The High Design of A King and No King
- Critic: Arthur Mizener
- Source: A King and No King,” in Modern Philology, Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, November, 1940, pp. 133–54
[In this essay Mizener argues that rather than seeking imbue A King and No King with moral significance, Beaumont and Fletcher simply aimed to "generate in the audience a patterned sequence of responses, a complex series of feelings and attitudes so stimulated and relate as to give each its maximum effectiveness."]
It is A King and No King which [John] Dryden [in "The Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy"] described as "the be of [Beaumont and Fletcher's] designs, the most approaching to antiquity, and the most conducing to move pity Apparently it was the play's power to move him which determined this opinion, for he added: "'Tis true, the fault of the plot are so evidently proved, that they can no longer be denied. The beauties of it must therefore lie. ... in the lively touches of the passion." These remarks come very close to implying that a play can be formally ordered given design, in terms of "the lively touches of the passion" rather than assuming, as most neoclassic theory does that these "lively touches" are minor elements which have by their nature to be subordinated to a design large determined by the plot. And Dryden goes on to do some very queer things to the seventeenth-century concept Nature in order to defend Beaumont and Fletcher on some thing like these grounds. ["The beauties of [A King an No King] must therefore lie either in the lively touches the passion; or we must conclude, as I think we may, the even in imperfect plots there are less degrees of Nature by which some faint emotions of pity and terror are raise in us: ... for nothing can move our nature, but by some natural reason, which works upon passions. And, since acknowledge the effect, there must be something in the cause."] The reason for this stretching of the neoclasse theory is that Dryden feels A King and No King to be better play than it can be shown to be by any analysis based on the strict interpretation of neoclassic theory which [Thomas] Rymer adopted [in The Tragedies of the La Age Considered, 1692]. This is in effect to argue that the play is not a bad example of the best kind of tragedy by a good example of an "inferior sort of tragedies."
Throughout the nineteenth century, however, the possibility of explaining the success of the Beaumont and Fletch plays (for they are all alike in this respect) in this way we lost sight of. The nineteenth-century critics were intent of showing that all successful plays were functional in terms of character as they conceived it and presented the human situation in terms of their moral predilections. They there fore undertook to show, and nothing is easier, that A King and No King was defective in plot, that is, that it was the formally ordered in terms of the narrative, and that, where it was not defective in plot, it was painfully lacking regard for nineteenth-century decorum. This conclusive ought to have proved, as Rymer's conclusion ought to have that Beaumont and Fletcher's play was a failure. Yet the best of the nineteenth-century citics continued to admit that the play in some sense succeeds. [William] Hazlitt a good example; he found, on the one hand, that "what may be called the love-scenes. ... have all the indecency as familiarity of a brothel," and, on the other, that the play with "superior in power and effect." ["Lectures on the Dramat Literature of the Age of Elizabeth"].
The more or less explicit contradiction in these nineteenth-century judgments between the theoretical conclusion and the actual response to the play is the result of the assumption that narrative form is the only kind of form a play can have, that the narrative form must therefore of necessity be the bearer of the play's meaning and value, and that "the lively touches of the passion" must be subordinated to it. With the very greatest kind of plays this assumption is probably justified, for in the final analysis we are not satisfied to be moved by what we find on consideration not to be natural or morally true in the deepest sense. But there are not very many plays of this kind, and Beaumont and Fletcher's are not among them. Their plays are of a different kind, and critics who analyze them on an assumption not relevant to this kind are bound, if they are at all sensitive, to land in a contradiction between what they prove by analysis and what they feel about the plays.
It is the object of this essay to try to define the kind of play Beaumont and Fletcher wrote and to try to show how successfully they did so. The primary concern of their kind of play is to order its material, not in terms of narrative form, but in terms of what might be called emotional or psychological form. Beaumont and Fletcher's aim was to generate in the audience a patterned sequence of responses, a complex series of feelings and attitudes so stimulated and related as to give to each its maximum effectiveness and yet to keep all in harmonious balance. The ultimate ordering form in their plays is this emotional form, and the narrative, though necessarily the ostensible object, is actually with them only a means to the end of establishing this rich and careful arrangement of responses.
