IN 1833 Coleridge, full of enthusiasm for Beaumont and Fletcher, exclaimed, “How lamentable it is that no gentleman and scholar can be found to edit these beautiful plays!” Ten years later the Reverend Alexander Dyce, a scholar and a gentleman, and the man to whom the Elizabethan drama owes more than to almost any one, re-collated the early texts and published an edition which has remained standard for sixty years. Now two new complete editions1 are offered to the public. It is to be hoped that this means, or will create, a renewal of interest in the old dramatists, and that a generation which has been somewhat surfeited with Ibsen will turn its attention for a time to plays of a different character. To be sure, Beaumont and Fletcher are infinitely grosser than the prophet of the North, but it may be doubted whether The Chances is not, in fundamentals, less unhinging to the moral sense than Ghosts, and the English play is certainly the more entertaining of the two.
Mr. Bullen reserves elaborate critical discussion for a supplementary volume; but each play is preceded by a brief introduction, of which the most original feature is a sketch of the theatrical history of the piece. In determining chronology it is unfortunate that the editors should not have taken account of Professor Thorndike’s admirable Influence of Beaumont and Fletcher on Shakspere. Even if they could not accept Professor Thorndike’s views, they should certainly have considered them, particularly as to the relation of Cymbeline to Philaster. In explanatory notes Dyce is usually followed, but with valuable additions. For text the old editions have been re-collated and many variants, disregarded by Dyce, have been noted. Not all, however. For example, Maid’s Tragedy, IV, I, line 1, Mr. Bullen’s edition, in common with all others, omits the at least possibly solemn and dramatic “ God ” of the first quarto.
The Cambridge edition, like the Cambridge Shakespeare, pays no attention to anything but the text, although a supplementary volume of comment is promised. The second folio is reprinted verbatim et litteratim, apparently with great accuracy, and a very extensive collection of variants in earlier editions is given in an appendix; but all emendations of modern editors are disregarded. In a work which appears, from its price, to be intended largely for popular reading, this method of procedure cannot be too emphatically condemned. Wantonly to reject everything that has been done to make the old poets more approachable and intelligible, and to hide carefully at the back of the book all the different readings of earlier and perhaps often better editions, is simply without excuse. To show what this leads to, I may point out that we get the beautiful verse of The Elder Brother in its plain prosaic second-folio garb; and although in this case the earlier verse form is printed in the appendix, the editors take pains to state that in general they have paid no attention to the efforts of modern editors to extract verse from the old chaotic prose.
Professor Thorndike’s unpretentious volume shows the care and scholarship which we should expect from him and from the excellent “ Belles Lettres Series.” The introductory matter is abundant and suggestive, both for scholars and for the general reader. The bibliographics, especially, as with other volumes of the series, are very useful. The text has evidently been prepared with much thought and labor. I must confess to a shadow of doubt as to the advantage of following the lawless spelling of the old quartos; but Professor Thorndike’s whole treatment of the question is totally different from the slavish process of facsimile adopted by the Cambridge editors.
It has long been well known that in the vast collection of dramas printed under the names of Beaumont and Fletcher, Beaumont had but a comparatively small share. Massinger was recognized by contemporaries as an occasional collaborator with Fletcher, while Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, Rowley, and Shirley are all mentioned as part authors of different plays, and many were undoubtedly written by Fletcher alone. The elaborate investigations made in recent years by Fleay, Boyle, Oliphant, and others, have put the question into much more scientific shape, and it is now possible in a large number of cases to distinguish the different authors with a reasonable degree of certainty. This result has been brought about mainly by the careful study of different forms of verse. In the work of Shakespeare, taken in its chronological order of development, we find a very great variety in the iambic metre, a steady progression from simple and primitive numbers in the early historical plays to the complicated and subtle harmony of The Tempest and A Winter’s Tale. In Shakespeare’s contemporaries no such elaborate process of development has yet been traced; but many of them seem to have inclined to some special phase or phases of metrical expression, by which, when once recognized, it becomes a comparatively easy matter to distinguish their work. Of all the dramatists, Fletcher is the most marked in this respect. In the plays which are known to be by him alone, he shows such striking peculiarities of metre, as well as of style, that any one who is thoroughly familiar with him will hardly confuse his work with that of others. The same thing is true, though in a less degree, of Massinger, and, in a less degree again, of Beaumont; so that we can say, with a reasonable amount of confidence, that certain plays are by Massinger and Fletcher, others by Beaumont and Fletcher; and, in the case of the former, especially, we can point out the acts and scenes that are attributable to each author. With Beaumont and Fletcher this is more difficult, for we often find distinct traces of both authors in the same scene, and these marks of intimate association of thought and workmanship agree pleasantly with old traditions of the poets’ close friendship and intimate association in their lives.
