The Reinvention of John Fletcher as Caroline Court Playwright

by Meg Powers Livingston

paper delivered at the 1999 GEMCS Conference in Coral Gables, Florida

panel titled “Carolina Drama: The Work of Play”

 

Although John Fletcher might seem an unusual choice for inclusion in a panel on Caroline drama, his plays—both solo and collaborative—were the most frequently performed of all playwrights’ throughout the period 1625-1642, besting even Shakespeare AND the playwrights who were creating new material in the period.  Caroline drama in general is often characterized as nostalgic, as some of the other panelists today will discuss, but the preference for Fletcher seems to go beyond yearnings for simpler or better times.  Rather than using the term “nostalgic”, I would argue that much Caroline drama is fascinated with the possibilities presented in adapting older material to a new context, and here, I would claim, is where the period’s interest in Fletcher is rooted.

 

In large part, Fletcher’s popularity in the Caroline era stems from the attention of Queen Henrietta Maria and her courtly circle.  Critical study of Henrietta Maria’s interest in Fletcher’s plays has focused primarily on the court revival of The Faithful Shepherdess in 1634, and much has been made of the queen’s attempts to use this play to help create a cult of platonic love that would foster an idealized view of women.  The queen’s interest in Fletcher predates this revival, however, as demonstrated by the 1633 court performances of The Woman’s Prize and The Loyal Subject, solo plays written by Fletcher in 1611 and 1618, respectively.  But why these two plays?  As early as 1626, Henrietta Maria was vocally supporting unpopular policy decisions and becoming involved in highly controversial activities.  After Buckingham’s assassination in 1628, she became the king’s primary confidant.  By 1633, she was secure in her husband’s affections, she had produced the necessary two sons, and she was angling for greater visibility and more authority to occupy what most historians call a “quick and lively mind.”  But her efforts met with responses ranging from outright contempt and hostility to thinly disguised anxiety. 

 

Within this context, why might Henrietta Maria have been interested in bringing The Woman’s Prize and The Loyal Subject to court in 1633?   I think one answer lies in the plays’ representation of women.  Both plays feature strong women who seek greater social and political power than their traditional circumscribed roles allow.  The Woman’s Prize is a sequel to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (in fact, the two plays were acted back to back at court in 1633).  In Fletcher’s play, Petruchio is a widower and has just remarried, to a young woman named Maria.  As a result of his first marriage to Kate, Petruchio now has a reputation for brutal insistence on absolute control of female behavior.  Because of his reputation, the previously-docile Maria barricades herself after the wedding ceremony, vowing to allow the consummation of the marriage only after Petruchio has signed a contract guaranteeing her absolute safety from physical retaliation and the freedom to govern her own behavior, among other demands.  Maria’s act of defiance becomes a catalyst for similar actions throughout London and the English countryside, with woman flooding into the city to join the barricade in her support.  Even after Petruchio signs the contract, Maria still refuses to consummate the marriage until he can convince her that his attitude has changed.  Finally Petruchio renounces his controlling ways and recognizes the superior intellectual capacities of his new wife, which seems to set up for the couple an equal partnership based on mutual respect. 

 

In The Loyal Subject, Olimpia, the duke’s sister, also seeks greater respect.  She actively advises the duke and attempts to counteract the influence of his malicious counsellor Boroskie.  Whereas Boroskie encourages the young ruler to govern absolutely and without regard to input from his other advisers, Olimpia tries to heal her brother’s growing estrangement from his nobles and often reminds him of his responsibility to act with justice for the good of the kingdom.  But she is usually ignored by the duke and is even ordered to desist.  Later in the play, however, after circumstances have forced the duke to see the error of his ways, Olimpia acts as her brother’s emissary to the retired general Archas—the “loyal subject” of the play’s title.  She is given the responsibility of convincing Archas to assist the duke in rescuing the kingdom from an invading army even though the duke has recently abused, imprisoned, and tortured Archas; she succeeds in her persuasion, and Archas saves the kingdom.  Without Olimpia working as mediator and ambassador, the play’s end would needs have been tragic rather than tragicomic, and her role as intermediary is made manifest by the flurry of wedding plans that end the play:  the duke is to marry the daughter of Archas and Olimpia is to marry his son, cementing the union of the two houses.  In bringing these two plays to court, Henrietta Maria seems interested in staging models of female-male partnership to reinforce her own claims to authority, both as her husband’s counsellor and as a policy maker in her own right.  In John Fletcher, she found a playwright whose works could assist her in the staging of positive representations of strong women, and she put his plays to work in the service of her particular agenda.

