of the rest but this is probably to a great extent due to Shirley, who worked upon the play after Fletcher’s death. It is a lively comedy, but the plot is a tissue of improbable incidents, with melodramatic scenes of coffins and graveyards.

Fletcher’s best comedies, however, are to be found among those of which the scenes are laid abroad and the plots taken from foreign sources, while the manners are those of the society with which he is familiar. Monsieur Thomas can hardly be called a good play, though it has good scenes. The dilemma of the travelled young gentleman, who is obliged, at the same time, to convince his father that he is a rake and his mistress that he is a reformed character, has comic possibilities which are not quite effectively worked out. On the other hand, The Chances and The Wild-Goose Chase stand in the first rank among Fletcher’s comedies, and in them we see, in full perfection, that lively and brilliant style of dialogue which gained him the reputation of understanding the conversation of gentlemen better than any other dramatist of his time. In The Chances, there is a series of highly improbable incidents, derived from a novel of Cervantes; but the very name of the comedy suggests the idea of fortuitous complications, and the treatment is in accordance with this idea. The two young gentlemen, Don John and Don Frederick, are presented in a very lively and natural manner, and their landlady is a decidedly happy creation, for which, however, hints had been given by Cervantes. The Wild-Goose Chase, again, has good characterisation and a well managed plot, though the tricks to catch Mirabel are rather too palpable, and his final yielding not quite natural. Of this play, the actors who first published it record that, notwithstanding his innate modesty, the author, when he saw it performed, could not forbear to join in the general applause. It is the original of Farquhar’s comedy The Inconstant. Of all Fletcher’s comedies, Rule a Wife And have a Wife is that which was most popular and kept the stage longest, and it is certainly a very good specimen of its kind. Its two plots are reasonably well connected, the characterisation is firm and good and several of the scenes, especially that in which Leon asserts himself, are, dramatically, very effective. The underplot is amusing, but less so than the novel of Cervantes from which it is taken.

Loves Cure, or The Martial Maid apparently contains little or nothing which can be ascribed to Fletcher. It is not without merit, if we concede the very improbable situation upon which its action depends; but the merit, perhaps, is chiefly due to a Spanish original, though it seems unlikely that this original was the comedy of GuillÈn de Castro which deals with the same story. The Noble Gentleman and The Elder Brother were both produced upon the stage after Fletcher’s death. The former is a rather poor play, and has no apparent traces of his hand; the latter, one of the best comedies of the series, is by Fletcher and Massinger. The construction is good and the characterisation excellent.