Adkins. The Citizens in Philaster: Their Function and Significance

Source: Studies in Philology, Vol.XLIII, No.1. January, 1946, pp. 203–12


[In the following essay Adkins regards Beaumont and Fletcher's treatment of the commons in Philaster as indicative of the "shifting political current" in the Jacobean period.]

The aristocratic sympathies of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher are a commonplace of criticism--sympathies derived naturally from their gentle birth and fostered by the demands of a drama which under royal patronage was becoming increasingly restricted in subject-matter and audience. The purpose of this paper is not to dispute the dictum but to analyze Philaster as an exception which apparently has gone unnoticed, and to demonstrate that, even as an exception, the play is significant in showing the direction of the political winds in early seventeenth-century England.

In what may be called the political aspect of the plot of Philaster, the citizens are the dominant force. They are the means by which the usurping king of Sicny is deposed, the interloper Pharamond shipped back to Spain, and Philaster restored to his rightful inheritance. The result is not achieved by a tour de force at the end. Their importance is announced in the first scene and referred to at occasional intervals; the audience is not only not allowed to forget them, but is compelled to think of them as being an integral part of a well planned play.

In the opening conversation between two courtiers, Dion and Cleremont, the potency of the people's will is suggested. The Spanish prince Pharamond, says Dion, will find it difficult, even through marriage with Princess Arethusa, to keep the crown of Sicily, "the right Heir ... living, and living so vertuously, especially the people admiring the bravery of his mind, and lamenting his injuries."

The reigning king is, in intention, a king by divine right. Though not unaware that the hydra-headed public must be appeased (as witness the rumor, reported by Dion, that "the King labours to bring in the power of a Foreign Nation to aw his own with"), he does not willingly concede their importance. In publicly proclaiming Pharamond his heir, his major purpose, he tells Pharamond, is


                               to confirm

The Nobles, and the Gentry of these Kingdoms,

By oath to your succession.

Indeed, his lofty conception of a king's estate, which brooks no demur even from noble or gentry, would do credit to James himself. In substance, his grandiose speeches claim for him the same illimitable, if vague, authority which James claimed in theory. To him apparently, as to James, "royal authority was ... a mystery, not to be explained or argued about, but to be piously accepted with a `mystical reverence.'" In the hunting scene in Act IV, when his demand that the lost Arethusa be found and brought to him proves futile, he exclaims in anger:


           what am I not your King?

If I, then am I not to be obeyed?

And he swells to rhetoric when he has to repeat his demand:


                         'tis the King

Will have it so, whose breath can still the winds,

Uncloud the Sun, charm down the swelling Sea,

And stop the Flouds of Heaven.

Stripped of its bombast, it is a claim to absolute power, not different in essence from that claimed by James. One who exercises authority by divine right is only a step from godhood, as James himself avowed [in "A Speach to the Lords and Commons of the Parliament at White-Hallon Wednesday the XXI of March. Anno 1609"]:

For Kings are not onely GODS Lieutenants vpon earth, and sit vpon GODS throne, but euen by GOD himselfe they are called Gods.... In the Scriptures Kings are called Gods, and so their power after a certaine relation compared to the Diuine power.... Kings are iustly called Gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of Diuine power vpon earth: For if you wil consider the Attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a King.

It is usual enough, of course, that a usurping monarch should have to yield, finally, to the rightful heir. What is surprising about this play is that the citizens are made the agents of justice. In Shakespeare's Richard II, for example, though frequent lip service is paid to "the people," they do not enter as characters; the destiny of Richard, and of England, is clearly in the hands of the masterful Bolingbroke and the supporting barons. It is true that in Philaster the real instigators of the revolt are Dion and Cleremont, but the courtiers' part is unobtrusive; it is mentioned in only two places, and there not prominently. The citizens are given the dominant role. In fact, to interpret for the audience the mood and temper of the people seems to be Dion's main function in the political plot. Upon the king's threat to imprison Philaster, Dion murmurs, " ... you dare not for the people." He promises Philaster that he will


                    conjure up

The rods of vengeance, the abused people,

who shall restore the kingdom to its rightful owner.

In Act III, when Megra's slander against Arethusa has received general acceptance in the court, Dion and Cleremont, no longer bound by loyalty to Arethusa or desirous of her union with Philaster, sigh impatiently for Philaster to rise and claim his own, saying that "the Gentry do await it, and the people." Philaster entering at this juncture, they urge revolt upon him in the name of "the Nobles, and the people." The importance of the people as a political force is further shown when Philaster is carried off to prison for his attack upon Arethusa in anger at her supposed misconduct: Cleremont is worried lest "this action lose ... Philaster the hearts of the people."

It does not. In Act V the instigation to rebellion bears fruit. The citizens take Pharamond prisoner and rise in a mutiny which threatens the king as well. That mighty sovereign, who a moment before was angrily denouncing the newly reunited Philaster and Arethusa, now pleads with Philaster in a frenzy of fear:


                        Calm the people,

And be what you were born to: take your love,

And with her my repentance, and my wishes,

And all my prayers, by the gods my heart speaks this:

And if the least fall from me not perform'd,

May I be struck with Thunder.

