General Characteristics.—Jonson’s plays show the touch of a conscientious artist with great intellectual ability. His vast erudition is constantly apparent. He is the satiric historian of his time, and he exhibits the follies and the humors of the age under a powerful lens. He is also the author of dainty lyrics, and forcible prose criticism.
Among the shortcomings of his plays, we may specially note lack of feeling and of universality. He fails to comprehend the nature of woman. He is not a sympathetic observer of manifold life, but presents only what is perceived through the frosted glass of intellect. His art is self-conscious. He defiantly opposed the romantic spirit of the age and weakened the drama by making it bear the burden of the classical unities.
Beaumont and Fletcher.—Next to Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson, the two most influential dramatists were Francis Beaumont (1584-1616) and John Fletcher (1579-1625). They are usually mentioned together because they collaborated in writing plays. Fletcher had the great advantage of working with Shakespeare in producing Henry VIII. Beaumont died nine years before Fletcher, and it is doubtful whether he collaborated with Fletcher in more than fifteen of the fifty plays published under their joint names.
Two of their greatest plays, Philaster and The Maid’s Tragedy, are probably their joint production. The Faithful Shepherdess and Bonduca are among the best of about eighteen plays supposed to have been written by Fletcher alone. After Beaumont’s death, Fletcher sometimes collaborated with other dramatists.
[Illustration: FRANCIS BEAUMONT.]
Almost all the so-called Beaumont and Fletcher plays are well constructed. These dramatists also have, in common with the majority of their associates, the ability to produce occasional passages of exquisite poetry. A character in Philaster speaks of death in lines that suggest Hamlet:—
“’Tis less than to be born;
a lasting sleep,
A quiet resting from all jealousy;
A thing we all pursue; I know besides
It is but giving over of a game
That must be lost.”
Beaumont and Fletcher’s work is noteworthy for its pictures of contemporary life and manners, for wealth of incident, rapidity of movement, and variety of characters.
Not long after the beginning of the seventeenth century there was a change in the taste of the patrons of the theater. Shakespeare declined in popularity. The playwrights tried to solve the problem of interesting audiences that wished only to be entertained. This attempt led to a change in dramatic methods.