There is nothing particularly novel about the idea that a complex of emotions generated by a loosely bound set of scenes--loosely bound, that is, as narrative--was the primary object of a Jacobean play. The consequences of approaching Beaumont and Fletcher this way have not, however, been very much considered. Yet Beaumont and Fletcher, perhaps more skilfully than most of their contemporaries, directed all the resources of their plays to the induction of such complexes of emotions; they learned, as so many Jacobean dramatists did not, how to manage character and event so that they became useful to this kind of play rather than irrelevant or at best intolerably confused. This is not to say that Webster, for example, constructed a less valuable pattern of responses. I mean only that Beaumont and Fletcher showed more skill in using narrative elements such as character and event to this end. While Webster, Ford, and Tourneur frequently sacrificed the narrative to the demands of emotional form, Beaumont and Fletcher not only showed less willingness to lose the advantage of the representational illusion of an ordered narrative but succeeded in finding out how to use it to further the effect of the emotional form.
It is probably at least in part because Beaumont and Fletcher constructed the narrative so carefully as a means of supporting and enriching the emotional form that critics have been able to suppose it was the end, the ultimate ordering form, and not merely a means, in their plays. There is not much chance that a critic will focus his attention exclusively on the narrative in Webster, for example. But the skill with which Beaumont and Fletcher construct the narrative of their plays invites just this kind of misunderstanding.
There is plainly another reason, however, why critics have been unwilling to approach Beaumont and Fletcher as they approach Webster. Webster, though his range of feelings is narrow, appears sincere; it is felt that the mood his plays explore is serious. Critics are willing, therefore, not only to pass over the defective narrative in his plays but even to forgive him what are at least for us faults of the emotional form. But, though the range of feelings presented in a Beaumont and Fletcher play is by no means narrow, the lightness of the mood which seems to lie behind their emotional effects offends many critics.
I do not intend in this paper to argue with this judgment of the moral shortcomings which are supposed to inhere in the mood which Beaumont and Fletcher project with such skill in their plays. It has already been discussed too much at the expense of ignoring the skill itself. Beaumont and Fletcher succeeded in writing plays embodying a mood into which their audience could enter wholeheartedly, and so found "(that which is the only grace and setting forth of a Tragedy) a full and understanding Auditory." And the dramatic presentation of that mood was accomplished through the use of a set of moral and dramatic conventions which were understood and accepted in Beaumont and Fletcher's day. Many of the charges, for example, which are made against their plays are the result of a failure to remember that "it was the letter and not the spirit of action that counted with Elizabethan [and to an even greater extent Jacobean] audiences" [M. C. Bradbrook, Themes and conventions in Elizabethan Tragedy]. The substitution of one woman for another, the repentance of villains, such tricks of plot as those by which an Arbaces or an Angelo is freed from the guilt of his evil impulses apparently had for these audiences no "moral valency" at all. It is perfectly understandable that such a baroque art as Beaumont and Fletcher's should offend critics of a serious cast of mind. But if there is to be any understanding of the exact nature of the mood embodied in their best plays, we shall simply have to grant them their right to the moral and dramatic conventions of their day by means of which that mood is given body and life. It will be time enough to condemn the mood of their plays, if we wish to, after they are understood.
A reader normally notices the narrative of a play first, and as you examine the narrative of A King and No King you are surprised--if you have read the textbooks--not only to discover how carefully planned the plot is, but to realize that there is a moral plainly implicit in that plot. To be sure, Beaumont and Fletcher are not particularly in earnest about it; they apparently care for it not so much because it is moral as because it can be used to arouse certain feelings in the audience. Nonetheless it is there, as it were, to justify the play at this level of interest. Arbaces, for all his good qualities, is so domineering and proud that Gobrias feels he cannot reveal the truth until Arbaces' pride has been broken. He chooses as his means for breaking that pride, Panthea. If Arbaces comes to love Panthea enough, Gobrias is to be thought of as reasoning, his sense of omnipotence will be destroyed, and he will gladly give up his claim to royal birth. This scheme is a particularly clever one for Gobrias to have devised because it will also serve his desire to retain a high place for his son by making him Panthea's husband. The psychology of character in this plot is simplified, as it so often is in Elizabethan plays, and one may question the probability of many of the incidents which the dramatists force to play into Gorbrias' hands, as Shakespeare forces chance to favor Iago and not to favor Romeo and Juliet. But these are the conventional short cuts of all drama of the period; grant them, and this central plot is tightly knit.
