The works of the English playwright John Fletcher (1579-1625) are noted for their stylistic grace, ingenious plotting, and exciting theatricality.
John Fletcher was baptized on Dec. 20, 1579. His father was an Anglican minister who became chaplain to Queen Elizabeth and eventually bishop of London. John was educated at Cambridge and acquired a reputation as a literary man. It is not known when or why he turned to the stage, but by 1608 he had launched a long and fruitful career as a dramatist.
Although some 15 plays have been attributed to him as sole author, Fletcher did most of his work in collaboration with others. From about 1608 to about 1613, he and Francis Beaumont formed one of the most famous and successful partnerships in literary history. During this period he probably also assisted Shakespeare in one or two plays. After Shakespeare's death in 1616, Fletcher became the leading playwright of the King's Men, the most prestigious theatrical company of the period. From this time until his death in 1625, he generally served as senior partner in collaboration with Philip Massinger, Nathan Field, Samuel Rowley, and others.
Fletcher's plays were written for the elite, sophisticated audiences which frequented the "private" theaters of Jacobean London. Although his plays are still admired for their dramatic craftsmanship, they are commonly thought of as refined entertainments lacking the larger significance and universality of appeal which distinguish the work of his greater contemporaries.
Fletcher employed a variety of dramatic forms, including revenge tragedy (Valentinian, ca. 1614), satiric comedy (The Humorous Lieutenant, 1619), and farce (Rule a Wifeand Have a Wife, 1624). But his most characteristic kind of play is the "tragicomedy," which he described as a play which "wants [that is, avoids] deaths … yet brings some close to it [death]"(from his first play, The Faithfull Shepherdess, ca. 1608). But his description gives an inadequate idea of this new dramatic genre. A better illustration of Fletcherian tragicomedy is to be found in a play of narrowly averted incest, A King and No King (ca. 1611, probably written with Beaumont). Only in the last scene of this play, when King Arbaces is on the verge of yielding to his incestuous passion for Panthea, is it revealed that his beloved is not really his sister after all. Fletcher's principal concern is with the effects attending the sudden surprise which turns near-tragedy into comedy.
Fletcher died in 1625, reportedly a victim of the plague. He was buried at St. Saviour's Church in London.
Gerald Eades Bentley, The Jacobean and Caroline Stage, vol. 3 (1956), contains most of the essential information about Fletcher's life. For further information, some of it based on early gossip of questionable value, see the first volume of Alexander Dyce's edition of The Works of Beaumont and Fletcher (1843). Clifford Leech, The John Fletcher Plays (1962), discusses Fletcher's artistic merits. □