Unfortunately tradition and shreds of doubtful hearsay are all that have come to us in the matter. As with Shakespeare, and with so many of his great fellows, we know little of Beaumont and Fletcher beyond a dry and meagre collection of dates. Fletcher was born in 1579, entered as a pensioner in Benet College, Cambridge, 1591, probably began playwriting about 1604, and died in 1625. Beaumont (sometimes spelled by contemporaries Bewmont and possibly so pronounced) was born about 1585, went to Oxford in 1597, was entered at the Inner Temple in 1600, married, perhaps in 1613, and died in 1616, the year which also saw the death of Shakespeare. Both poets were of good family, Fletcher being the son of a bishop. Both had certainly the opportunity of a good education, and were well qualified to mingle on equal terms with the gay and courtly gentlemen who figure so largely in their plays. Both were intimate with their fellow dramatists. The most brilliant account that has come down to us of the witty doings at the Mermaid Tavern is contained in a letter of Beaumont’s to Ben Jonson; and Jonson’s answer shows genuine affection, although in his frank talks with Drummond he remarked “that Francis Beaumont loved too much himself and his own verses!” For any closer acquaintance with the characters and fortunes of the two celebrated partners we have to rely, as with Shakespeare, mainly upon the study of their writings.
In considering Beaumont’s work we must always bear in mind his extreme youth. If Professor Thorndike’s chronology is to be accepted, Beaumont began play-writing at twenty, and some of his best pieces had almost certainly been produced by the time he was twenty-five, an age at which Shakespeare had not attempted even such immature performances as The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Comedy of Errors. Dying at but little over thirty, Beaumont is to be classed with Chatterton and Keats and Shelley, among those who had time to give the world only the promise of what they might have accomplished.
Yet the contemporaries of this precocious genius seem to have thought quite as highly of his discretion as of his inspiration. Pope’s remark that Beaumont “checked what Fletcher writ” is hardly to be accepted as final, any more than Dryden’s astonishing statement that Jonson “ used his [Beaumont’s] judgment in correcting, if not contriving all his plots;” but such observations must have been founded on an enduring tradition which had much basis in fact. And, in general, the plays written by the two poets in collaboration, as compared with Fletcher’s unassisted work, show a greater solidity of design, more forethought and broad sense of dramatic effect in the conduct of the action. They have not Fletcher’s verve, his inexhaustible fertility of resource; but Beaumont would hardly have been guilty of the structural defects of The Chances.