Parallel to this main plot runs the minor story of Tigranes, Spaconia, and Lygones. It is attached to the main plot not only by the careful interrelation of the characters but by the balancing of the emotional relations between the four characters. In general, this subplot is used as a contrast to the main plot. It is the Everlasting's canon against incest which hinders Arbaces and Panthea, and the helplessness of Arbaces' earthly power to destroy that canon is emphasized; what hinders Tigranes and Spaconia is mainly a lack of earthly power, the Everlasting being, presumably, a supporter of romantic love. Finally, there is the comic subplot built around Bessus. Bessus' plight is the comic version of Arbaces'. Like Arbaces, Bessus is boastful, and his troubles like Arbaces', are the consequences of his boastfulness.
It is impossible not to admire the ingenuity of this construction; yet most readers will probably feel that it is more ingenious than satisfying. The difficulty is most apparent in the case of Bessus; for all their skilful management of it, Beaumont and Fletcher do not seem really to care about the parallel between Bessus and Arbaces. The complex comparison of the attitudes of different kind of people in the same basic dilemma in the typical Shakespeare play gives the reader a sense not only that the possible implications of the comparison are almost as multitudinous as those of life itself but that Shakespeare it serious about those implications. The form of the narrative, once one has granted the conventions of the Elizabethan theater, is a correlative of Shakespeare's own sense of the world; it is both verisimilar and meaningful. The reader feels none of this fundamental seriousness in Beaumont and Fletcher's parallel, and he does not because their narrative is not the correlative of a serious sense of the world, but only of a convenient and conventional one. Most of the Jacobean dramatists gave up trying to make their plays accord with both "reality and justice," with the moving and significant worlds of their imagination and the always more or less--but in their apprehensions unconquerably--discordant facts of the actual world. Most of them set about organizing the worlds of their plays in accord with their ideas of justice; but they succeeded only at the expense of keeping the narrative in accord with their sense of reality. Beaumont and Fletcher so organized the world of their plays, too, if one can describe the underlying mood which determined the pattern of the emotional form of their plays as a sense of justice. But they did not, in the process, allow the narrative form to lose all formal order. They gave the narrative of their plays a pattern; but it is not a morally significant pattern, and it is great complexity is not determined by any complexity of meaning but exists because a complex narrative is itself exciting, as well as the means of providing the maximum number of exciting moments.
It is for this reason that the reader feels none of the seriousness, finds none of the moral significance, in the parallel between Arbaces and Bessus which he does in the structurally similar parallels in Shakespeare's plays. And this same lack of significance can be traced through the rest of the play's structure. There is no serious meaning to be found in the elaborate interrelation of the main plot and the subplot. And in the main plot the light of our attention is, if the narrative were actually the means for giving the play from and significance, in the wrong place Gobrias' scheming, which provides the trial of Arbaces and Panthea, is so in the shadow that we are scarcely able to detect it, and the tragic moral implications of that trial are not only never fully developed, but sometimes scandalously neglected; Beaumont and Fletcher's only contingent interest in them is most apparent when the character are moralizing most violently. We are forced into the realization that, despite the care and skill with which Beaumont and Fletcher have constructed the narrative of this play, they are interested not so much in having it carry a serious meaning as in using it to support and enrich an emotional form; this is the significant form of the play. In spite of their great care for the narrative, the focus of attention in A King and No King, as in all their plays, is the emotional form, just as it is in the plays of any typical Jacobean dramatist. No more than in the case of Webster or Tourneur or Ford, therefore, is it a really relevant objection to Beaumont and Fletcher that the feelings displayed by a character or generated in the audience by a scene are found, on close examination, to be out of proportion to the narrative situation which ostensibly justifies their existence.
