John Fletcher (1579 – 1625) was a Jacobean playwright, and indisputably one of the most accomplished and influential playwrights of the seventeenth century. Fletcher began his career as an apprentice of Shakespeare, collaborating with him on a number of plays. Upon Shakespeare's death, Fletcher became the principal playwright for Shakespeare's company, the King's Men. Both during his lifetime and in the early Restoration period, Fletcher's fame rivaled that of Shakespeare himself.
Although Fletcher has been largely forgotten since then, some critics have in recent years praised Fletcher as a powerful artist in his own right. In particular, Fletcher is considered to be one of the most important authors of tragic comedy in all of seventeenth century drama; his plays, with their tendency to combine light comic elements with tragedy, would help to make the tragicomedy the most popular form of drama of the latter Jacobean era. Fletcher remains an important transitional figure between the Elizabethan popular tradition and the popular drama of the Restoration.
Fletcher was born in December 1579 (baptized December 20), in Rye, Sussex, and died of the plague in August 1625 (buried August 29, in St. Saviour's, Southwark). His father, Richard, was an ambitious and successful cleric who was, in turn, Dean of Peterborough, Bishop of Bristol, Bishop of Worcester, and Bishop of London (shortly before his death) as well as chaplain to Queen Elizabeth. Richard fell out of favor with the Queen and died in massive debt shortly after John Fletcher's birth.
The upbringing of Fletcher and his seven siblings was entrusted to his paternal uncle, Giles Fletcher, a poet and minor official. Fletcher appears to have entered Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University in 1591, at the age of eleven. It is not certain that he took a degree, but evidence suggests that he was preparing for a career in the church. Little is known about his time at college, but he evidently followed the same path previously trod by the University wits before him, from Cambridge to the burgeoning commercial theater of London. In 1606, he began to appear as an author for the Children of the Queen's Revels, then performing at the Blackfriars Theatre. Commendatory verses by Richard Brome in Beaumont, and Fletcher's 1647 folio place Fletcher in the company of Ben Jonson; a comment of Jonson's to Drummond corroborates this claim, although it is not known when this friendship began. At the beginning of his career, his most important association was with Francis Beaumont. The two wrote together for close to a decade, first for the Children and then for the King's Men.
By this time, Fletcher had moved into a closer association with the King's Men. He is commonly assumed to have collaborated with Shakespeare on Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and the lost Cardenio; a play he wrote singly around this time, The Tamer Tamed, is a sequel to The Taming of the Shrew. After Shakespeare's death, Fletcher appears to have entered into an exclusive arrangement with the King's Men similar to the one Shakespeare had; Fletcher wrote exclusively for that company between the death of Shakespeare and his own death nine years later. He never lost his habit of collaboration, working with Nathan Field and later with Philip Massinger, who succeeded him as house playwright for the King's Men. His popularity continued unabated throughout his life; during the winter of 1621, three of his plays were performed at court. He died in 1625, apparently of the plague. He seems to have been buried in what is now Southwark Cathedral, although the precise location is not known.
His mastery is most notable in two dramatic types, tragicomedy and comedy of manners, both of which exerted a pervasive influence on dramatists in the reign of Charles I and during the Restoration.
Fletcher's early career was marked by one significant failure, The Faithful Shepherdess, his adaptation of Giovanni Battista Guarini's Il Pastor Fido, which was performed by the Blackfriars Children in 1608. In the preface to the printed edition of his play, Fletcher explained the failure as due to his audience's faulty expectations. They expected a pastoral tragicomedy to feature dances, comedy, and murder, with the shepherds presented in conventional stereotypes. Fletcher's preface in defense of his play is best known for its pithy definition of tragicomedy: "A tragicomedy is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants [i.e., lacks] deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy; yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy." A comedy, he went on to say, must be "a representation of familiar people," and the preface is critical of drama which would feature characters whose action violates nature.
In that case, Fletcher appears to have been developing a new style faster than audiences could comprehend. By 1609, however, he had found his stride. With Beaumont, he wrote Philaster, which became a hit for the King's Men and began a profitable connection between Fletcher and that company. Philaster appears also to have initiated a vogue for tragicomedy; Fletcher's influence has been credited with inspiring some features of Shakespeare's late romances (Kirsch, 288-90), and his influence on the tragicomic work of other playwrights is even more marked. By the middle of the 1610s, Fletcher's plays had achieved a popularity that rivalled Shakespeare's and which cemented the preeminence of the King's Men in Jacobean London. After Beaumont's retirement and early death in 1616, Fletcher continued working, both singly and in collaboration, until his death 1625. By that time, he had produced, or had been credited with, close to fifty plays. This body of work remained a major part of the King's Men's repertory until the closing of the theaters in 1642.
During the Commonwealth, many of the playwright's best-known scenes were kept alive as drolls, the brief performances devised to satisfy the taste for plays while the theaters were suppressed. At the re-opening of the theaters in 1660, the plays in the Fletcher canon, in original form or revised, were by far the most common fare on the English stage. The most frequently revived plays suggest the developing taste for comedies of manners, perhaps in response to the struggles of the Puritan era. Among the tragedies, The Maid's Tragedy and, especially, Rollo Duke of Normandy held the stage. Four tragicomedies (A King and No King, The Humorous Lieutenant, Philaster, and The Island Princess) were popular, perhaps in part for their similarity to and foreshadowing of heroic drama. Four comedies (Rule a Wife And Have a Wife, The Chances, The Beggar's Bush, and especially The Scornful Lady) were also popular.
Yet the popularity of these plays relative to those of Shakespeare and to new productions steadily eroded. By around 1710, Shakespeare's plays were more frequently performed, and the rest of the century saw a steady erosion in performance of Fletcher's plays. By 1784, Thomas Davies asserted that only Rule a Wife and The Chances were still current on stage; a generation later, Alexander Dyce mentioned only The Chances.
Since then, Fletcher has increasingly become a subject only for occasional revivals and for specialists.
Fletcher's canon presents unusual difficulties of attribution. He collaborated regularly and widely, most often with Beaumont and Massinger but also with Nathaniel Field, Shakespeare, and others. Some of his early collaborations with Beaumont were later revised by Massinger, adding another layer of complexity to unravel. Fortunately for scholars and students of English literature, Fletcher also had highly distinctive mannerisms in his creative efforts; his texts reveal a range of peculiarities that effectively identify his presence. He frequently uses "ye" instead of "you," at rates sometimes approaching 50 percent; he frequently employs "'em" for "them," along with a set of other particular preferences in contractions; he adds a sixth stressed syllable to a standard pentameter verse line—most often "sir" but also "too" or "still" or "next;" he has various other specific habits and preferences. The detection of this pattern, this personal Fletcherian textual profile, has allowed researchers to penetrate the confusions of the Fletcher canon with good success—and has in turn encouraged the use of similar techniques more broadly in the study of literature.
Careful bibliography has established the authors of each play with some degree of certainty. Determination of the exact shares of each writer (for instance by Cyrus Hoy) in particular plays is ongoing, based on patterns of textual and linguistic preferences, stylistic grounds, and idiosyncrasies of spelling.
The list that follows gives a consensus verdict (at least a tentative one) on the authorship of the plays in Fletcher's canon, with likeliest dates of autorship, dates of first publication, and dates of licensing by the Master of the Revels, where available.
With Francis Beaumont:
With Beaumont and Massinger:
With Massinger and Field:
With Middleton and Rowley:
With Massinger, Jonson, and Chapman:
All links retrieved May 16, 2018.
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