The Multiple Plot in Fletcherian Tragicomedies
Bingham, Mark E., Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
Eugene Waith's study of the tragicomedy of Beaumont and Fletcher (1952) has stood for years as the authoritative word on the subject.(1) Indeed, for some time few other words were spent on the work of these collaborators: in his 1981 survey of "Recent Studies in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama," Alexander Leggatt could call Beaumont and Fletcher "shadowy presences," just beginning "to haunt the journals."(2) More recently, the collaborators have received increasing attention, most of it still building on Waith's foundation to refine a definition of Fletcherian tragicomedy, some of it reacting against his approach, which traces the genre's roots to the traditions of Juvenalian satire and Arcadian romance, as well as to the emphasis in Elizabethan rhetorical education on the Senecan declamation. Some recent critics have taken up specific themes, with a view to clarifying the playwrights' attitudes and intentions;(3) others have found evidence of authorial intention in the playwrights' handling of source material, particularly their borrowings from Shakespeare.(4) Still others have looked at the tragicomedies through modern spectacles to discover the potential they offer for ironic or radical readings.(5)
The central preoccupation, however, of critics writing on Beaumont and Fletcher continues to be Waith's--to define their distinctive brand of tragicomedy. For Michael Neill, its distinction lies in its dramatization of "skeptical paradox";(6) Nicholas F. Radel finds its complex effect the product of a rhetorical artifice that simultaneously intensifies the plays' emotional impact and, by reducing the illusion of reality, denies full tragic potential.(7) In this essay I intend to offer yet another approach to the description of Fletcherian tragicomedy, an approach through its plot structures. In his discussion of The Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama, Richard Levin observes that "the multiple plot is apparently more effective in comedy than in tragedy," and he identifies as one explanation that "the tragic effect is by its very nature more homogeneous and more concentrated than that of comedy."(8) I would like to use plays of the Beaumont and Fletcher canon, first to illustrate the inherent relationship of the multiple plot to these two genres and then to investigate the use to which Beaumont and Fletcher put the multiple plot in tragicomedy.(9)
For the purpose of illustration, I have chosen a single tragedy and a single comedy. These I will treat without apology as representative, which need mean nothing more in the present context than that they are easy to classify by genre. The Maid's Tragedy, written by Beaumont and Fletcher about 1610, will serve to illustrate one genre; The Wild-Goose Chase, written by Fletcher alone and apparently first produced in 1621, will illustrate the other.(10)
The plot of The Maid's Tragedy is intricate, but all the action relates directly to the problem of Amintor: his discovery that his marriage to Evadne has been arranged by the king as a cover for his own illicit relationship with her. The hero's dilemma consists in the tension between two types of honor, personal and political, between the sanctity of marriage vows and the duty one owes his sovereign. Amintor chooses consistently to remain loyal to the king. The tension has arisen even before the opening of the play: Amintor has acceded to the king's demand that he break his commitment to Aspatia and marry the king's choice for him, Evadne. The central crisis, which arises in II.i, magnifies this tension: Amintor, alone with his bride on their wedding night, learns that she is the king's mistress. Both here and in III.i when the king himself confronts Amintor with the purpose behind the arrangement, his sense of duty to the king prevails. Again, when his dear friend (and Evadne's brother) Melantius constrains him in III.ii to explain his distress, Amintor has to weigh the competing claims of personal and political honor before he can persuade Melantius (for so he thinks he has) not to take revenge on the king. In IV.ii their roles have reversed. Melantius, to protect both his friend and his own planned revenge, dissuades Amintor from attacking the king. Once again, though Amintor's sense of duty has seemed about to yield, it is reestablished. And finally, when Evadne has carried out her brother's commission to restore honor to her own name and that of her family by killing the king, Amintor reasserts as his supreme value duty to the monarch:
Why thou has raisd up mischiefe to his height And found one, to out-name thy other faults, Thou hast no intermission of thy sinnes, But all thy life is a continued ill, Blacke is thy coulor now, disease thy nature. Joy to Amintor? thou has toucht a life The very name of which had power to chaine Up all my rage, and calme my wildest wrongs.
Melantius's action, not Amintor's, sets off the sequence of deaths which constitutes the denouement. For Melantius, his family honor (the king's mistress is his sister) and friendship ("The name of friend," he tells Amintor, "is more then family, / Or all the world besides" |III.ii.168-69~) overpower his loyalty to the king. He confronts Evadne and extracts her vow to kill the king. She then carries out her oath, reports the murder to Amintor, and, when he repudiates her, kills herself. But Melantius's action is not separate from the main plot. It is a response to Amintor's dilemma and an attempt to resolve that dilemma. It may threaten to produce a somewhat unfocused sense of the tragic hero as protagonist for audience members preoccupied with literary definitions. Still, the role of Melantius constitutes simply a complication within the central line of action.
Another issue in the play involves Aspatia. Her story, the least satisfactory dimension of the plot, involves little more than an initial explanation that she has been cast off, a few scenes in which she and her father Calianax brood over her mistreatment, and finally her suicide, which she accomplishes by putting on pants and challenging Amintor. This action also gives the impression not of a separate or separable subplot, but of a component (imperfectly integrated) of the main plot--another dimension of Amintor's dilemma.
Waith's evaluation of "the artistic success of the play," which he describes as "considerable without being complete," focuses on the issue of homogeneity raised by Levin: "Though no one idea informs the tragedy and no one group of images dominates the poetry; though the characters are altered to fit the situations and the situations do not evolve by an inevitable logic, the play is remarkably homogeneous. All the component elements obviously belong together."(11) The unrelenting emotional tension of the play is sustained through a series of confrontations all participating in the central dilemma, all hands as it were pulling at one taut rope, until it snaps and sends the participants tumbling.(12)
With this tightness of design we can contrast the diffuse progress of a nevertheless very well unified comedy, The Wild-Goose Chase. The main plot of this play traces the attempts of Oriana (finally successful, of course) to ensnare the wild Mirabell. The subplot traces the mutual pursuits of two other couples, Pinac and Lylia-Biancha, and Bellure and Rosalura--the two men, companions of Mirabell, and the women, daughters of Nantolet. The two plots are carefully and effectively integrated. We will discuss the means of integration in the terms set out by Levin, terms he draws from Aristotle's "four causes."(13) The first, the "material" mode, describes the static …
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Publication information: Article title: The Multiple Plot in Fletcherian Tragicomedies. Contributors: Bingham, Mark E. - Author. Journal title: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Volume: 33. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 1993. Page number: 405+. © 1999 Rice University. COPYRIGHT 1993 Gale Group.
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