And the finish, the perfection of Beaumont’s workmanship are much more apparent in his style than in his handling of plot. In this regard he is as remote from Fletcher as he is from Shakespeare. Shakespeare crowds his lines, strains them with thought and figure, sometimes sublime above all other sublimity, sometimes ill-chosen and tasteless; he loads and strains language almost beyond its capacity of bearing. Fletcher rushes onward in a golden flood, clear, but unchecked, exuberant, garrulous at moments. Beaumont is as clear as Fletcher, as simple, no labor in him, no overstrain; but every word tells. The progress the modulation of the thought is as delicate and perfect as the modulation of the verse, and moves with it in absolute harmony. From the nature of the case these qualities can be well shown only in passages longer than I have space to quote; but let the reader turn to Philaster’s well-known description of his first meeting with Bellario and observe the exquisite adjustment of sound to sense, the grace and purity of the diction, the delicate restraint in the use of figurative expressions. An odd little illustration of the working of prejudice in these matters occurs in a note of Steevens on Twelfth Night. He calls attention to the lines of Viola, —
If you will lead these graces to the grave
And leave the world no copy, —
and adds, “how much more elegantly is this thought expressed by Shakespeare than by Beaumont and Fletcher in their Philaster: —
We must remember that Viola’s mood tends to irony; but surely any one who is not blinded by the good Steevens’s Shakespeariolatry will feel that, taken in itself, the Twelfth Night passage, with its fanciful conceit and its tricky alliteration, is far inferior to the Beaumont bit in grace, in delicacy, in short, precisely in elegance.
This instinct of perfection in Beaumont has been too often overlooked, because until recently critics have not been sufficiently able to separate his work from the glittering imperfection of Fletcher; and no better testimony can be found to the utility of minute investigation in questions of authorship than that it clears the way for such a result. It is worth while to insist on Beaumont’s excellence in this respect, because it is so peculiarly un-Elizabethan. Ben Jonson complained that Shakespeare wanted art, and, after all the frenzy of German hypercriticism, I think the sober reader of the twentieth century will end by agreeing with Ben Jonson. Beaumont did not live to arrive at maturity. He was hampered, as well as benefited, by association with a genius of a totally different stamp. But if he had lived and had come to work independently, I cannot help thinking that he might have given to the English drama just the something which Shakespeare, supreme poet and supreme creator as he was, did not give to it. In all the peculiar excellences of the dramatic art we may, perhaps, take Racine to have been the exact opposite, the complement of Shakespeare. And Beaumont had it in him to have become the English Racine.
In the creation of character Beaumont has also much of Racine, as well as in style and in faculty of design. Like Racine, the English poet succeeded best with women, and his heroines have the grace, the delicacy, the peculiarly feminine qualities, which belong to Phèdre, to Andromaque, to Bérénice. Beaumont’s heroes undeniably fall short of the heroic. Amintor, Philaster, Arbaces, Ricardo, are too much victims of the storms of passion, they lack command over others and even over themselves; we feel in them the want not only of heroism, but too often of simple manliness, which, perhaps, is the same thing as the only heroism that counts. Nor, indeed, have his women always quite that element of womanliness which corresponds to manliness. Beaumont has no Portias, no Imogens. But who can resist the passion of the forlorn Aspatia, offering her own likeness as the model of Ariadne’s sorrow ? —
Do it again by me, the lost Aspatia,
And you shall find all true but the wild island.
Suppose I stand upon the sea-beach now,
Mine arms thus, and mine hair blown with thewind,
Wild as that desert; and let all about me
Be teachers of my story.
Or the pathos of the abandoned Viola ? —
Methinks, ’t is strange they should be so unlike.
It may be, all the best was cut away
To make the woman, and the naught was left
Behind with him. — I ’ll sit me down and weep
All things have cast me from ’em but the earth.
The evening comes and every little flower
Droops now as well as I.
Or the divine tenderness of Euphrasia (as the boy Bellario) comforting Philaster who mourns that her life should be cut off before the prime ? —
Alas, my Lord, my life is not a thing Worthy your noble thoughts. ’T is not a life ; ’T is but a piece of childhood thrown away.
