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Beaumont, Francis (c. 1585–1616) - BIOGRAPHY, MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES, CRITICAL RECEPTION

beaumont’s plays court family

Perhaps the most memorable description of Francis Beaumont’s life is related in Aubrey’s Brief Lives ; Beaumont and his dramatic collaborator, John Fletcher, “lived together on the Banke side, not far from the Play-house, both batchelors: lay together; had one wench in the house betweene them, which they did so admire; the same cloathes and cloake, &c., betweene them.” Their celebrated partnership lasted less than a decade, after which Beaumont forsook both the shared wench and house, as well as the writing of plays, for marriage to Ursula Isley in 1613. At his death three years later, he joined Chaucer and Spenser* as the third to be buried in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey. The considerable prestige as poet and playwright that he enjoyed in his adult life continued throughout the seventeenth century, although it diminished after unsympathetic treatment by more recent critics.

Beaumont was the third son born to one branch of a prominent Leicestershire family, and he was related both to the earls of Huntington as well as to the Villiers, the family of King James’* later favorite, the duke of Buckingham. Beaumont’s family was also well established at the Inner Temple, which Francis entered in 1600 after a short residency at Broadgates Hall (Pembroke College), Oxford. His first known poem, “Salmacis and Hermaphroditus,” was published at age seventeen. Contemporary recollections and another poem attributed to Beaumont refer to his membership in a group of London’s men of letters, including Fletcher* and Jonson,* who frequented the Mermaid tavern. Scholarly consensus now ascribes The Knight of the Burning Pestle to Beaumont as his first play, which was unpopularly received at its premiere in 1607. Shortly after, however, he was teamed with John Fletcher, with whom he wrote several highly successful plays. At the height of their popularity, they were celebrated by contemporary poets as Olympians of the London stage, compared favorably with Shakespeare* and frequently performed at court. Beaumont’s early retirement from dramatic success has traditionally been ascribed to his marriage to an heiress, but new research by Philip J. Finkelpearl has demonstrated that in the same year, 1613, Beaumont suffered a stroke, which prevented him from writing and eventually claimed his life.

MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

Beaumont’s position in London society during his productive years, 1602– 13, as the younger son of a well-connected but penalized, recusant family; his continuation of the family tradition at the Inns of Court; his poetic accomplishments as a younger colleague of Shakespeare in the King’s Men; and the importance of his literary circle naturally focus examination upon how these might have influenced his choice of themes. Beaumont’s elegies are unconventional if not offensive in the extreme; the four dedicated to women display a sometimes perverse or morbid view of female sexuality, which can also be found in women characters in his plays. Issues of female chastity (or the appearance of it) figure frequently and somewhat cynically in his work. By extension, men’s relationships with women are troubled and often violent. These turbulent domestic or sexual relationships in the plays find parallels with a political reality of courtly corruption and self-delusion. Many critics have highlighted the consequent unease between tone and genre that characterizes his poetry. In drama, this has led to consideration of Beaumont and Fletcher’s particular use of tragicomedy, where the troubled romance between a heterosexual couple is finally resolved in conjunction with a promise of political renewal. The sense of decadence, which has been fully explored elsewhere in Jacobean tragedy, pervades Beaumont and Fletcher’s comedies as well, evoking a seriocomic, dark view of noble character tainted by social and political imperatives.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

The critical fortunes of Beaumont have been inextricably linked with those of Fletcher. Indeed, in many cases the precise assignment of authorship of several passages is still disputed. Together and separately, Beaumont and his collaborator have traditionally been regarded as courtier-poets, inferior to Shakespeare. Critics see their works as so popular because they reflect the concerns of wealthy and powerful court interests. As John Danby says, their “work is brilliantly opportunistic. They are quick to catch and reflect back the lights of their social and literary environment” (161). This majority view has been challenged recently by Philip J. Finkelpearl, who explores the phenomenon of the dramatists’ “precipitous” decline in popularity and argues that their work reveals “that political criticism of court and king was a central urge in the most important plays of Beaumont and Fletcher” ( Court and Country Politics , 7) and that their “plays dramatize a moral vacuum and a hollow center…. They are plays that comment on the decadence of the age” (6).

Beaumont’s share in the collaboration and his individual works, then, are frequently part of the analysis of the partnership. Danby finds Beaumont’s unaided work adolescent: “Beaumont’s plays, in fact, have no developing revelations, crowded as they are with surprises and fresh turns…a curious sense, typical of decadence, of something at once more primitive and more sophisticated than normal” (172). Lee Bliss also finds adolescent concerns but sees their psychological weight: “Beaumont and Fletcher’s subject is idealistic adolescence, trembling on the brink of adult commitment and decisive action and youth’s first confrontation with experience and disillusionment” (153). Finkel-pearl finds Beaumont more attractive, especially in his verse epistle on the Mermaid Tavern: “Technically, the tension between the seeming freedom and formal control is masterful. Through it Beaumont conveys another kind of wit that appears in his best dramatic poetry” ( Court , 46).

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