In plot alone the part of the citizens is given equal importance with the conventional devices by which the romantic story is developed to its happy ending. But from an analysis of the citizens themselves and their relation to other characters, emerge some interesting facts--not to say discrepancies--which make the indisputable importance of "the people" all the more surprising. The courtiers who are quietly responsible for the rebellion seem to have the usual aristocratic contempt for the character and the intelligence of the common people. In the opening scene of the play Dion speaks of the "multitude ... that seldom know any thing but their own opinions," a line which the context suggests is intended to characterize them as ignorant, uninformed, emotionally unstable. It is true that in Act V Dion apostrophizes them as "brave followers," as "fine dear Country-men," but the terms are an expression of his delight at their revolt. His real opinion is voiced in a comment to Cleremont:

Well my dear Country-men, what ye lack, if you continue and fall not back upon the first broken shin, I'le have you chronicled, ... prais'd, and sung in Sonnets, and bath'd in new brave Ballads, that all tongues shall troule you in Saecula Saeculorum my kind Can-carriers.

Another Lord also fears their cowardice and instability of purpose:


What if a toy take 'em i'th' heels now, and they run

all away, and cry the Devil take the hindmost?

The citizens, in fact, except for the serious business of securing the kingdom, are made objects of more or less kindly ridicule. They display the rough bawdy humor found in many plays of the middle class. And their Captain, who is their chief spokesman, comports himself with a bluff heartiness reminiscent of Simon Eyre in [Thomas Dekker's] The Shoemaker's Holiday. A seventeenth-century aristocratic audience would no doubt have found in him a target for pleasantly condescending mirth.

An important contrast in attitude, however, is afforded by Philaster, who treats the citizens with grave respect. His manner towards them is restrained, moderate, sincere. It has none of the contemptuous implications of the courtiers'; none of the bombast of the king's; nothing suggesting the weakness of character that distinguishes him in the purely romantic plot. When he has rescued Pharamond and calmed the popular frenzy, he dismisses the citizens with quiet courtesy and firmness:


Good my friends go to your houses and by me have

 your pardons, and my love,

And know there shall be nothing in my power

You may deserve, but you shall have your wishes.

To give you more thanks were to flatter you,

Continue still your love, and for an earnest

Drink this.

So, one might conclude, the relations between sovereign and subject should be. One can almost imagine Queen Elizabeth, in diplomatic mood, tactfully and shrewdly ensuring the loyalty of the middle class, which contributed so largely to Tudor strength. And the citizens go as requested, praising Philaster and rejoicing in their good fortune. The political action ends here. The remainder of the play disposes of various unfinished business in the romantic plot. It is an impressive ending for the citizens demonstrating their power and, as well, the desirable relationship between a ruler and his people.

Such, it seems to me, must be the impression left by the citizens if the play is read carefully. One can grant that Philaster is primarily romantic in interest, its major appeal directed to the fashionable audiences in the Jacobean theatres; can recognize that the outspoken criticism of the king is, after all, criticism of a usurper (and, as such, to be welcomed by a lawfully reigning king); must admit that the courtiers are really, albeit unobtrusively, responsible for the rebellion and that they are contemptuous of the human agents they use to consummate it--yet the fact remains that in the political action of the play the citizens are the decisive force. Their importance is not only admitted; it is made emphatic. And that fact has at least the significance of a straw in the wind. The play ends with pious moralizing of the king:


                           Let Princes learn

By this to rule the passions of their blood,

For what Heaven wills, can never be withstood.

He finds it expedient to attribute certain events to Heaven, but even a seventeenth-century audience must have seen that Heaven had appointed the citizens as its agents. In the first of the play no king could have been more plainly an absolute monarch in intention; in the last none could be more clearly amenable to the popular will. It was the seventeenth-century Puritans that about forty years after the first performance of Philaster were to make a practical demonstration of popular sovereignty.

This recognition of the power of the people and the fallibility of the sovereign appears to be Beaumont's rather than Fletcher's. In the passages quoted the significant speeches are commonly attributed to Beaumont. Seven other plays in which the relation of ruler and subject is mentioned seem to offer confirmation that Fletcher's views were uncompromisingly royalist. Of one, A King and No King, Beaumont and Fletcher are joint authors. In this play there is little of political implication, since the personal rather than the kingly qualities of Arbaces are stressed, and since, after some talk of conquest at the beginning, it is largely a story of romantic love. But in Act II, as the king returns triumphantly to his own country, the citizens (London citizens, need it be said?) turn out to greet him. Everything he says to them, though egotistical, is conciliatory in tone. His first speech is particularly significant:

I thank you all, now are my joyes at full, when I behold you safe, my loving Subjects; by you I grow, 'tis your united love that lifts me to this height: all the account that I can render you for all the love you have bestowed on me, all your expences to maintain my war, is but a little word, you will imagine 'tis slender paiment, yet 'tis such a word, as is not to be bought but with your bloods, 'tis Peace.

The citizens, though obviously intended to offer comic entertainment, are shown as at least aware that their money has paid for the war; they are perhaps even a little complacent over their value in the kingdom.