On another side, however, Beaumont shows his truly Elizabethan affinities and reaches out into a world of comedy quite beyond the grasp of the classical author of Les Plaideurs. Bessus and Merrythought are as far removed from the starched humors of Jonson as from the dry brilliance of Fletcher. They have the warmth, the mellow, fruity richness in which only Beaumont, Dekker, and Middleton approach the golden sunshine of Shakespeare. Merrythought, especially, is a real comic creation and stands out as such in that rather elementary burlesque medley, The Knight of the Burning Pestle. How gay he is, with his old tags of song, his inextinguishable laughter, his joyous confidence that the future will be like the past and that, if it is not, mirth will mend it.
Looking at the comic aspect of Beaumont’s work, the first thing that occurs to us is the phrase which Dryden used of Fletcher, “a limb of Shakspere.” But if the name has aptness in connection with some elements of Beaumont, it is hardly appropriate to Fletcher at all. With Jonson, though in an entirely different way, Fletcher stands more apart from Shakespeare than does any other of the great dramatists. His constant exaggeration in plot, in character, in thought, his redundancy of expression, his avoidance of prose even in the lowest comedy — all these qualities are un-Shakespearean. And there is a still deeper difference, which Dryden perfectly expressed in one of the most searching touches of his searching criticism: “The scholar had the softer soul, but the master had the kinder.” Fletcher was brilliant, spirited, vigorous always. He was quick to feel and to perceive and over-ready to express. But he rarely went below the surface. He had little power of thought, little depth of emotion.
To this essential superficiality we may trace all of his very marked and undeniable defects. In plot-making he was unwilling to go to the bottom of a subject and work it out seriously. He preferred to rush off a hasty sketch and get his effects by heightened situations and sparkling dialogues, turning tragedy into melodrama and comedy into farce. In his earlier days Beaumont corrected this tendency, and Massinger in later. But it is curious to note that in a number of plays written with Massinger, Fletcher leaves to his younger associate the responsibility of opening the action and again of dosing it; as if Massinger worked out the plot and began the development, then Fletcher became interested, caught the thread, hurried it along beyond the climax, then lost his enthusiasm and left the conclusion to be elaborated by the original designer.
Again, Fletcher’s lack of depth shows in the material and physical aspect under which he views everything. All critics since Coleridge have insisted on this peculiarity of Fletcher’s heroines, in particular; their virtue is a mechanical property, not a spiritual grace. And the same thing is true when we go back of the heroines to Fletcher himself. It is the outside of goodness, its conventional value, its utilitarian advantage, that especially appeal to him. His sympathy with the inner loveliness of noble character is vague and insufficient. This accounts not only for his general grossness of language, but for the almost insufferable æsthetic as well as moral impropriety which makes him defile the fairest people and things by impure association. His play of The Faithful Shepherdess is perhaps the most striking example of this. In it he seeks to present an ideal example of pure and devoted love, and to that end he employs all the most varied and exquisite means of poetical expression; but he fails because he has not sufficient depth of nature to justify the beauty of virtue by itself and therefore tries to enhance it by contrast with the foulest and most deformed shapes of ugliness. Milton’s Comus, which owes so much to Fletcher’s play, excels it far more in purity and dignity of moral conception than in mere poetry.
One trifling yet significant mark of the physical element in Fletcher is his singular fondness for the undignified practice of kicking. I do not think Shakespeare’s gentlemen ever resort to this, certainly not often. They refrain from it, not so much from regard to others as from respect to themselves. Fletcher’s heroes are always kicking their antagonists and dependents about the stage. Nay, even the finer temper of Beaumont becomes infected, and in The Maid’s Tragedy the delicate Aspatia, disguised as a boy, wishing to provoke her lover to fight with her that she may die by his hand — kicks him. Shades of Imogen and Viola!
But Fletcher’s lack of profound grasp of human life shows most in his treatment — or ill-treatment — of character. Here again, as in his plots, he makes up for sober, profound study, by exaggerated emphasis and an extravagance often approaching caricature. This is much less marked, at any rate less offensive, in comic than in serious personages; yet even in comedy Fletcher cannot get the rich, delicate humor of Beaumont and Shakespeare. A curious instance of this is Bessus, who was doubtless created by Beaumont and through the earlier portion of the play speaks prose and is a thoroughly Beaumontesque and Shakespearean figure. Then Fletcher takes him, puts dancing verses into his mouth, and he becomes a member of a different comic family altogether.
