Francis Beaumont (1584/5–1616) and John Fletcher (1579–1625)

views updated May 23 2018

FRANCIS BEAUMONT (1584/51616) and JOHN FLETCHER (15791625)

FRANCIS BEAUMONT (1584/51616) and JOHN FLETCHER (15791625), the most famous collaboration in early modern English drama. Both men came from established families with strong writing traditions. Beaumont was born at Grace-Dieu, Leicestershire, the son of Francis Beaumont, a judge, and the brother of the poet John Beaumont. Fletcher was born on 20 December 1579, the son of Richard Fletcher, later bishop of London. Richard's brother, Giles Fletcher, was a poet and diplomat, and father of the "Spenserian" poets Giles, Jr., and Phineas. Both Beaumont and Fletcher attended university: Beaumont entered Broadgates Hall, Oxford, in 1597, before proceeding to the Inner Temple in 1600; Fletcher probably entered Benet College (now Corpus Christi), his father's old college, in 1591.

The collaboration between the two writers is first traced to The Woman Hater, written in 1606 for the Children of Paul's (a children's acting troupe). Beaumont had probably already written the erotic narrative poem Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, published in 1602. The pair moved from the Children of Paul's to the Children of the Queen's Revels, who first performed Cupid's Revenge (16071608), The Coxcomb (16081610), and The Scornful Lady (1610). Separately, Beaumont and Fletcher wrote The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607) and The Faithful Shepherdess (1608), respectively, for the same company; both plays seem originally to have failed in performance, perhaps because they were too avant-garde for the Blackfriars audience. The success of their collaborative plays, particularly Cupid's Revenge, seems to have caught the attention of the King's Men, for whom Beaumont and Fletcher wrote a series of highly successful collaborative plays: Philaster (or Love Lies a'Bleeding; c. 1609), The Maid's Tragedy (c. 1610), and A King and No King (1611). Fletcher alone wrote the tragedies Bonduca (c. 16091614) and Valentinian (c. 1610), and the comedy The Woman's Prize (or The Tamer Tamed; c. 1611), a mock-sequel to Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew.

In 1613 Beaumont married Ursula Isley and seems to have retired from the theater; his last surviving dramatic work is The Masque of Gray's Inn and the Inner Temple (Gray's Inn and Inner Temple are two of the four Inns of Court), written for the wedding of James I's daughter Elizabeth in February 1613. It is possible that Beaumont's health was already declining when he retired; he died on 6 March 1616 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Fletcher, who seems to have preferred writing in collaboration, worked with Shakespeare on three plays for the King's Men in 16121613: Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and the lost Cardenio. He also wrote with Nathan Field, firstly for the Lady Elizabeth's Men, for whom Field was a leading actor (The Honest Man's Fortune [1613], Four Plays in One [c. 1614]), and later for the King's Men, for whom Field acted from 1616 (The Knight of Malta [16161618] and The Queen of Corinth [1617]). This period also saw the first performances of Fletcher's Wit without Money (1614), The Chances (c. 1617), and Women Pleased (c. 1618). After Field's death in 1619, Fletcher formed a settled collaboration with Philip Massinger. Their best-known plays include Sir John Van Olden Barnavelt (1619), The Custom of the Country (c. 1619), and The Sea Voyage (1622). He also continued to write plays alone, including The Humourous Lieutenant (c. 1619), The Island Princess (1621), The Wild Goose Chase (1621), and The Pilgrim (c. 1621). Fletcher died of plague on 29 August 1625, and was buried at St. Mary Overy, Southwark.

The fame of the Beaumont and Fletcher collaboration is due in part to the publication in 1647 of a lavish folio edition of Comedies and Tragedies Written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher Gentlemen, in which the plays were accompanied by a series of dedicatory verses written by admirers of the two playwrights, many of which eulogized them as a perfect synthesis. George Lisle, for instance, wrote: "your fancies are so wov'n and knit, / 'Twas Francis Fletcher, or John Beaumont writ." Continuing the tradition, John Aubrey wrote in Brief Lives: "They lived together on the Banke side, not far from the Play-house, both batchelors; lay together . . . had one wench in the house between them, which they did so admire; the same clothes and cloake, &c., between them." However, the posthumous union between Beaumont and Fletcher was occasionally contested, and the contribution of Massinger recognized. Aston Cockayne protested that Beaumont would have "frown'd and blush'd" to see his name attached to plays in which he had no claim, and notes that it is Massinger, not Beaumont, who was buried in Fletcher's grave: "So whom on earth nothing did part, beneath / Here (in their Fames) they lie, in spight of death."

