Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 5. Evidence as to authorship

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

§ 5. Evidence as to authorship

The statements of publishers as to the individual or joint authorship of particular plays are scanty and untrustworthy. Four only were printed in Beaumont’s lifetime—The Woman Hater, The Faithfull Shepheardesse, The Knight of the Burning Pestle and Cupid’s Revenge—and, of these, two appeared anonymously, while two, The Faithfull Shepheardesse and Cupid’s Revenge, were ascribed to Fletcher alone, the latter, no doubt, wrongly. Five more were printed during the lifetime of Fletcher, The Scornful Ladie, A King and no King, The Maides Tragedy, Philaster and Thierry and Theodoret. Of these, The Scornful Ladie, A King and no King and Philaster were ascribed to Beaumont and Fletcher, the other two being anonymous; but there is no probability that these publications were, in any instance, made with Fletcher’s authority, and the publisher of A King and no King in 1619 was, apparently, unaware that one of the authors to whom it was ascribed was dead. Most of the above-mentioned dramas were reprinted, and a few more were added to the list of published plays, before the death of Massinger, who, as we shall see, contributed largely to the Beaumont and Fletcher collection; and it has been argued that the mention of Beaumont upon the title-page of any quarto published before 1639 proves, at least, that the play was originally produced before Beaumont’s death. But it is evident that this kind of reasoning is very unsafe. In 1647, five years after the closing of the theatres, Humphrey Moseley, the bookseller, brought out a folio which professed to contain all the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher that had not hitherto been printed, with the exception of one, of which the copy had been mislaid. Moseley declared that it had been his intention to print Fletcher’s works by themselves, but he had finally decided not to separate him from Beaumont. It is probable that he could not have done so if he had desired; but the publication of this folio produced a protest in verse (which might much better have been in prose) from Sir Aston Cokayne, against the general ascription to Beaumont of plays in which, for the most part, he had no share; and, since nearly all the dramas in the composition of which Beaumont was concerned had already been printed and were, consequently, excluded from this edition, it cannot be denied that the complaint was well founded. He added that his old friend Massinger had contributed to some of the newly printed plays, but that, for the most part, they were “sole issues of sweet Fletcher’s brain.” The same complaint is contained in an epistle to his cousin Charles Cotton, who, as being “Fletcher’s chief bosom friend,” ought to have seen that justice was done to him by the printers. The main importance that these protests have for us consists in the incidental statement about Massinger, whose name had not hitherto been publicly mentioned in connection with the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher; and one of the most interesting and trustworthy results of modern criticism has been to establish, on metrical and other grounds, the extent to which this dramatist collaborated with Fletcher. With regard to Beaumont, our conclusions are, in detail, more uncertain; and possibly, in some cases, plays in which he had a share have been subsequently altered or rewritten, so as partly to obliterate the traces of his hand. A good deal of labour and ingenuity has been expended in the endeavour to solve, by critical methods, the very intricate problems of authorship which present themselves, and it has been found possible to arrive at a tolerably clear idea of the main characteristics of Beaumont’s work as distinguished from that of his partner. In certain particular cases, however, there remains much uncertainty, and opinions of very various kinds have been maintained with a confidence of assertion which is by no means justified by the available evidence. When a critic, with no external evidence of authorship before him concludes that a certain play was originally written by Beaumont, afterwards revised by Fletcher and finally rewritten by Middleton, he is evidently dealing in mere guesswork. On the other hand, these investigations have, undoubtedly, been accompanied by a more accurate and systematic study than had previously been made of the individual marks of style by which the dramatists of the period are distinguished, and have, doubtless, helped towards a clearer perception of the true value of metrical tests, as well as of the dangers of a too-mechanical application of them.

The general result of criticism seems to be as follows. It is probable that, of the fifty-two plays which have commonly passed under the joint names, at least one belongs to Beaumont alone, and that in some eight or nine others he co-operated with Fletcher, taking, usually, the leading part in the combination; that Fletcher was the sole author of about fifteen plays, and that there are some two-and-twenty, formerly attributed to the pair conjointly, in which we find Fletcher’s work combined with that of other authors than Beaumont, besides five or six in which, apparently, neither Fletcher nor Beaumont had any appreciable share. To the general total may be added Henry VIII, by Shakespeare and Fletcher, which is commonly regarded as Shakespeare’s; A Very Woman, which passes under the name of Massinger, but in which Fletcher, probably, had a share; and Sir John van Olden Barnavelt, by Fletcher and Massinger, which remained unprinted till quite recently. Among the dramatists with whom Fletcher worked after the retirement of Beaumont, by far the most important place is taken by Massinger, who has a considerable share in at least sixteen plays, and who in justice ought to have been mentioned upon the title-page of the collection. There is evidence, also, of the occasional co-operation of Fletcher with Jonson, Field, Tourneur, W. Rowley and, perhaps Daborne.