With tragic characters this fault of exaggeration grows almost unendurable. Fletcher’s heroes all brag; not so much as Dryden’s, to be sure, but too much for heroism. The noble Caratach, the generous Aöcius, not only show their generosity and nobility, but repeatedly call our attention to them. With the women it is the same. They all lack dignity. The sweetest of them, like Ordella and Juliana, tend to become abject in their submission. Those of an opposite type are so very opposite! The Brunhalts are not only monsters, but vulgar monsters, and talk like fishwives. Worse still, spirits of the noblest strain, like Edith and Bonduca, suddenly break out into the same fishwifery, and rail with an excess of epithet that is as repulsive as it is picturesque. We have noted the change in Bessus, as he passes from Beaumont’s hands to those of his partner. The same thing takes place even more strikingly with Evadne in The Maid’s Tragedy. During the first part of the action, Beaumont depicts her with real tragic restraint. But as soon as Fletcher takes a hand, she tends at once to deteriorate, to become fiendish in her revenge and groveling in her repentance, in short, to show the true Fletcherian lack of dignity.
Yet we must not let these defects of characterization lead us to Darley’s and Oliphant’s conclusion that Fletcher’s creations are without power and without charm. After all, he was an Elizabethan. which means that he thronged his scenes with human faces, often ugly, often caricatured, but alive, studied, and reproduced for the pure love of them; and so his work is infinitely more interesting than, for instance, the drama of Calderon, with its perpetual repetition of the same primitive types, its fantastic cavaliers, veiled ladies, and silly graciosos. In the Spanish, even in the French drama, the logical necessity of the dramatic movement makes the characters seem to live not for themselves, but for the action. In Shakespeare and in all the Elizabethans, high and low, the characters live for their own pleasure and walk in and out of the story with a lovely indifference, letting it adapt itself to their individuality, as best it can.
If we want to get on with Fletcher, we must let him have his way. His most characteristic work is that in which a grain of exaggeration is permissible: romance, which oversteps the boundaries of humdrum reality, or rollicking farce crammed full of lyrical grace and charm. The very titles of his romantic plays carry their atmosphere with them, as do Calderon’s: The Pilgrim, The Island Princess, The Sea Voyage, The Beggar’s Bush, Love’s Pilgrimage, The Maid in the Mill. The Pilgrim, especially, perhaps comes nearest to the outdoor plays of Shakespeare, with its woodland scenes, its gay and sprightly heroine and her waiting maid, its quick interchange of tenderness and laughter. Even better are the comedies, Rule a Wife and Have a Wife, Monsieur Thomas, The Wild Goose Chase, The Chances. “ A whiffling vagary ” Darley called the latter, with all the scorn of a serious-minded person.
But one should love “whiffling vagaries,”that is to say, trifles of human passion beaten up into light foam by the wind of fancy. Such are the delicious comedies of Meilhac and Halévy, between which and Fletcher’s there is a good deal of kinship. Only the great attraction of La Petite Marquise and Fanny Fear is best indicated in the remark of Frondeville to Fanny herself: “The charm of your conversation lies not only in what you say, but still more and above all in what you don’t say.” Now there is nothing that Fletcher does not say.
