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We are left in the dark, however, concerning him. We know nothing of his employments for some years afterwards; nor how and when he first became connected with Beaumont. The oldest date at which their names occur together is 1607, when each of them contributed a copy of commendatory verses to the Fox' of Ben Jonson. To the same year, or 1606, is also assigned Fletcher's first appearance as a writer-the first at least of which we have any trace-in the indifferent comedy of The Womanhater.' In the case of Fletcher, therefore, as of Shakspeare, several years of early life are unaccounted for. But, since London had been the principal home of his boyhood in his father's lifetime, there can be little doubt of its being the place where we ought to look for him, when thrown so suddenly by his father's death on his own resources. This was the age when the theatres were no less a house of refuge than a temple of fame for youthful poets: and, looking at Fletcher's future history, we can scarcely be mistaken in supposing, that he at once betook himself to writing for the theatres to earn his bread. Without patrimony or profession, he would be driven by want to try to the utmost the fatal facility of his powers. This necessity, we fear, continued to the last. The rapidity with which his plays appeared after the death of his friend, affords strong presumptive evidence of his having been spurred on by motives more pressing than the desire of fame. Proof to the same effect, proof of hurry in composition, is afforded by the imperfections which deform so many of his plays, especially the later ones. Several of his scenes,' says one of his critics, nay, whole acts, must have been written with ' either an ill-filled stomach, or an ill-filled head.'
Beaumont was differently situated. There is no reason for supposing that he was ever poor. Some fortune, more or less, came to him from his eldest brother. He married into a good family; and, as has justly been remarked, he had another security against indigence, in the affection of his surviving brother. Indeed there is no reason for questioning that Beaumont had independent means, except an imperfectly vouched account of the history of one of his daughters.
The circumstances of Beaumont, however, are chiefly important as entitling us the more readily to believe, that the literary alliance between him and his less wealthy friend was not one of those joint adventures, so common in that time, which were ordered by the play-house managers, and executed for daily bread by starving play-wrights. We read, in the diary of Philip Henslowe and elsewhere, of plays which were produced by the combined labour of two, three, four, and even five poets. In many such cases, the undertaking was plainly a match against time.
A temporary theme had to be caught up before its popularity should vanish; or a new piece had to be hurriedly put together, in order to neutralize the attraction of some similar novelty at a rival play-house. The task, which could not within a given period be performed by one head, might easily be performed by two To miserable demands like these, most of the dramatists of that age (almost all of them needy men, and some of them players as well as poets,) lived in continual slavery. It is far from being improbable that to such emergencies we owe the association of Fletcher's name, in works still extant, with those of Jonson, Middleton, William Rowley, and others. His co-operation with Massinger, Field, and Daborne, in the writing of a play which cannot now be identified, is shown by the sad letter of those three men to Henslowe, the date of which, though not exactly ascertainable, must have preceded Beaumont's death. Indeed, if we are to credit assertions made not long after the facts occurred, poor Massinger was Fletcher's coadjutor, even in several of the dramas now before us: but at the same time Massinger's manner is too unlike Fletcher's to make it probable that they could have worked together, and that internal evidence should not betray the fact.
We have, in short, good reason for believing, that by far the greater number of Fletcher's works were written either by himself alone, or in conjunction with that one associate who, so far as we know, co-operated with none but him. His other combinations were casual and temporary; this was systematic and long continued. A union so singular, and so difficult to maintain, can only have arisen out of strong personal attachment, and from the consciousness that their genius also was akin. In truth the wonderful resemblance, both in thought and in expression, which prevails throughout their works, is not the least curious riddle which the study of them presents.
Beaumont's choice of Fletcher must have been entirely free; nor is there any ground for conjecturing otherwise respecting Fletcher's choice of Beaumont, Their positions, however, must have been different when they first met. In 1607, Beaumont could not be much more than in his twenty-second year; while Fletcher was already in his twenty-eighth. It is allowable to figure Fletcher, the orphan son of the bankrupt prelate, as having been engaged for several years in struggling against difficulties not unlike those that probably impeded the early path of Shakspeare. We may regard him as already in some measure a practised dramatic artist; we may believe him to have owed to the severe training through which he had been compelled to pass, no mean portion of that readiness, both in composition and in speech, for
which he was extolled by his most intelligent contemporaries. Beaumont, on the other hand, born under a happier star, presents himself to our imagination as a votary of art, who practises it because he loves it, and who, younger and less experienced than his friend, but more reflective and more precocious, might bring into contribution, from the earliest period of their union, the very faculties in which his comrade would have been found wanting, if he had continued to work alone. But we must not go on guessing.
About the beginning of the seventeenth century, the poets of England were almost all dramatists. The fifteen or twenty years preceding had witnessed the rise of the English drama to a height which could not be surpassed; but further efforts continued to be made, and new aspirants crowded into the ranks. In those days, it must be remembered, the writing of a play for the closet was never dreamt of; at least by none except the eccentric Earl of Stirling. Every dramatic poet wrote for the stage; each play being usually put at the disposal of the theatres, the printing of it was necessarily delayed in order to preserve the monopoly of it to the players; and, in very many instances, the printing was postponed till the work was irretrievably lost. The poets were thus brought into close relation with the actors; several of them, such as Jonson, Massinger, and Field, were actors themselves; and, although it is clearly a mistake to suppose that Fletcher ever trode the stage, yet the character and position of the theatrical companies, and the estimation in which theatrical amusements were held, must have been points of infinite importance to him and his friend.