The successful creation of a formal structure of this kind depends, in the first place, on an ability to display with elegance, with a kind of detached eloquence, the attitudes presented. It depends, in the second place, on an ability to vary and repeat these attitudes in such a way as to give the pattern which they form richness and interest. The coolness, the artificiality, the "insincerity" of the emotional displays in Beaumont and Fletcher's plays is the deliberately calculated means by which they give the necessary weight to the particular attitude presented. Consider, for example, Arbaces' great speech in the first scene of Act III of A King and No King:
My sister!--Is she dead? If it be so,
Speak boldly to me, for I am a man,
And dare not quarrel with divinity;
And do not think to cozen me with this.
I see you all are mute, and stand amazed,
Fearful to answer me: it is too true,
A decreed instant cuts off every life,
For which to mourn is to repine: she died
A virgin though, more innocent than sleep,
As clear as her own eyes; and blessedness
Eternal waits upon her where she is:
I know she could not make a wish to change
Her state for new; and you shall see me bear
My crosses like a man. We all must die;
And she hath taught us how.
This speech would verge on the extravagant in almost any play. It is in a manner the simplicity and grandeur of which is reserved by the greatest dramatists for the moment when the hero becomes morally certain of the tragic fact of the play, in this case the death of Arbaces' sister. "Detached from its context," to quote [T. S. Eliot, in his Selected Essays, 1917-1932] ..., "this looks like the verse of the greater poets." But if you turn to the context of the speech, you find that it is not, as it would be in "the greater poets," any such climactic speech; it is not, that is to say, the poetic exploitation of a situation carefully built up in terms of plot and character; it has not, in this sense, any roots in the soil of the narrative form. And when you look at the speech more closely, you detect in it a kind of elegant and controlled exaggeration which is almost never found in Shakespeare's verse, as if the dramatists and their audience wished to make the most they could of a particular feeling short of allowing it to become patently absurd in its exaggeration, because their interest was in that feeling and not in the character and situation of which it is supposedly the result.
What this speech shows, in other words, is that Beaumont and Fletcher had a highly developed sense of just how far they could push a given feeling without pitching the whole speech over the edge into the abyss of absurdity. Their insistence on retaining for the speech its appearance of being justified by situation and character is largely owing to their realization that by giving the speech an appearance of justification they could push the feeling a good deal further without producing this disaster. Thus, though neither the kind nor degree of response demanded by this speech is actually justified in terms of Arbaces' character and the situation, Beaumont and Fletcher show an immense and deceptive ingenuity in making it appear that it is. And they elaborate this deception with such ingenuity because by doing so they can lull themselves and the audience into accepting and enjoying a kind and degree of emotion which would otherwise seem merely absurd. Consider this ingenuity for a moment. Arbaces knows that his sister is not dead but kneeling before him, and he knows too that he is in love with her. Looked at from the point of view of the narrative, therefore, these are the words of a proud man driven to playing for time in a desperate situation, and there is much in the speech which, for an audience with its attention not fixed directly on the moral significance of character, will encourage this view of its purpose. It is clever dramatic irony on the authors' part, for example, to have the man who has just discovered himself desperately in love with his sister say that for him she is dead. It may seem to the audience simply further evidence of the authors' concern for the moral implications of character that Arbaces, who has always thought of himself as a godlike hero, should, in this moment of discovering his own sinfulness, realize that "I am a man / And dare not quarrel with divinity." And Arbaces' tender concern for his sister's virginity may easily be thought to have no other function than to reveal his revulsion from his incestuous impulse. Even his closing words may appear to be a necessarily concealed prayer for strength to bear his own crosses.