In these merry Fletcherian farces everything is gay, sparkling, full of life, movement, and theatrical effectiveness. “A pipe and a comedy of Fletcher’s the last thing of a night is the best recipe for light dreams and to scatter away Nightmares,” says Lamb. And Coleridge: “I could read The Beggar’s Bush from morning to night. How sylvan and sunshiny it is!” The characters flash and sputter about like so many fireworks set off all at once. Everywhere there is the light tinkle of fresh young voices, the careless glee of fresh young faces. I have said hard things of Fletcher’s women and they deserve it; yet his comedies abound with jolly girls whose piquancy more than outweighs their occasional disregard of the lesser proprieties. The greater they rarely fail to respect. Mr. Saintsbury says of them very justly, “ For portraits of pleasant English girls, not too squeamish, not at all afraid of lovemaking, quite convinced of the hackneyed assertion of the mythologists that jests and jokes go in the train of Venus, but true-hearted, affectionate, and of a sound, if not a very nice morality, commend me to Fletcher’s Dorotheas and Marys and Celias.”
Of Fletcher’s young men much the same is to be said, mutatis mutandis, as of his young women. Dr. Johnson had “heard that Steele practised the lighter vices.” So do the young gentlemen of Fletcher, and with such zeal that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish their practices from the heavier sins. Yet one would fain believe that they are all somewhat after the model of Hylas in Monsieur Thomas, of a monstrous dissipation in words, but with deeds not quite in “a concatenation accordingly.” At any rate, if one disregards their loveaffairs, there is much to be said for them. They are keen of wit, ready of sword, quick in sense of honor, loyal in friendship, apt to remember a kindness, generous, and not incapable of sacrifice. A very little acquaintance with the skeptical, cynical, selfish gallants of Dryden, Congreve, and Wycherley makes one ready to find Fletcher’s Don Johns, and Pineros and Rutilios a harmless and even a lovable generation.
Many critics have found fault with Dryden for his remark that Beaumont and Fletcher “understood and imitated the conversation of gentlemen much better ” than did Shakespeare. But there is some truth in it. Shakespeare’s young men are proud of their wit and too often seem to be thinking about their own smartness. Fletcher’s heroes think about pretty girls, about their tailors’ bills, the last run of the dice, or the newest fashion in doublets; and when they discuss these things they are smart. Even in the essentials of gentlemanliness perhaps Shakespeare is not so much superior as is sometimes thought, and the ugly passages of Fletcher are well paralleled by Lysander and Demetrius, by Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing and Claudio in Measure for Measure and Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well. Indeed, high authorities have attributed to Fletcher a peculiar perception and appreciation of the gentlemanly character. Professor Ward says, “I have been much struck by the passages in his works where he recurs to a conception which undoubtedly had a very vital significance for him —that of a gentleman. See, above all, the fine passage in The Nice Valor—
I cannot make you gentlemen ; that’s a work Raised from your own deserving’s : merit, manners, And in-born virtue does it; let your own goodness
Make yon so great, my power shall make you greater.
Lysander in The Lover’s Progress is a really fine gentleman every inch of him.” And our own Emerson, who surely knew, tells us that “in the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher there is a constant recognition of gentility.”
Fletcher’s style is absolutely characteristic of the man and has all his defects and excellences. It fails in tragedy, and generally in passages of serious reflection; it is too jaunty, too flippant, too highlycolored. Wolsey’s farewell speech in King Henry VIII represents probably the best that Fletcher could do in this kind, and effective as it is, it is far enough from the enormous grandeur of Macbeth or Lear. Fletcher uses two words where Shakespeare would use one, he lavishes adjectives and particles, his old men and young women and clowns and heroes are all garrulous alike. He has tricks of style, too, pet tricks that he indulges in on all occasions. For instance, he loves a ringing repetition of words: —
She is fair and young and wealthy, Infinite wealthy, and as gracious, too,
In all her entertainments, as men report.
They are cozening mad, they are brawling mad, they are proud mad ;
They are all, all mad. I come from a world of mad women,
Mad as March hares: get ’em in chains, then deal with ’em.
There’s one that’s mad ; she seems well, but she is dog-mad.
Is she dead, dost think?
