Francis Beaumont

The English playwright Francis Beaumont (c. 1584-1616) was one of the major comic dramatists of the Jacobean period. Much of his work was done in collaboration with John Fletcher.

Francis Beaumont was born to an old and distinguished Leicestershire family. His father, who became one of the Queen's Justices of the Court of Common Pleas, was described by a contemporary as a "grave, learned, and reverend judge." Francis attended Oxford University but left without a degree. In 1600 he entered the Inner Temple, one of the Inns of Court, perhaps with the intention of following his father into the law. But whatever his intention, he was never called to the bar.

Beaumont soon associated himself with the theater and wrote his first play, The Woman-Hater, about 1606. The chief characters bear some resemblance to the "humours" characters of Ben Jonson. Beaumont greatly admired Jonson, and this mildly satiric comedy was probably written in conscious imitation of the elder dramatist, who by this time had acquired some stature as a literary figure.

In his next dramatic effort Beaumont broke free of the Jonsonian influence and produced his delightful masterpiece, The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607). In this charming mock-heroic play (supposedly written in 8 days and probably indebted for some of its episodes to Cervantes' Don Quixote), Beaumont's satire is aimed at several targets, but the laughter he provokes at their expense is never bitter. The play includes a burlesque of dramatic forms—such as the old-fashioned chivalric romance—as well as some good-natured ridicule of London audiences as represented by George the Grocer and his wife Nell, who station themselves on the stage and continually interrupt the action of the play. Although The Knight of the Burning Pestle was a failure when first performed, the play had a highly successful revival in 1635, after the author's death, and has remained a popular work ever since.

The remainder of Beaumont's career was spent in collaboration with John Fletcher. Although the two wrote no more than a dozen plays together, their names became so closely linked that by 1679 more than 50 plays were assigned to their joint authorship. The authorship of some of these plays is still in doubt; many were written by Fletcher alone or by Fletcher in collaboration with dramatists other than Beaumont. The most important of the authentic Beaumont and Fletcher plays are Philaster and The Maid's Tragedy, both written between 1608 and 1610. Beaumont's hand predominates in these plays, which did much to promote the form of drama known as tragicomedy. Plays of this type rely less on character and theme than on ingenuity of plot and the moving expression of sentiment.

Beaumont's literary career ended in 1613, when he married an heiress and retired. He probably lived the few remaining years of his life in Kent. He died on March 6, 1616, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.


Further Reading on Francis Beaumont

Charles Mills Gayley, Beaumont, the Dramatist (1914), contains much information about Beaumont and his family. The most reliable guide to Beaumont's share in the "Beaumont and Fletcher" plays is E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, vol. 3 (1923).