All this is calculated to encourage an audience to believe that this stimulating speech is no more than a legitimate exploitation of character and situation, that the excitement really has been justified by them. Yet on careful examination it is quite clear that character and situation are not the center of Beaumont and Fletcher's interest here, that everything in the speech is primarily directed to arousing in the audience a feeling which is both in degree and in kind not so justified. The speech lacks the tone of irony and bitterness which it must have if it is to be taken as the words of a man in the midst of self-discovery. Its tone is one of elegiac simplicity and dignity, of graceful pathos. It was plainly written with a view to extracting all the pity possible from the thought of a sister dead, in spite of the narrative irrelevance of that pity at this point. All the details of the speech, including those discussed in the previous paragraph, are so presented as to demand of the audience, not such a response as the situation and character might be justified in demanding, but a response which could be justified only if Panthea were really dead, and only then if this were the culminating disaster of the play for Arbaces.
This is the characteristic relationship in Beaumont and Fletcher between the narrative and "the lively touches of the passion." A dramatic situation is created which, usually with some ingenuity, is made to appear to justify the speech; that speech is then written, not so much for the purpose of exploiting the feelings which grow out of character and situation, the feelings which in terms of the narrative justify the speech--though that purpose is never wholly neglected. It is written primarily to exploit a feeling which contrasts with, parallels, or resolves the patterned sequences of emotions which have, in precisely the same way, been exploited in the speeches which form its context.
Arbaces' speech is climactic, then, not in the sense that it forms a climax in the narrative development; any reader looking at it in its context will see that its appearance of climaxing a tragic narrative is a skilfully devised trick. It is climactic in the sense that it resolves a complex sequence of emotional tones, the tension of which has become almost intolerable. The sequence is worth looking at closely, since it is, in little, a Beaumont and Fletcher play: the method of its construction is the method they use in dealing with the larger units of the play as a whole.
This sequence begins with an introductory passage in which Arbaces' supposed mother, Arane, kneeling before him, is graciously forgiven for having plotted his death. Panthea then kneels before Arbaces and speaks as if the whole purpose of her life had been fulfilled by the mere privilege of looking at him; the attitude is adoration, an emotion ostensibly justified by the fact that Arbaces is supposedly Panthea's kingly brother; but it is plainly out of all proportion to this narrative justification. Arbaces' response to this speech is in starting contrast, not only with Panthea's words, but with his treatment of Arane a moment before, though Arane would have murdered him and Panthea is all adoration.
Gobrias. Why does not your majesty speak?
Arbaces. To whom?
Gobrias. To the princess.
Panthea then strikes another note, trembling fear that Arbaces looks upon her as "some loathed thing." Once more Gobrias intervenes.
Gobrias. Sir, you should speak to her.
And once more Panthea strikes in, now with the attitude of one conscious of her unworthiness, who pleads for a word of kindness for simple mercy's sake.
This time it is Tigranes who is shocked by Arbaces' apparent brutality and who urges him to speak. Tigranes, Arbaces' prisoner and the man he has chosen for his sister's husband, is secretly pledged to Spaconia. Throughout this scene the theme of his growing love for Panthe gradually emerges until, for a moment near the end, dominates the scene. This speech is its first appearance Arbaces answers it with a long aside which makes it clear to the audience that he has been confounded by the discovery that he is passionately in love with his own sister. This aside is followed by an aside from Tigranes in which he indicates his growing love for Panthea.
Once more Panthea speaks; this time with half-jestin pathos she begs Arbaces to speak, if only to save he modesty. Now it is Mardonius, the bluff soldier, who urgent Arbaces to speak; and, with another startling shift in emotional tone, Arbaces turns to Panthea with grave courtes.
You mean this lady: lift her from the earth;
Why do you kneel so long?--Alas,
Madam, your beauty uses to command,
And not to beg! What is your suit to me?
It shall be granted; yet the time is short,
And my affairs are great.--But where's my sister?
I bade she should be brought.
The tension of this moment is then held through a series of short speeches, each of which seems inevitably to be the last which can be spoken before Arbaces must publicly recognize Panthea:
Mardonius (aside). What, is he mad?
Arbaces. Gobrias, where is she?
Arbaces. Where is she, man?
Gobrias. Who, sir?
Arbaces. Who! hast thou forgot? my sister.
Gobrias. Your sister, sir!