And certainly no English or other poet ever had a greater fancy for alliteration or got more cunning or more preposterous effects from it. See how it haunts the noble reply of Ordella to Thierry when he urges the terror of her fate and declares it to be full of fearful shadows: —
Or anything that’s merely ours and mortal;
We were begotten gods else. But those
Feeling but once the fires of nobler thoughts, Fly, like the shapes of clouds we form, to nothing.
But all these whims and dainty devices, unworthy of the serious dignity of high tragedy, are immensely effective in comedy; and of easy, vivid, brilliant comic dialogue Fletcher is certainly a master. In this, as in everything, his work is peculiarly adapted to immediate presentation before an audience. Critics have sought out many explanations of the fact that Fletcher’s plays were so much more frequently acted during the seventeenth century than Shakespeare’s. But this is the most obvious reason: that Fletcher always expresses himself with limpid clearness and intelligibility. His language, in the French phrase, gets over the footlights, instantly explains and emphasizes itself. It is difficult to imagine any average audience in any age following with pleasure the elaborate thought and compact expression of Shakespeare’s Ulysses. But a child can catch, without effort, the easy, flowing rhetoric which Fletcher gives to wise men and fools alike. It is rare that our author is even so subtle as in the beautiful line which Coleridge called one of the finest in the language: —
You are old and dim, sir,
And the shadow of the earth eclipsed your judgment.
Usually his figures, his descriptions, his narrative, his dialogues of passion and of reflection, all run on with the golden, sparkling clearness of a sunlit brook. One charming passage from the Elder Brother may serve to illustrate most of the points which we have been considering:—
I have forgot to eat and sleep with reading, And all my faculties turn into study:
’T is meat and sleep. What need I outward garments,
Our study of Fletcher’s style would not be complete without some comment on his verse, which is even more thoroughly characteristic than his diction. In verse, as in diction, Fletcher has a manner. An author has a style when he rules his expression and has it thoroughly under control. He has a manner when his expression rules him, and forces his thought into a fixed mould, no matter what its subject. Carlyle and Browning have a manner. Shakespeare is the most glorious example of the absolute possession of a style. Now Fletcher found out a few inventions in rhythm in his younger days and they pleased him so greatly that he clung to them till his death, in season and out of season, for every subject and every character.
Without insisting on technicalities too much, it is sufficient to say that the chief of these inventions was that of ending two thirds of the lines with an extra, unaccented syllable. In the above-quoted passage every line thus ends. This practice is common enough in the Continental languages, but Shakespeare and Milton use it very soberly. In serious writing it is apt to tend to monotony, as, for instance, in the sing-song blank verse of Schiller. And in Fletcher’s tragedies it is simply one more added to his long list of defects, as will be seen by comparing the Wolsey speech with any Shakespearean passage in the same play. But, here again, when we come to Fletcher’s comedies. the result is altogether different. In writing easy, natural dialogue, he combines the above-mentioned peculiarity with others which go far to relieve its monotony, shakes out the folds of his lines, as it were, adds extra syllables internally, throws the pauses in unexpected places, above all adapts rhythm to sense and emphasis in the most wonderfully varied and telling manner.
Just how far Fletcher was original in seeking these effects and how much he owed to Plautus and Aristophanes it would be difficult to say. Coleridge clearly recognized the Plautian affinity. Critics since his day have surprisingly neglected it. But it is certain that no dramatist of modern times has come anywhere near producing the comic effects of the Roman poet as Fletcher produces them. Shakespeare, when he wrote comic dialogue, turned to prose. So did most of his contemporaries. And the stiff Alexandrines of Molière are about as un-Plautian as can well be imagined.
It was a verse-quality like Fletcher’s that Goethe referred to when he said, in connection with Byron’s Don Juan, that “English poetry has developed a comic medium which we Germans are entirely without.” And, though Byron probably knew nothing of Fletcher and got his octave entirely from the Italians, the swift flight of the Byronic stanza has something very Fletcherian about it.
In fact, he’d had no singing education ;
A timeless, noteless, tuneless, ignorant fellow.
