Academic journal article Comparative Drama

The Tragicomic Moment: Republicanism in Beaumont and Fletcher's Philaster

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

The Tragicomic Moment: Republicanism in Beaumont and Fletcher's Philaster

Article excerpt

Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher inaugurated their collaboration on a series of popular tragicomedies with their play, Philaster, Or Love Lies a-Bleeding, a success soon followed by A King and No King. (1) While their tragicomedies were remarkably popular with audiences and influential on other playwrights throughout the seventeenth century, the burgeoning genre of tragicomedy was also maligned as an aesthetically impure form of drama for its mingling of comedy and tragedy, seemingly against the decorum of neoclassical poetics. This prejudice against Fletcherian tragicomedy is visible in modern critical history as well, though for different reasons: the notion that the genre supports royalist politics has been a commonplace at least since Coleridge's lectures and notes on Shakespeare, in which he indicts Beaumont and Fletcher for their presumed "ultra-royalism," describing them as "the most servile jure divino royalist" in their political opinions, and as "high-flying, passive-obedience, Tories" whose royalist ideology contrasts badly with Shakespeare's serene adherence to the "permanent politics of human nature." (2) Coleridge's judgment on Beaumont and Fletcher is characteristic of critical discourse on tragicomedy, and Fletcherian drama in particular, that takes the conciliatory endings of the genre as support for its claims, since these endings seem to affirm, rather than to trouble, monarchical and absolutist authority. (3) Such critics as Franco Moretti have argued that early modern tragedy tends to subvert absolutist monarchy by staging the deaths of kings. (4) But can we find a similarly subversive undercurrent in tragicomedy and in Beaumont and Fletcher? Specifically, can we identify a republican politics in a genre and among authors typically considered antithetical to republican concerns?

If we look at the theoretical formulations of Giovanni Battista Guarini in his 1601 Compendium of Tragicomic Poetry, which Fletcher almost certainly had read and taken as a model for his 1609 preface to The Faithful Shepherdess (itself indebted to Guarini's II Pastor Fido), we can locate surprising political possibilities for tragicomedy. In defending his own dramatic practice against critics who upheld the generic purity of tragedy and comedy as defined by Aristotle, Guarini argues for the superior modernity of tragicomedy. The norms of classical tragedy could no longer be binding, Guarini claims, for "the precepts of our most holy religion, which teaches us with the word of the gospel" had rendered the "horrible and savage spectacles" of tragedy "superfluous" for contemporary Christian audiences; meanwhile, comedy had been rendered "tedious" by the mediocrity of "mercenary and sordid persons," requiring tragicomic playwrights, "following the steps of Menander and Terence," to restore seriousness to comedy by combining "with the pleasing parts of comedy those parts of tragedy that can suitably accompany comic scenes to such an extent that they strive for the purgation of sadness." (5) To show that such a mingling of tragic and comic elements could produce a new form superior to either tragedy or comedy in their pure forms, Guarini cites examples of biological and chemical mixtures in nature and, more importantly, the political example of the republic in "human relations": (6)

   Does not Aristotle say that tragedy is made up of persons of high
   rank and comedy of men of the people? Let us give an example of men
   of rank and men of the people. The republic is such a thing. I do
   not say this in respect to its material, for every city is of
   necessity composed of nobles and those who are not noble, of rich
   and poor, ... but I speak of the forms that spring from the
   diversity of these two, that is, the power of the few and the power
   of the masses. Are not these two Species of government very
   different among themselves? If we believe Aristotle, or even pure
   reason, there is no doubt of it; yet the Philosopher puts them
   together and makes of them the mixture of the republic. … 
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