Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 4. Biographies and early intimacy of the two Dramatists; Individual characteristics

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

§ 4. Biographies and early intimacy of the two Dramatists; Individual characteristics

Of Beaumont and Fletcher as individuals, we know little, except what we can gather from their works. John Fletcher, the elder of the two, born in 1579, was the son of a clergyman, Richard Fletcher, then minister of Rye in Sussex, and afterwards successively dean of Peterborough, and bishop of Bristol, Worcester and London. This “comely and courtly prelate,” who had the misfortune to fall out of favour with queen Elizabeth because of a second marriage, died in 1596, leaving a large family very poorly provided for. The poets Giles and Phineas Fletcher were sons of his younger brother, first cousins of the dramatist. John Fletcher was educated at Bene’t (Corpus Christi) college, Cambridge, and probably began rather early to write for the stage. At what time his literary association with Beaumont began must remain uncertain. Dryden tells us that Philaster was the first play that brought them into esteem, “for before that they had written two or three very unsuccessfully.” Each may have written plays separately in this early period; but, when their connection was formed, it was of a more intimate and permanent character than any other of those partnerships which were frequent in the history of the Jacobean drama—being based upon personal friendship rather than upon any merely occasional purpose. They lived together “on the Bankside, not far from the Play-house,” and are reported to have carried their friendship so far as to have had all things in common. It is, perhaps, worthy of note that there are several passages in Fletcher’s later work which seem to be reminiscences of such a friendship as this. After Beaumont left off writing for the stage, Fletcher worked either by himself or in conjunction with other dramatists, and particularly with Massinger. He died, of the plague, in 1625, and was buried in St. Saviour’s, his parish church. The testimony of Fletcher’s contemporaries is to the effect that he was very sparkling and brilliant, as good as a comedy in himself, and that his attitude towards the public was distinguished both by modesty and by self-respect. Jonson loved him and “was proud to call him son,” distinguishing him as one of the few living writers “besides himself” who could make a masque.His ceaseless activity in the production of plays, and his readiness to co-operate with various dramatists in supplying the needs of the stage, suggest the idea that he was dependent for his livelihood upon the theatre; but both he and Beaumont were gentlemen by position, and had probably seen more of fashionable society than most of their fellow dramatists.

Francis Beaumont was the youngest son of Sir Francis Beaumont of Grace-dieu in Leicestershire, one of the justices of the common pleas, and brother of John Beaumont, author of Bosworth Field. He was born probably in 1585, was educated at Broadgates hall (afterwards Pembroke college), Oxford, and was entered as a member of the Inner Temple in the year 1600. A long poem, after the model of Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, entitled Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, which was published anonymously in 1602, was afterwards attributed to him; but the evidences of authorship are by no means conclusive. He became acquainted with Jonson very early, and wrote a copy of verses in 1605, “To my dear friend Master Ben Jonson, upon his Fox” (that is, the comedy Volpone, in which he declared that to Johnson alone the English stage owed the rules of dramatic art. He paid a similar compliment to two subsequent plays, The Silent Woman and Catiline; and in all these pieces he expressed a contemptuous opinion of public taste. On one occasion, while staying in the country, he wrote to Jonson a poetical epistle, in which the doings at the Mermaid are alluded to in the well known lines,

  • What things have we seen
  • Done at the Mermaid, etc.
  • and Jonson replied in verses which testify respect as well as affection. A tradition reported by Dryden tells us that Beaumont was
  • so accurate a judge of play that Ben Jonson, while he lived, submitted all his writings to his censure, and ’t is thought used his judgement in correcting, if not contriving, all his plots.
  • In the freedom of his conversations with Drummond, Jonson let fall the remark that “Francis Beaumont loved too much himself and his own verses.” Fletcher also, as we have seen, was on terms of friendship with Jonson; and the two young dramatists may have become acquainted with one another through him. We shall see, however, that Beaumont produced at least one play, The Woman Hater, independently of his future partner, and in this the influence of Jonson is distinctly predominant. The verses of Beaumont on the stage failure of Fletcher’s Faithfull Shepheardesse, probably in 1609, again express much contempt of popular judgment. On the marriage of the princess Elizabeth, early in 1613, the inns of court prepared masques, to be presented at Whitehall, and Beaumont supplied that which was provided by the Inner Temple and Gray’s inn. This masque is dedicated to Sir Francis Bacon, solicitor general, as one who had “spared no time or travel in the setting forth, ordering and furnishing” of it. Beaumont was himself married, apparently about two years before his death to Ursula, daughter of Henry Isley, of Sundridge in Kent; and from this time his relations with Fletcher must have been less intimate, and he may then have given up writing for the stage. He died in March, 1616, a few weeks before Shakespeare, and was buried in Westminster abbey, in a place not far from the tombs of Chaucer and Spenser. He wrote several occasional poems, besides those already mentioned, including elegies on lady Markham, lady Penelope Clifton (a daughter of Sidney’s Stella) and the countess of Rutland (Sidney’s daughter); but none of them rise above mediocrity, and they are disfigured by examples of false taste, from which the author’s dramatic work is free. Among his intimates was Drayton, who speaks of the two Beaumonts and of Browne as his dear companions,
  • Such as have freely told to me their hearts,
  • As I have mine to them.
  • A certain amount of interest was taken by the succeeding generation in apportioning the qualities of genius displayed in the Beaumont and Fletcher dramas between these two leading authors of them. Some, it is true, adopted the convenient, but wholly uncritical, notion, that Beaumont and Fletcher were so absolutely alike, that it was a matter of indifference whether they were regarded as one author or as two, there being a complete “consimility of fancy” between them; but, in general, we note the acceptance of the conclusion which Pope has made familiar, namely, that Fletcher contributed the wit and Beaumont the judgment, and that Beaumont’s function was to check the overflowings of Fletcher’s genius. It was natural that, as Fletcher ruled the stage for a long period after his partner’s death, the chief positive merit should be attributed to him by the generation for whose tastes he had successfully catered, and that to Beaumont, whose separate personality was little known, and whose genius, in fact, was more nearly allied than that of his friend to the spirit of the former age, should be assigned the negative function of criticism. So far as the claim to superior judgment may be taken to imply a more truly artistic conception of dramatic art, it is probable that it should be admitted in favour of Beaumont; but the idea that his work consisted chiefly of criticism must be rejected. It is noticeable that, in the only copy of commendatory verse which claims to date from the time of Beaumont’s death, we hear nothing of his critical activity, but of

  • those excellent things of thine,
  • Such strength, such sweetness couch’d in every line,
  • Such life of fancy, such high choice of brain.
  • Moreover, the writer of this, John Earle, does not think it necessary even to mention the name of Fletcher, while attributing Philaster, The Maides Tragedy and A King and no King to Beaumont alone. This, no doubt, is the result of a personal partiality; but we must remember that the verses written later, for the folio of 1647, were, for the most part, equally affected by partiality in the other direction, and, in general, these later compositions can only be relied upon as evidence of the vague impressions prevailing in the public mind in the age which succeeded the death of Fletcher.