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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

§ 3. Contemporary appreciation of Beaumont and Fletcher’s work

The tastes of the society which had its centre in the court of James I were, in fact, very faithfully provided for in the series of dramas which have come down to us under the names of Beaumont and Fletcher; and that these should have been better liked upon the stage than those of Shakespeare ought not to be matter for surprise. In the former, poetry and romance were found in combination with the code of manners and the standard of morals which prevailed among gentlemen; the spectator was entertained by a lively succession of events, contrived with consummate stage-craft to produce the most interesting situations and the most pleasurable surprises, and by a considerable variety of characters, for the most part well sustained, though very deficient in depth and truth to nature when compared with Shakespeare’s; while, at the same time, the language was a model of lucidity and purity, altogether free both from tasteless conceits and from the obscurity to which a style either highly figurative or overloaded with thought is liable. Moreover, in the comedies, the audience was interested and delighted by a new style of wit in conversation, which was recognised as just that kind of brilliancy which every courtier would wish to display, and beside which “the old Elizabeth way” seemed clumsy and old-fashioned.

  • Shakespeare to thee was dull, whose best wit lies
  • I’ the ladies’ questions and the fools’ replies,
  • Old-fashion’d wit, which walk’d from town to town
  • In trunk-hose, which our fathers call’d the clown.
  • So William Cartwright, a fellow poet and dramatist, addressed Fletcher; and Dryden was only repeating a commonplace when he said, comparing Beaumont and Fletcher with Shakespeare, that “they understood and imitated the conversation of gentlemen much better, whose wild debaucheries and quickness of wit in repartees no poet can ever paint as they have done.” The morality of their plays, bad as it may seem to us in some cases, was by no means looked upon as a just ground of complaint by their comtemporaries. On the contrary, the moral improvement to be gained from them is one of the points insisted upon by their panegyrists:
  • Vices which were
  • Manners abroad, did pass corrected there;
  • They who possessed a box and half-crown spent
  • To learn obsceneness, returned innocent
  • We find here, fully developed for the first time, a species of stage entertainment which is rather an acted romance than a drama in the strict sense of the word; without the intensity of tragedy, but with more emotional interest and a more poetical style of expression than is proper to comedy. The poetical comedy of Shakespeare’s middle period had been, to some extent, of this kind; and the species was exemplified further in the work of his latest period, in Cymbeline, Pericles, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale. Even by Shakespeare, the line between tragedy and comedy, in some instances, is doubtfully drawn, and reconciliations are huddled up when a tragic solution seems rather to be required—as, for example, in Measure for Measure and in Cymbeline; and still more is this the case with Beaumont and Fletcher. The name “tragicomedy” is applied usually to about a third of the whole number of their plays, and is equally applicable to a good many more, which are commonly called tragedies or comedies. In fact, the great majority of the plays in this collection are of the intermediate class to which the term “dramatic romance” is properly applicable, whether they have or have not a tragic catastrophe; and it was this kind of drama that was especially agreeable to the taste of the more aristocratic playgoer. In dramas of this type we may say that variety of incident was aimed at rather than unity of design, diffuseness took the place of concentration, amorous passion became almost the only dramatic motive and the conflict of emotions was of less importance than the romantic interest of situation. The impression made upon the mind of the reader of this large collection of plays is one of astonishment at the richness and variety of dramatic invention which they display; but it is seldom that he is able to commend one of these dramas without very serious reserves, either moral or artistic. The merit belongs usually to particular scenes in a drama rather than to the drama as a whole; and, in cases where there is no ground for criticising the conduct of the design, it is often found that the plot deals with morbid or doubtful situations.

    In spite, however, of these general characteristics, it is not the case that the collection which passes under the names of Beaumont and Fletcher is strictly homogeneous, and it is certain that some of the differences which we observe between one portion of it and another arise from diversity of authorship. An attempt, therefore, must be made to distinguish the personalities of the principal contributors.