They lived together on the Banke side

 

These fragments form a brief overview of the life of the playwright John Fletcher (1579-1625). Widely overlooked, and often cast into the shadows by the subsequent fame of Shakespeare and Jonson, Fletcher has become an unpopular and under-appreciated early modern dramatist. However, despite lacking the poetic genius of Shakespeare, Fletcher was nevertheless a major contributer to the Jacobean stage, and his plays remained in repertory well into the Restoration.

 

Fletcher was born in Rye, Sussex, in 1579, into a staunchly Protestant family. His grandfather had been a friend to John Foxe, the widely-admired martyrologist, and his father had attended the beheading of Mary, queen of Scots, and later became bishop of London.

 
Fletcher attended Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and received an MA in 1598.  Little is known of his life between leaving university and 1606, when he created The Woman Hater, his first play. No evidence exists that Fletcher, like Shakespeare and Jonson, acted on the stage before he began his writing career. His first plays were written for the Children of the Queens revels, but in 1608, when Shakespeare’s players, the King’s Company, acquired their second theatre at Blackfriars, both Fletcher, and his long-standing colleague Francis Beaumont, appear to have entered their service. After 1614 almost all Fletcher’s plays were written for Shakespeare’s company.

Fletcher and Beaumont collaborated throughout their lifetimes. Their first success was in Philaster, or Love Lies-a-bleeding, the title of which references their protagonist’s penchant for stabbing his lovers to death at critical moments.  This play, along with The Maid’s Tragedy (1609-10) and A King and No King (1611), was in regular performance right up to the closing of the theatres.

Fletcher’s first solo play, The Faithful Shepherdess, was a failure when it was first performed around 1608, and was in print soon afterwards, with a commendatory verse by Jonson which bemoans:

The wise, and many-headed Bench, that sits

Upon the Life, and Death of Playes …
… had, before
They saw it halfe, damnd thy whole play

However, the printed play was more successful, and served as a source for both Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and for Milton’s Comus.

No evidence has yet been uncovered to suggest Fletcher ever married. Indeed his close relationship with Beaumont may perhaps have been personal as well as professional.  Aubrey notes in his Brief Lives that ‘[t]here is a wonderfull consimility of phansey’ between the two playwrights, ‘which caused that dearnesse of friendship between them’, and adds that ‘[t]hey lived together on the Banke side, not far from the Playhouse, both batchelors; lay together … had one wench in the house between them, which they did so admire; the same cloathes and cloake, &c., betweene them’. The preface to the 1647 folio, written decades after the deaths of both playwrights, echoes this, emphasizing their interdependence and describing their collaboration in almost marital terms.
 

Francis Beaumont

 

Fletcher continued to write solo plays in addition to his collaborations, and in 1612-3 he collaborated on three plays for the King’s Company with Shakespeare—Cardenio, Henry VIII (All is True), and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Henry VIII appeared last in the ‘Histories’ section in the first Shakespeare folio of 1623 without acknowledging Fletcher, however according to his biographer, ‘authorship analysis suggests that he wrote approximately half [the play].’ It is easier to date Henry VIII because it was during a performance of this play in June 1613 when, after the misfiring of a cannon, the thatched roof of the first Globe caught fire and the theatre burnt down.  According to accounts of the fire, the play seems to have been known by a different title when first performed – All is TrueThe Two Noble Kinsmen was first published in quarto form in 1634 as ‘Written by … Mr John Fletcher, and Mr William Shakespeare’.

 
After 1613, Fletcher seems to have adopted Shakespeare’s role as chief playwright for the King’s Company and he continued to work as a successful playwright up until his death in 1625. According to Aubrey, ‘a knight of Norfolk (or Suffolke) invited him into the countrey. He stayed but to make himself a suite of cloathes, and while it was makeing, fell sick of the plague and dyed. This I had (1668) from his tayler, who is now a very old man, and clarke of St. Mary Overy’s’.

Fletcher’s biographer notes that, alongside ‘the Shakespeare and Jonson canons, the works of ‘Beaumont and Fletcher’ make up, at least as far as the Restoration and eighteenth-century stage was concerned, the great triumvirate of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. Yet the Fletcher canon remains, in Philip Finkelpearl’s words, “the vast unexplored Amazonian jungle of Jacobean drama”, still awaiting even a small percentage of the attention that has been devoted to the other two component canons of the triumvirate.’ He concludes, the ‘Beaumont and Fletcher canon offers the most substantial early modern challenge to Romantic assumptions about the centrality of individual creativity to the production of art’.
 
Source: Gordon McMullan, DNB

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