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The following article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1927. pp. 237-40.

COLLABORATION between playwrights was common enough in Elizabethan times, but the remarkably successful partnership between Francis Beaumont (1584-1616) and John Fletcher (1579-1625) was unique even for that day. Both men came from the upper class, Beaumont being the son of a chief justice, and Fletcher the son of a clergyman who later became Lord Bishop of London. The former was educated at Oxford, the latter at Cambridge. From about 1608 until the marriage of Beaumont in 1613 the two friends lived together near the Globe Theater in Southwark, sharing everything in the closest intimacy. They belonged to the Mermaid Tavern group and were friends of Jonson and Shakespeare. Poets have commented on the manliness and "lordly aspect" of these two men. They enjoyed great popularity, and their plays kept the stage until long after the Restoration. In 1616, a few weeks before the death of Shakespeare, Beaumont died and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Nine years later Fletcher died of the plague and was buried at Saint Saviour's in Southwark.

As Jonson best represents the classic play of this period, so Beaumont and Fletcher best represent the romantic. The plays written together reach a higher point of excellence than anything either one wrote alone. In their combined work there is sureness of touch, humor, pathos, intensity. Students of every generation have wondered at the completeness of the fusion of the two talents. It was said that Fletcher was the more brilliant of the two, with the ability to turn off witty, graceful dialogue; while tragic intensity and genial humor were the special gifts of Beaumont. In their joint plays their talents are so organically combined, so completely merged into one, that the hand of Beaumont cannot be clearly distinguished from that of Fletcher.


The Cambridge History of English Literature attributes seven plays to the collaboration of the two friends. More than fifty are listed as written either by one or by both, and at least six have been lost. The first piece announced as coming from them was Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding. It is partly in verse and partly in prose, and has many marks of the prevailing romantic school, such as the disinherited prince, a lord from foreign parts who comes to court the king's daughter, the high-born girl disguised as a page, and the intrigues of courtiers. The play has the true Elizabethan ring. The sentiment of the pastorals, too often mawkish, is here introduced with happy results. When Philaster, the inheritor of the kingdom, tells the shepherd boy that he does not realize what it is to die, the boy answers:

"Yes, I do know, my lord:
'Tis Less than to be born, a lasting sleep;
A quiet resting from all jealousy
A thing we all pursue; I know, besides,
'Tis but a giving over of a game
That must be lost. . . ."

And again:

"Alas, my lord, my life is not a thing
Worthy your noble thoughts! 'tis not a life,
'Tis but a piece of childhood thrown away."

So the poetry goes, full of rich fancy, delicacy and technical virtuosity. It is often full of vehemence, too, as though winged by genuine emotion. The facts of the story may not always be within the realm of reality, yet the passion rings true, and the poetry has the lift which is the mark of genius.

The Fletcher and Beaumont plays show how luxuriant and forceful, even outside Shakespeare, was the romantic Elizabethan style, and how brilliant were some of his contemporaries.

"Their best heroes are earlier Hernanis, bred in the ideals of Castilian honor; even their villains--and monstrous villains some of them are--utter very noble sentiments. You feel that such persons never existed, and yet you know the thoughts to be true, and you cannot resist the fascination, the glamour, if you will, of ideals borrowed from the age of chivalry. There is, in Beaumont and Fletcher, a 'constant recognition of gentility,' as Emerson has remarked; this, and their picturesque descriptions, their genuine sentiment, and their occasional flashes of imagination revealing intense passion, constitute their chief merits, and interfuse through their drama the spirit of romance." [1]

After the death of Beaumont, Fletcher collaborated with Massinger, Shirley, Jonson, Field, and perhaps others. In two plays, Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, it is supposed that Fletcher and Shakespeare worked together. Some of the plays often attributed to Fletcher have no less than three or four authors; or they were revised so many times, by different hands, that they became as it were a composite of the wit and skill of the times. Nobody tried very hard to be "original" in the sense of inventing the fables; the tales of Boccaccio (coming to England probably by way of Chaucer), Cinthio, Tasso, Guarini, Cervantes and Lope de Vega were a constant source of supply for plots.


Both of these men were poets of a high order, and their work was superior in invention, scholarship, and charm to anything else in the Elizabethan age except the best of Shakespeare. Webster equalled them in powerful expression of passion and tragic despair. Massinger, and perhaps Marston, achieved passages which were comparable in beauty; but for volume, sustained energy, and poetic power the names of Beaumont and Fletcher stand above them all. These two possessed luxuriance of fancy and eagerness for new ideas combined with a scholarly conservatism towards upstart modes; they had, occasionally, the licentiousness and coarseness characteristic of their times. Their command of phrase was unsurpassed; they avoided foolish conceits and violent metaphors, at the same time achieving a sort of gorgeousness of language. Not only for their influence on language, but also for their singular modernity of spirit should they be remembered. They seem already far away from Shakespeare, as if speaking almost in the tongue of today.


1 William Roscoe Thayer, in his Preface to a collection of Elizabethan plays.