Of Valentinian, The Loyal Subject, and The Island Princess Fletcher is sole author. Valentinian talks grandiosely of himself as absolute in power, above the reproaches of men and even of gods, who "as they make me most, they mean me happiest." This exalted conception is also held by his loyal follower Aecius, who declares that


Majesty is made to be obeyed,

And not to be inquired into.

In The Island Princess there is the same conception of royalty, stated by the Princess herself:


                         though I be

A Princess, and by that Prerogative stand free

From the poor malice of opinion,

And no ways bound to render up my actions,

Because no power above me can examine me.

In The Loyal Subject, in spite of the criticism of the Duke made by Theodore and the soldiers, the royalist view is maintained by the uncritical loyalty of Archas throughout and by Theodore's retraction at the end. There is no doubt as to Fletcher's intention to uphold royalty at any cost; he wants us to think of the Duke as a noble, generous ruler, temporarily misled by false counsel.

In three plays of divided authorship the passages which deal with the power of the citizens or the obligations of the sovereign are not from Fletcher's hand. Field is considered responsible for the scene in The Bloody Brother in which Rollo, Duke of Normandy, has to ingratiate himself with the citizens, lest they learn that he murdered his brother wantonly and not in self-defense, as he claims. To Jonson is attributed the nobleman's comment that a prince may send troublesome nobles to the block, but that when they (kings) "once grow formidable to their Clowns, and Coblers, ware then, guard themselves." In Thierry and Theodoret two passages which suggest that kings have an obligation to their subjects and are under some necessity of restraint, are attributed to Massinger. Believed to be also by Massinger is a passage in The False One which, though it clearly shows a subject's loyalty, is characterized by a blunt independence, an insistence on the right of free opinion.

That Fletcher's attitude is thoroughly royalist seems clear from the evidence of these six plays, as well as of the two in which he had a slight share with Beaumont. Valentinian, the play in which blind loyalty is most stressed, is by Fletcher alone. And no passage which lays strong emphasis upon a king's obligation to his subjects can certainly be attributed to Fletcher.

And what of Beaumont? Are we to conclude that he had love and admiration for the common people, the London citizens? The evidence of his plays seems to warrant no such inference. The good-natured tolerance of the middle class shown in The Knight of the Burning Pestle is far removed from positive expression of approval, and is doubtless to be explained on the basis of temperament rather than of social conviction. My belief is that Beaumont, consciously, was a royalist, though, unlike historical dramatists, he did not have to face the issue squarely even in his plays, since they are romantic in scene and story, far removed from the conflicts between James and his subjects. As Wilhelm Creizenach points out [in The English Drama in the Age of Shakespeare, 1916], the attitude of submissive loyalty is particularly noticeable in plays based on English history. But to further statements--" ... not one among the dramatists appears to doubt that the duty of the subjects lies in submission, and that kings are responsible to God alone for the manner in which they rule"; "it goes without saying that the downtrodden multitude is never allowed the right to revolt against bad government"--I must at least raise the question of exception. I believe that Beaumont, whether knowing or caring about the implications in his plays, is giving evidence of the changing temper of the English people. He must have been aware of Elizabeth's fear of the Puritans as a political force, young though he was when she died. And he could hardly have failed to be aware, when Philaster (1608/1610) and A King and No King (1611) were acted, of the frequent clashes between James and the Puritans, James and Parliament. It is possible, if we accept 1609 or 1610 as the date of its composition, that Philaster had its inception at a time when James himself temporarily relaxed his extreme claims. Though James angrily dissolved his first Parliament in February, 1611, "determined henceforth to carry on affairs free from the vexatious cavilling of a Parliament [G. M. Trevelyan, England under the Stuarts, 1914], the dissolution itself was the unhappy outcome of earlier, and unsuccessful, attempts at compromise. In both 1609 and 1610 he had adopted a conciliatory attitude. One reason was his desperate need of money. Another was the resentment in the House of Commons over James Cowell's The Interpreter, which asserted that the King of England was an absolute king, and therefore had plenary legislative power. Since no book could be printed without a license, every book treating of politics seemed to have the sanction of the state, and the Commons was determined to defeat this apparent attack upon its prerogative. The Interpreter was denounced by the House in 1610, and shortly thereafter James suppressed it by royal proclamation. The year before, however, he had disclaimed it publicly. Early in 1609 he sent a message to Parliament by the Earl of Salisbury, then lord treasurer, acknowledging that "he had noe power to make laws of himselfe, or to exact any subsidies without the consent of his 3 estates," and even that the crown had been set on his head by the common law. His own later speech, in March, struck the same conciliatory note, mainly in his emphasis upon the important distinction between the powers possessed by the king in theory and those he found it judicious to exercise in practice. The Parliamentary victory was far in the future--so far, in fact, that many Royalists failed to see the storm gathering upon the distant horizon--but even then to acute observers the winds of change were blowing. It seems not implausible to number Francis Beaumont among those observers, and to see in Philaster a recognition, however slight, of the shifting political current.

Source: "The Citizens in Philaster: Their Function and Significance," in Studies in Philology, Vol.XLIII, No.1. January, 1946, pp. 203-12.






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