But the free movement of comic blank verse gives an opening for such things which no stanza could possibly afford, and Fletcher used that opening to the full. His verse dances, sparkles, quivers. It leaps like a serpent and lashes like a whip. Of course, his careless temper pushes everything to excess, and to crowd seventeen syllables into one ten-syllabled line is an excess undoubtedly.
Do they think/to car/ry it away/with a great band/made of bird-/pots ?
Yet even this monstrosity, read as I have marked it, rather enhances than trammels the contemptuous bearing of the thought; and it is just here that Fletcher’s cunning and his greatness lie, in his extraordinary faculty of emphasizing sense by sound. His lines speak themselves, they fling themselves right in the faces of an audience, they flutter through the theatre, drenched with laughter and glittering with gayety. They are simply made for dramatic declamation and nothing else; and if actors could be found to deliver them understandingly, I am convinced that critics would be astonished at the effect.
Would she were at home again, milking her father’s cows.
And blast, blast, blast, those buds of pride that paint you.
Kissing that fellow there, there in that corner ?
A handsome man, a wholesome man, a tough
A liberal man, a likely man, a man
Made up like Hercules.
It is difficult to find longer passages suitable for quotation, but at least I must give this edifying dispute between Don John and Don Frederick in The Chances, on the subject of conjuring. Don John inquires how devils may be raised: —
With spells, man.
The devil such an ass as people make him ?
Such a poor coxcomb, such a penny footpost ?
Compelled with cross and pile to run of errands ?
With Asteroth and Behemoth and Belphagor ?
Why should he shake at sounds that lives in a smith’s forge ?
Or, if he do —
Without all doubt, he does, John. JOHN
Why should not bilbo raise him, or a pair of bullions ?
They go as big as any; or an unshod car, When he goes tumble, tumble o’er the stones, Like Anacreon’s drunken verses, make him tremble ?
These make as fell a noise.
The movement of Fletcher’s verse cannot be better described than by his own glittering lines in Bonduca: —
Their gilt coats shine like dragons’ scales, their march
Like a rough, tumbling storm.
I have dwelt at much more length on Fletcher’s work than on that of Beaumont, first because critics almost universally praise Beaumont at Fletcher’s expense, and second because, though Beaumont was a higher and purer spirit and a more delicate artist, Fletcher was much more original, a more complex character, and on the whole stronger and more vigorous.
To enjoy Fletcher and to enter fully into his plays, one should be young, at any rate in spirit. In this respect he is like Scott. Sir Walter had a purity and dignity of moral tone which Fletcher never knew; and Fletcher was an Elizabethan in imagination. But they both loved the grace, the variety, the picturesqueness of romance; they both preferred to look at the outside of life; neither of them wished to dwell upon the heavy and the weary weight Of all this unintelligible world.
Such writers give us no help in passionate struggles or profound problems. No wise man would go to them for such a purpose. But if one wishes, with Lamb, “to scatter Nightmares,” to relax and let go, to throw off the burdens, to flood one’s soul with sunshine and sweet laughter and bright, immortal gayety, I do not know a surer resource than the comedies of Fletcher. And though he does not set up for a preacher or a framer of wise saws, there have been more foolish ones uttered than the remark of Cacafogo in Rule a Wife and Have a Wife: —
What need we fiddles, idle songs, and sack, When our own miseries can make us merry ?
- The Works of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Variorum Edition. London : George Bell & Sons and A. H. Bullen. (In course of publication.)↩
- The Works of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Edited by ARNOLD GLOVER and A. R. WALLER. Cambridge (England) : The University Press. (In course of publication.)↩
- The Maid’s Tragedy and Philaster. By FRANCIS BEAUMONT and JOHN FLETCHER. Edited by ASHLEY H. THORNDIKE, Ph. D. Belles Lettres Series, Section III. General Editor, GEORGE PEIRCE BAKER. Boston: D. C. Heath & Co. 1906.↩