 

Before continuing my analysis of these 1633 revivals, however, I would like to discuss briefly what happened fourteen years later in 1647, because for generations of literary critics going back to Coleridge, that date more than any other solidified the link between Fletcher and Caroline drama, or more specifically between Fletcher and Cavalier drama.  In 1647, Humphrey Moseley published a folio of works in the Beaumont and Fletcher canon, the first time since 1623 that such a volume had honored a playwright, or in this case collaborating playwrights.  Lois Potter and a few other scholars have discussed Moseley’s background as a staunch royalist in relation to his publication of John Milton’s early poems in 1645.  These scholars argue that Moseley published Milton’s poems in order to appropriate his works in some way, to undermine Milton’s reputation as a radical intellectual on the side of the parliamentary forces. 

 

I would argue that a similar agenda informed Moseley’s publication of Fletcher’s works in 1647.  Martin Butler points out that Moseley prefaced the folio (and here I am quoting from Butler),

 

“with 37 sets of commendatory verses, many solicited from prominent Cavaliers, [. . .].  These [prefaces] were conscious acts of propaganda.  The verses were arranged to give prominence to the well-known loyalists, and several versifiers [. . .] can be shown to have been too young to have known the theatres before they closed in 1642, and they speak of ‘reading’ rather than ‘seeing’ the plays.  They reflect the atmosphere of Civil War Oxford, not peace-time London.”

 

Other evidence supports Butler’s argument that the 1647 folio was a conscious act of propaganda.  Moseley titled the volume Comedies and Tragedies, written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Gentlemen, Never Printed Before, and he omits the plays that had already appeared in quarto.  In making this decision, Moseley excluded plays like The Maid’s Tragedy, which stages a regicide, and Philaster, in which a popular rebellion saves the hero.  Furthermore, the plays that do appear in the collection often show signs of censorship.  To cite just one example, The Honest Man’s Fortune, which also survives as a manuscript in the Dyce collection, was subjected to an editing process just prior to its inclusion in the folio that removes several passages which reflect unfavorably on the play’s highest-ranking nobleman.

         

To Butler’s point about the ages of the folio versifiers, I would add that all but a few were too young to have known Fletcher personally, since he had died in 1625, and even fewer could have known Beaumont, who died in 1616.  They were also too young to have seen the plays when first performed by the King’s Men; the productions with which they were familiar, if they had seen any productions at all, would have been revivals performed in the 1630s at Blackfriars or more likely at court.  Evidence suggests that these productions adapted the plays, so that the versions staged in the 1630s were significantly different from the plays’ original texts.  And so I arrive back at the 1633 revivals of The Woman’s Prize and The Loyal Subject.

 

Henry Herbert, the Jacobean/Caroline Master of the Revels, indicates in his office record book that he censored both plays in 1633 when the King’s Men first sought to revive them for performance at Blackfriars, more than six weeks before the plays appeared at court.  His discussion of The Loyal Subject says only that “I did peruse, and with some reformations allowed of [licensed]” (Bawcutt).  His notes on The Woman’s Prize, however, are quite extensive, and the survival of a manuscript copy of the play allows us to compare the censored version (which is what appears in the 1647 folio) with the uncensored manuscript.  In general, Herbert censored the more violent, war-like activities of the rebelling women in the play, as well as references to the extreme anxiety felt by the play’s male characters in the face of the female rebellion.  These and similar cuts reduce the play to a simple farce, one that lacks any subversive threat.  The censored version of the play presents Maria as above the fray and places more focus on her non-physical battle of wits with Petruchio, so she in particular becomes less overtly threatening.  Because The Loyal Subject exists only in the version provided by the folio, we cannot know what the censor’s “reformations” were or how they might have changed the play, but Olimpia is remarkably docile for a Fletcher heroine and her characterization might have undergone a shift similar to Maria’s.

 

Whether the Queen or one of her circle lay behind the “reformation” of these two plays is unknown, but the resulting censorship created the perfect heroines—strong, still appealing, but not threatening—for furthering Henrietta Maria’s objectives within her husband’s court.  In 1633, Fletcher might not yet be the “Cavalier” playwright envisioned by Moseley and the folio versifiers (and later vilified by Coleridge), but he had suddenly, more than eight years after his death, become a Caroline court playwright.

 

Bawcutt, N. W.  The Control and Censorship of Caroline Drama:  The Records of Sir Henry Herbert, Master of the Revels, 1623-73, 185.

Butler, Martin.  Theatre and Crisis 1632-1642, 10.

Potter, Lois.  Secret Rites And Secret Writing : Royalist Literature, 1641-1660.

 

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