The stage, which had been despised even by literary men when Shakspeare was a youth, was now the favourite both of the aristocracy and of the people. In consequence of the favour shown to it, its exhibitions were invested with a pomp, which, rude doubtless, according to modern notions, yet far exceeded what we should expect, or can indeed easily believe. Neither in the buildings nor in the scenery, did there exist the vastness and splendour which are among the prodigies of more recent times; becoming more and more gorgeous, as the literary glory of our representations has declined. But the researches of dramatic antiquaries have lately shown, that on the Wardrobe of the leading theatrical companies there was then lavished an expense which is startling even to modern ears, and which could not have been incurred, had not a theatre been a more profitable investment than it appears to be at present. There were then, as now, many actors who were needy and despised, on account either of want of prudence or want of talent. But, notwithstanding the frowns of the
more austere, and the rising remonstrances of a party who began to look on the stage with political jealousy as well as with religious scruples, persons professionally connected with the theatre occupied, or had it in their power to acquire, a creditable position in society. There were actors both respectable and respected; and, as it has recently been shown, there were some, even of secondary note, who lived wisely and died wealthy.
Above all, there were two men, actors and proprietors of theatres, who had vindicated for themselves a place considerably above their station, and whose conduct and success had done as much as has since been done by the family of Kemble, to elevate and support the character of their calling. The one had no claim to literary distinction; but he was the first tragic actor of the day; and, about the time when our two poets appeared, he had gained a great part of the large fortune, which, being a childless man, he afterwards devoted to public charity. This was Edward Alleyn, the founder of the college of God's Gift' at Dulwich. The name of the other of the two players was higher still. Professionally regarded, they were, as we should now phrase it, rival managers; but both were prudent, both were kindly, and there are gratifying proofs of an interchange of good offices between them. One little anecdote, recovered but lately, belongs almost to the very year in which Beaumont became known as a dramatist. Alleyn being absent in the country on a strolling excursion, at a time when the theatres in London were shut by reason of the plague, his wife receives in town a visit from a pretty 'youth, and handsome in apparel,' who assumes an aristocratic name, asks for a loan of ten pounds, and asserts that he is known both to Mr Alleyn and to the other great theatrical manager. Mrs Alleyn, who, as the step-daughter of old Philip Henslowe, had learned economy and caution, declines to comply with the demand till the reference shall have been verified; and the brother manager, on being appealed to, declares that he knew the applicant only by having heard that he was a rogue, and is glad the money had not been given! The impostor does not again show himself; and Joan Alleyn, in her next letter to her husband, exultingly tells him the story. Her friendly adviser was a person of whom we are accustomed to think as discharging higher duties to humanity than detecting swindlers. She describes him as Mr Shakspeare of the Globe.' Not long afterwards Shakspeare retired to his native town, to enjoy, during the too short evening of his days, the fortune which enabled him to leave his children in a station more worthy of their ancient lineage than of that calling, from which believers in his sonnets must grieve to think, that he sometimes bitterly revolted. To his pro
VOL. LXXXVI. NO. CLXXIII.
fession and to his worldly prudence he owed his wealth: if he had been merely a great genius, and not also a man of business, (gifts since again united in the person of Sir Walter Scott,) he might have pined like Jonson, or starved like Massinger. We can scarcely over-estimate the facilities, which his easy circumstances, in the latter half of his life, must have afforded him for the composition and elaboration of his greatest works. But, in order duly to estimate what we owe him, we must also recollect that his genius was now and afterwards the animating principle of the drama, and of the stage; and that had he not written Hamlet,' and Lear,' and his Historical Plays, the English theatres might have continued to be a mere school of popular buffoonery, imitation, and bombast.
About the year 1607, the old English drama may be said to have been in the last month of its brief but resplendent summer. Those gorgeous plants which sprang up in natural luxuriance, under the influence of the warm sun and the free air, were still, day by day, bursting into flower. Their time, however, was all but over; the field was beginning to be covered, more and more thickly, by the Autumnal growth which is the fruit of artificial cultivation; and noxious weeds, though as yet hardly visible, were already rooted in the soil. The first ten years of the seventeenth century compose the great concluding period of Shakspeare's literary life; the period which comprehends the most thoughtful and solemn of his works. Ben Jonson, too, was then in the zenith of his activity and fame; but about to fall into his sad decline. The Silent Woman,' and The Alchemist,' were his only great works subsequent to the appearance of Beaumont and Fletcher. Side by side with Shakspeare and Jonson, stood a couple of veterans, the epic and eloquent Chapman, and Heywood, the prose 'Shakspeare,' still cheerful and indefatigable; while Webster, Middleton, Dekker, Marston, and others, had already occupied the ground which they must thenceforth share with formidable competitors, with our two poets, with Massinger, and with Ford. Drayton and Daniel, too, whose fame now rests on poetry of other kinds, were enrolled among the dramatists of their time.
Working with a fervour, and warmed by a literary ambition, seldom if ever paralleled, this swarm of poets constituted likewise a society of friends, whose intercourse, broken at times by individual quarrels, was usually free, cordial, and happy. Then occurred those wit combats,' the fame of which descended traditionally to the age of Fuller; then were held, day after day, those merry meetings at the Mermaid, which Beaumont, writing from the country, regretted, amidst the beauty of the summer,-that intercommuning of buoyant natures, which, delightful at the time,