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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

§ 6. Fletcher’s Metrical Style: comparison with that of Shakespeare

It is evident that any investigation which may be made of the separate styles of Beaumont and Fletcher must, in the first instance, be based upon those plays which may reasonably be attributed to Fletcher alone, and these, in fact, will be found to supply a tolerably satisfactory criterion. The metrical style of Fletcher is more unmistakably marked than that of any other dramatist of the period. Its most obvious characteristic is the use of redundant syllables in all parts of the line, but especially at the end. So much is this the practice with him, that, out of every three of his lines, usually two, at least, have double or triple endings, and even this proportion is often far exceeded. No other writer has anything like this number of feminine endings: in a play of 2500 lines, while Massinger, who approaches Fletcher most nearly in this respect, might, possibly, have as many as 1200 double or triple endings, and Shakespeare, in his latest period, as many as 850, Fletcher would normally have at least 1700, and might not impossibly have as many as 2000; and his marked preference for this form of verse is emphasised by the fact that very often the feminine ending is produced by the addition of some quite unnecessary word, such as “sir,” “lady,” “too,” “now,” introduced, apparently, for this sole purpose. A characteristic feature, also, of Fletcher’s double endings, though not peculiar to him, is that the redundant syllable is occasionally a word of some weight, which cannot be slurred over, e.g.

  • As many plagues as the corrupted air breeds,
  • or
  • Welcome to the court, sweet beauties! Now the court shines.
  • The use of redundant syllables elsewhere than at the end of the line is also very frequent, so that the number of syllables in Fletcher’s verse ranges, in comedy at least, from ten to fifteen or more.

    These peculiarities of rhythm were deliberately adopted for dramatic purposes. Fletcher was quite capable of writing blank verse of the usual type, and in his pastoral drama, The Faithfull Shepheardesse, we have nearly two hundred lines of blank verse with not more than ten double endings, and with hardly any superfluous syllables in other parts of the line. For his ordinary dramatic work, however, he chose a form which, in his opinion, was better suited for dramatic expression. The object aimed at was to make the line more loose and flexible and to gain an effect of ease and absence of premeditation. No mouthing is possible in this verse, no rounding off of a description or sentiment with a period; all is abrupt and almost spasmodic, apparently the outcome of the moment. The quick and lively action of the later English stage, with its easy assumption of the ordinary speech of gentlemen, thus developed a metre which could supply the place of prose in the lightest interchange of fashionable repartee.

    With this freedom in the matter of syllabic measure, Fletcher combines a singular absence of free movement from verse to verse. His lines, for the most part, and “end-stopped,” that is to say, they have usually a marked final pause, so that each verse tends to become an independent unit of expression, and the running-on of the sentence from line to line is comparatively rare. The free distribution of pauses in the verse, which is naturally connected with a periodic structure of sentence, is thus seriously restricted, and the intention of excluding, so far as possible, the more rhetorical form of expression, and favouring the use of short sentences of simple structure, is evident. This, no doubt, conduces to clearness, and the effect of discontinuity, which is obtained by coincidence of pause with the end of the loosely constructed line, helps, perhaps, to suggest a spontaneous development of thoughts from the circumstances of the moment. But these advantages are dearly bought by the tiresome monotony which the system involves, a monotony which is only, to some extent, relieved by variation of the position of the internal pause and by the frequent use of the so-called “lyric” caesura. It is by the combination of the double ending with the stopped line that Fletcher’s verse is chiefly distinguished from that of Massinger. Johnson’s later verse exhibits, to some extent, the same combination as Fletcher’s, and must, to some extent, have been influenced by it. The informal character of Fletcher’s verse structure enabled him to dispense entirely with prose in his later work; but it must not be assumed that he never used it at any period. He seems to have almost always avoided rime in his ordinary dramatic verse; employing it occasionally, however, at the end of a scene.

    Fletcher’s metrical style, generally, is intimately associated with his endeavour to achieve a more lively and dramatic presentation of thought. Shakespeare, in his later work, to a great extent discarded the periodic structure of the sentence, and adopted what we may call the disjointed style, as more dramatic; but his method was altogether different from that of Fletcher. Instead of strengthening the end pause, he, to a great extent, abolished it, and attained his object by methods which, in the hands of an inferior writer, would have altogether disorganised the verse. Indeed, a comparison of Fletcher with Shakespeare generally would tend chiefly to emphasise the difference of their styles. Shakespeare’s unequalled rapidity of imagination makes him concise even to obscurity, especially in his later work; he more and more abounds in metaphor; finding no leisure to do more than indicate his comparisons; and this pregnant brevity carries with it extraordinary force. Fletcher, on the other hand, notwithstanding the rapidity of action in his dramas, is inclined to move slowly in the expression of thoughts and feelings. “He lays line upon line, making up one after the other, adding image to image so deliberately that we see where they join. Shakespeare mingles everything, he runs line into line, embarrasses sentences and metaphors; before one idea has burst its shell, another is hatched and clamorous for disclosure.” But this very quality of Fletcher’s style, this clear presentation of ideas and images in due succession, was likely to make him the more popular of the two poets upon the stage, and helps, in some measure, to account for the fact that, in the latter part of the seventeenth century, two of “Beaumont and Fletcher’s” plays were acted for one of Shakespeare’s or Jonson’s.