The younger son of a country justice, Beaumont was educated at Oxford and the Inner Temple before embarking on his brief but brilliant career as a playwright. Beaumont’s first two surviving plays, both comedies—The Woman Hater (perf. 1606; pub. 1607) and The Knight of the Burning Pestle (perf. ca. 1607; pub. 1613)—were his alone or substantially so. All his subsequent dramas, with the exception of the Masque of the Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn (perf. 1613; pub. 1613), were collaborations with John FLETCHER. The highly successful and influential partnership ended when Beaumont married an heiress and retired to the country around 1613.
Though modern critics consider The Knight of the Burning Pestle a masterpiece, it failed with its first audience who, according to the play’s publisher, missed “the privy mark of irony about it.” Sophisticated and satirical, The Knight spoofs popular dramatic modes: moral plays about prodigals, romantic comedies, and stories of citizen adventurers. As Beaumont’s metatheatrical comedy begins, an actor speaking the prologue of “The London Merchant” (a play within the play) is interrupted by a grocer and his wife (actors planted in the audience) who demand that the company rename and revise their comedy to feature their apprentice, Rafe, in “a huffing part.” “The London Merchant” thus becomes “The Knight of the Burning Pestle,” as Rafe’s Don Quixote-like exploits are ludicrously interwoven with the plot lines of the former. Much of the comedy derives from the persistent interruptions of the grocer and wife who comment freely on the action and improvise Rafe’s story to satisfy their vulgar theatrical taste. Although Beaumont’s satirical depiction of the disruptive citizens is designed to appeal to a social elite, the satire is affectionate: George and Nell are lively, warm and good natured, and Beaumont clearly shared their pleasure in popular theater. Beaumont gives the last word to Nell, who generously invites the whole audience to her house for “a pottle of wine and a pipe of tobacco.”
The tragicomedy Philaster; or, Love Lies a-Bleeding (perf. ca. 1609; pub. 1620), probably Beaumont’s first theatrically successful collaboration with Fletcher, adapts literary romance to the stage: the eponymous hero, rightful heir to the throne of Sicily, loves Arethusa, the virtuous daughter of the usurping king. Though betrothed to a foreign prince, she remains secretly faithful to Philaster. The play’s principal emotional and erotic complications emerge from Philaster’s groundless jealousy of his beautiful and devoted young page, Bellario. Believing her false, Philaster attempts to execute the willing Arethusa but only wounds her in the breast before he is providentially interrupted. With exemplary loyalty, however, she conceals his guilt. The pattern of erotic punishment and loyal response is repeated when Philaster basely wounds the sleeping Bellario, who then lies to protect his master. Stricken with remorse, and wounded himself, Philaster begs to die embracing his page: “lay me gently on his neck, that there/I may weep floods and breathe forth my spirit.” In the play’s emotional climax, bleeding hero clings to bleeding boy, as Philaster extols Bellario’s virtue and begs his forgiveness. Only in the final moments of act 5 does Bellario reveal that he is really a woman, who has disguised herself for love of Philaster. In contrast to William SHAKESPEARE’s use of the female-page motif in Twelfth Night, Beaumont and Fletcher conceal Bellario’s “true” identity from the audience until the denouement. While Shakespeare exploits the audience’s knowledge of Cesario/Viola’s sex for comic effect, Beaumont and Fletcher use the last-minute revelation of Bellario/Euphrasia’s sex primarily to heighten the pathos of her position in a love-triangle that will continue indefinitely at the play’s close.
In The Maid’s Tragedy (perf. ca. 1611; pub. 1619), Beaumont and Fletcher map a more complex network of erotic triangles in a more overtly political context. In the central triangle, the hero Amintor discovers his bride Evadne is the king’s mistress: as a loyal subject he must suffer the shame of cuckoldry without seeking redress. The impasse is broken when Evadne’s brother Melantius forces her at sword point to confess and repent her liaison. In the play’s most sensational scene, Evadne ties the arms of the sleeping king to his bed and reproaches him with her whoredom, before stabbing him to death. The playwrights contrast the sexually corrupt Evadne with the chaste Aspatia, formerly betrothed to Amintor. Like Bellario/Euphrasia in Philaster, Aspatia is a figure of pathos: masochistically devoted to the hero, she too disguises herself as a man and seeks death at his hands. Inadvertently killing her, Amintor makes physical his prior emotional abuse. Her extended death scene is interrupted by the suicide of Evadne, and followed by that of Amintor. Melantius, Amintor’s brother-in-law and best friend, underscores another triangle as he embraces the dying hero and weeping, vows to follow him into death.
Although The Knight of the Burning Pestle ensures Beaumont’s place in the latest anthologies of Renaissance drama, his collaborations with Fletcher were widely admired and imitated in the 17th c.
Bibliography Bliss, L., F. B. (1987); Clark, S., The Plays of B. and Fletcher (1994); Finkelpearl, P., Court and Country Politics in the Plays of B. and Fletcher (1990)
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