The plays of the "Beaumont and Fletcher" canon remained popular throughout the seventeenth century, and Fletcher was regarded as one of the greatest dramatists of the age. While tragicomedies such as Philaster and A King and No King had a great impact on early seventeenth-century drama, the comedies, particularly those written with Massinger, had a shaping influence on the development of the Restoration theater.

See also Drama: English ; English Literature and Language ; Renaissance ; Shakespeare, William .


Primary Source

Bowers, Fredson, ed. The Dramatic Works in the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon. 10 vols. Cambridge, U.K., 19661996.

Secondary Sources

Bliss, Lee. Francis Beaumont. Boston, 1987.

Clark, Sandra. The Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher: Sexual Themes and Dramatic Representation. London, 1994.

Finkelpearl, Philip. Court and Country Politics in the Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher. Princeton, 1990.

Kelliher, Hilton. "Francis Beaumont and Nathan Field: New Records of Their Early Years." English Manuscript Studies 11001700, 8 (2000): 142.

McMullan, Gordon. The Politics of Unease in the Plays of John Fletcher. Amherst, Mass., 1994.

Squier, C. L. John Fletcher. Boston, 1986.

Taunton, Nina. "Biography, a University Education, and Playwrighting: Fletcher and Marlowe." Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 33 (1994): 6397.

Lucy Munro

Francis Beaumont

views updated May 29 2018

Francis Beaumont

The English playwright Francis Beaumont (c. 1584-1616) was one of the major comic dramatists of the Jacobean period. Much of his work was done in collaboration with John Fletcher.

Francis Beaumont was born to an old and distinguished Leicestershire family. His father, who became one of the Queen's Justices of the Court of Common Pleas, was described by a contemporary as a "grave, learned, and reverend judge." Francis attended Oxford University but left without a degree. In 1600 he entered the Inner Temple, one of the Inns of Court, perhaps with the intention of following his father into the law. But whatever his intention, he was never called to the bar.

Beaumont soon associated himself with the theater and wrote his first play, The Woman-Hater, about 1606. The chief characters bear some resemblance to the "humours" characters of Ben Jonson. Beaumont greatly admired Jonson, and this mildly satiric comedy was probably written in conscious imitation of the elder dramatist, who by this time had acquired some stature as a literary figure.

In his next dramatic effort Beaumont broke free of the Jonsonian influence and produced his delightful masterpiece, The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607). In this charming mock-heroic play (supposedly written in 8 days and probably indebted for some of its episodes to Cervantes' Don Quixote), Beaumont's satire is aimed at several targets, but the laughter he provokes at their expense is never bitter. The play includes a burlesque of dramatic forms—such as the old-fashioned chivalric romance—as well as some good-natured ridicule of London audiences as represented by George the Grocer and his wife Nell, who station themselves on the stage and continually interrupt the action of the play. Although The Knight of the Burning Pestle was a failure when first performed, the play had a highly successful revival in 1635, after the author's death, and has remained a popular work ever since.

The remainder of Beaumont's career was spent in collaboration with John Fletcher. Although the two wrote no more than a dozen plays together, their names became so closely linked that by 1679 more than 50 plays were assigned to their joint authorship. The authorship of some of these plays is still in doubt; many were written by Fletcher alone or by Fletcher in collaboration with dramatists other than Beaumont. The most important of the authentic Beaumont and Fletcher plays are Philaster and The Maid's Tragedy, both written between 1608 and 1610. Beaumont's hand predominates in these plays, which did much to promote the form of drama known as tragicomedy. Plays of this type rely less on character and theme than on ingenuity of plot and the moving expression of sentiment.

Beaumont's literary career ended in 1613, when he married an heiress and retired. He probably lived the few remaining years of his life in Kent. He died on March 6, 1616, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Further Reading

Charles Mills Gayley, Beaumont, the Dramatist (1914), contains much information about Beaumont and his family. The most reliable guide to Beaumont's share in the "Beaumont and Fletcher" plays is E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, vol. 3 (1923). □

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