The Woman Hater, pr. c. 1606 (with John Fletcher)
The Knight of the Burning Pestle, pr. 1607
The Coxcomb, pr. 1608-1610 (with Fletcher)
Philaster: Or, Love Lies A-Bleeding, pr. c. 1609 (with Fletcher)
The Captain, pr. 1609-1612 (with Fletcher)
The Maid’s Tragedy, pr. 1610-1611 (with Fletcher)
A King and No King, pr. 1611 (with Fletcher)
Cupid’s Revenge, pr. 1612 (with Fletcher)
Four Plays, or Moral Representations, in One, pr. 1612 (with Fletcher; commonly known as Four Plays in One)
The Masque of the Inner Temple and Grayes Inn, pr., pb. 1613 (with Fletcher)
The Scornful Lady, pr. 1615-1616 (with Fletcher)
The Tragedy of Thierry, King of France, and His Brother Theodoret, pr. 1617(?) (with Fletcher; commonly known as Thierry and Theodoret)
The Dramatic Works in the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon, pb. 1966-1996 (10 volumes, Fredson Bowers, editor)
Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, 1602
Ben Jonson is said to have submitted all of his plays to Francis Beaumont (BOH-muhnt) for his advice before producing them, and John Dryden’s mouthpiece Neander in Of Dramatic Poesie: An Essay (1668) thought that Beaumont’s plays were more perfect than William Shakespeare’s. The third poet to be buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, preceded only by Geoffrey Chaucer and Edmund Spenser, Beaumont was one of four children born to Judge Francis Beaumont and Anne Pierrepont Beaumont, a family closely related to the earls of Huntingdon. Educated at Oxford until 1598, Francis Beaumont followed in his father’s footsteps, as well as those of his brothers, and entered the Inner Temple in 1600. While there, he discovered a talent for poetry, in 1602 publishing Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, a mythological poem in the vein of Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander (1598).
In 1606, Beaumont, then twenty-one and independent of family support, began to write professionally, possibly because he had to make a living. From 1606 until 1612, he and John Fletcher composed approximately thirteen plays, either in collaboration or separately. These plays were written at first for the children’s theaters and then for the King’s Men at the Blackfriars Theater and the Globe. Beaumont’s association with Fletcher was not purely professional, however; according to John Aubrey, they shared not only their plays but also a house, their clothes, and a “wench.”
The collaboration of Beaumont and Fletcher ended in 1613 with Beaumont’s marriage to the heiress Ursula Isley and their move to her country estate in Kent. Beaumont probably continued to write poetry there until he suffered a stroke. When he died in 1616, Beaumont left behind one daughter, an unborn child, and a reputation that rivaled that of Shakespeare.
The esteem with which the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher were held for more than one hundred years after their deaths faded during the Romantic era. Their loss of popularity may stem partly from the nature of tragicomedy, the genre that they usually employed in the plays. Another reason may be related to what some critics have described as the plays’ superficial and often voyeuristic examination of abnormal psychology.
The first play in the canon, The Woman Hater, predicts the nature of their later work. Although a tragic ending is never seriously posed, Oriana heroically chooses death rather than submit to the threat to her virtue arranged by the misogynist Gondarino in this “Jonsonian” humours play. Sometimes called the best burlesque in English, Beaumont’s second play, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, is an anomaly in the canon. Self-consciously theatrical, it presents a group of citizens watching a play entitled “The London Merchant,” in which an apprentice aspires to wed the daughter of his bourgeois master. The citizens, George and Nell, confuse the theatrical illusion of the play with reality and send their apprentice Rafe, who eventually becomes the real hero of the play, onto the stage.
Cupid’s Revenge contains all the elements of their mature work, including a romantic setting, an outlandish plot, a combination of realistic and fantastic characters, and dialogue that ranges from what Dryden called the “conversation of gentlemen” to the histrionic. All these elements are evident in Beaumont and Fletcher’s first undisputed success, Philaster, which depicts a Hamlet-like character whose father has been deposed from the throne of Sicily by the king of Calabria. The work is a love triangle, and Philaster’s conviction that his wife Arathusa and his page Bellario have betrayed him further complicates the plot; all ends happily, however, when Bellario reveals herself as Euphrasia. Another revelation brings about the happy ending of A King and No King, in which King Arbaces, who has lusted after his sister Panthea, learns that he is the son of a commoner and was reared by the queen when she feared she was barren. Dryden called Arbaces the best characterization in any of Beaumont’s and Fletcher’s collaborations. Their only tragedy is a play that also examines the concept of the divine right of kings. The Maid’s Tragedy follows the machinations of the king to hide his affair with Evadne by marrying her to Amintor, the betrothed of the “maid” Aspatia. This play and their “pure” comedy The Coxcomb bear witness to the continual experimentation that characterized the collaboration of Beaumont and Fletcher.
The praise lavished on Beaumont and Fletcher by their contemporaries and near-contemporaries has been overshadowed by the criticism that followed. The appeal their work held for the twentieth century absurdist playwright Luigi Pirandello, in contrast, attests the value of their exploration of identity and role playing and the technical achievement of their manipulation of the audience.