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BEAUMONT AND FLETCHER

sought shelter under the shadow of its voluminous folds. The best example of the school of Jonson to be found outside the ample range of his own work is The Scornful Lady, a comedy whose exceptional success and prolonged popularity must have been due rather to the broad effect of its forcible situations, its wealth and variety of ludicrous incidents, and the strong gross humour of its dialogue, than to any finer quality of style, invention or character. It is the only work of Beaumont and Fletcher which a critic who weighs the meaning of his words can admit to be as coarse as the coarsest work of Ben Jonson. They are prone, indeed, to indulge elsewhere in a wanton and exuberant licence of talk; and Fletcher, at least, is liable to confuse the shades of right and wrong, to deface or efface the boundary lines of good and evil, to stain the ermine of virtue and palliate the nakedness of vice with the same indecorous and incongruous laxity of handling. Often in mere haste to despatch the business of a play, to huddle up a catastrophe or throw out some particular scene into sharp and immediate relief, he will sacrifice all seemliness and consistency of character to the present aim of stage effect, and the instant impression of strong incident or audacious eloquence. His heroines are too apt to utter sentiments worthy of Diana in language unworthy of Doll Tearsheet. But in this play both style and sentiment are throughout on a lower level, the action and emotion are of a baser kind than usual; the precept of Aristotle and the practice of Jonson have been so carefully observed and exaggerated that it might almost be said to offer us in one or two places an imitation not merely of the sorrier but of the sorriest qualities of human nature; and full as it is of spontaneous power and humorous invention, the comedy extolled by the moral Steele (with just so much of reservation as permits him to deprecate the ridicule cast upon the clerical character) is certainly more offensive to artistic law and aesthetic judgment by the general and ingrained coarseness of its tone, than the tragi-comedy denounced by the immoral Dryden as exceeding in licence his own worst work and that of his fellow playwrights; an imputation, be it said in passing, as groundless as the protest pleaded on their behalf is impudent; for though we may hardly agree with the uncompromising panegyrist who commends that play in particular to the approval of “the austere scarlet” (remembering, perhaps, that Aristophanes was the chosen bedfellow of Chrysostom), there is at least no such offence against art or taste in the eccentricity of its situations or the daring of its dialogue. The buoyant and facile grace of Fletcher’s style carries him lightly across quagmires in which a heavier-footed poet, or one of slower tread, would have stuck fast, and come forth bemired to the knees. To Beaumont his stars had given as birthright the gifts of tragic pathos and passion, of tender power and broad strong humour; to Fletcher had been allotted a more fiery and fruitful force of invention, a more aerial ease and swiftness of action, a more various readiness and fulness of bright exuberant speech. The genius of Beaumont was deeper, sweeter, nobler than his elder’s; the genius of Fletcher more brilliant, more supple, more prodigal, and more voluble than his friend’s. Without a taint or a shadow on his fame of such imitative servility as marks and degrades the mere henchman or satellite of a stronger poet, Beaumont may fairly be said to hold of Shakespeare in his tragedy, in his comedy of Jonson; in each case rather as a kinsman than as a client, as an ally than as a follower: but the more special province of Fletcher was a land of his own discovering, where no later colonist has ever had power to settle or to share his reign. With the mixed or romantic comedy of Shakespeare it has nothing in common except the admixture or alternation of graver with lighter interest, of serious with humorous action. Nothing is here of his magic exaltation or charm of fairy empire. The rare and rash adventures of Fletcher on that forbidden track are too sure to end in pitiful and shameful failure. His crown of praise is to have created a wholly new and wholly delightful form of mixed comedy or dramatic romance, dealing merely with the humours and sentiments of men, their passions and their chances; to have woven of all these a web of emotion and event with such gay dexterity, to have blended his colours and combined his effects with such exquisite facility and swift light sureness of touch, that we may return once and again from those heights and depths of poetry to which access was forbidden him, ready as ever to enjoy as of old the fresh incomparable charm, the force and ease and grace of life, which fill and animate the radiant world of his romantic invention. Neither before him nor after do we find, in this his special field of fancy and of work, more than shadows or echoes of his coming or departing genius. Admirable as are his tragedies already mentioned, rich in splendid eloquence and strong in large grasp of character as is the Roman history of The False One, full of interest and vigour as is the better part of Rollo Duke of Normandy, and sublime in the loveliness of passion as is the one scene of perfect beauty and terror which crowns this latter tragedy, Fletcher may claim a yet higher and more special station among his great dramatic peers by right of his comic and romantic than by right of his tragic and historic plays. Even in these he is more a romantic than a tragic poet. The quality of his genius, never sombre or subtle or profound, bears him always towards fresh air and sunshine. His natural work is in a midday world of fearless boyish laughter and hardly bitter tears. There is always more of rainbow than of storm in his skies; their darkest shadow is but a tragic twilight. What with him is the noon of night would seem as sunshine on the stage of Ford or Webster. There is but one passage in all these noble plays which lifts us beyond a sense of the stage, which raises our admiration out of speech into silence, tempers and transfigures our emotion with a touch of awe. And this we owe to the genius of Beaumont, exalted for an instant to the very tone and manner of Shakespeare’s tragedy, when Amintor stands between the dead and the dying woman whom he has unwittingly slain with hand and tongue. The first few lines that drop from his stricken lips are probably the only verses of Beaumont or Fletcher which might pass for Shakespeare’s even with a good judge of style—

“This earth of mine doth tremble,” &c.

But in Fletcher’s tragedy, however we may be thrilled and kindled with high contagious excitement, we are never awed into dumb delight or dread, never pierced with any sense of terror or pity too deep or even deep enough for tears. Even his Brunhalts and Martias can hardly persuade us to forget for the moment that “they do but jest, poison in jest.” A critic bitten with the love of classification might divide those plays of Fletcher usually ranked together as comedies into three kinds: the first he would class under the head of pure comedy, the next of heroic or romantic drama, the third of mixed comedy and romance; in this, the last and most delightful division of the poet’s work the special qualities of the two former kinds being equally blended and delicately harmonized. The most perfect and triumphant examples of this class are The Spanish Curate, Monsieur Thomas, The Custom of the Country, and The Elder Brother. Next to these and not too far below them, we may put The Little French Lawyer (a play which in its broad conception of a single eccentric humour suggests the collaboration of Beaumont and the influence of Jonson, but in style and execution throughout is perfect Fletcher), The Humorous Lieutenant (on which an almost identical verdict might be passed), Women Pleased, Beggars’ Bush, and perhaps we might add The Fair Maid of the Inn; in most if not in all of which the balance of exultant and living humour with serious poetic interest of a noble and various kind is held with even hand and the skill of a natural master. In pure comedy Rule a Wife and have a Wife is the acknowledged and consummate masterpiece of Fletcher. Next to it we might class, for comic spirit and force of character, Wit without Money, The Wildgoose Chase, The Chances, and The Noble Gentleman, a broad poetic farce to whose overflowing fun and masterdom of extravagance no critic has ever done justice but Leigh Hunt, who has ventured, not without reason, to match its joyous and preposterous audacities of superlative and sovereign foolery with the more sharp-edged satire and practical merriment of King and No King, where the keen prosaic humour of Bessus and his swordsmen is as typical of the comic style in which Beaumont had been trained up under Ben Jonson as the high interest and graduated action of the