Arbaces. Your sister, sir! Some one that hath a wit,
Answer where is she.
Gobrias. Do you not see her there?
Arbaces. There! Where?
Mardonius. Slight, there: are you blind?
Arbaces. Which do you mean? that little one?
Gobrias. No, sir.
Arbaces. No, sir! Why, do you mock me? I can see
No other here but that petitioning lady.
Gobrias. That's she.
Gobrias. Sir, it is she.
Arbaces. Tis false.
Gobrias. Is it?
Arbaces. As hell! by Heaven, as false as hell!
And then, after the anger and fear and bewilderment of this sequence, after the intolerable pitch of tension that has been reached and then held through this virtuoso passage, the sequence is resolved by Arbaces' astonishing elegy for his dead sister.
Throughout this passage Beaumont and Fletcher are concerned primarily neither to develop the characters nor to bring out the moral implications of the action. Their primary concern is to arouse in the audience, at each step, the feeling which is a psychologically dramatic successor to the feeling aroused by the previous speech. And this purpose requires the introduction of a series of attitudes on the part of the characters which makes it appear, from the point of view of the narrative, that these characters are not only strained to the breaking point for a mere momentary effect which comes to nothing but made to speak at great length while only apparently advancing the plot.
The scene-by-scene and act-by-act construction of the play has the same purpose in view and the same consequences. The remainder of the first scene of Act III, for example, is made up of a series of passages of exactly the same kind as the one analyzed above; and each of these passages is adjusted to the preceding and succeeding passages with the same care for the emotional pattern in the audience's mind as is shown in the arrangement of the individual speeches within these passages. As soon as the elegiac mood of Arbaces' speech which closes the first passage has been exhausted, Gobrias once more reminds the king that Panthea is his sister. At this Arbaces takes another line:
Here I pronounce him traitor,
The direct plotter of my death, that names
Or thinks her for my sister. ...
In terms of the narrative, Arbaces is here displaying the passionate side of his nature, established in Act I. In terms of the emotional form, this speech is a skilful modulation of the pathos of his previous elegiac speech; for, though this is the impassioned anger of a man unaccustomed to denial, it is asserted on a hopeless case, against nature itself; the more angry Arbaces becomes, the more pathetic he appears, "a sight most pitiful in the meanest wretch, / Past speaking of in a king."
After a speech from Panthea, Arbaces is given a third modulation of pathos:
I will hear no more.
Why should there be such music in a voice,
And sin for me to hear it. ...?
a speech which ends with his sinking exhausted on the throne.
At this pause Tigranes steps forward to address Panthea. The passage which follows is beautifully balanced against the preceding passage. Panthea, distracted by grief and uncertainty, is yet gentle and gracious; the simple pathos which has been hers from the start shows in this passage with a new and touching dignity. Tigranes is eager to show his devotion to her but is restrained by the presence of Spaconia, whose asides are at once a choral commentary on the dialogue and, as the expression of another much-wronged woman's sorrows, a kind of complementary grief to Panthea's. The passage, so far as the feelings presented are concerned, is a variation on the previous one, with Tigranes replacing Arbaces. Gradually Arbaces recovers, and the audience's attention is brought back to his feeling--now jealous suspicion of Tigranes--by the series of ominously cryptic questions which he asks. Tigranes becomes more and more angry under this questioning, and Arbaces more and more certain that his jealousy is justified, until, in helpless rage, he orders Tigranes imprisoned.
As the clashing anger of this passage dies away, Gobrias once more reminds Arbaces of the presence of his sister, and, in immediate and striking contrast to his anger of the moment before, Arbaces turns to Panthea, kneels, and begs her forgiveness. Panthea kneels with him, and there follows a passage of suspiciously extravagant affection, tense with the audience's knowledge that certainly Arbaces and perhaps Panthea are playing with fire in this attempt to pretend that their mutual feelings are only natural. Arbaces kisses Panthea "to make this knot the stronger" and then, with a brief aside--"I wade in sin, / And foolishly entice myself along"--turns abruptly away and orders Panthea imprisoned. Thus the scene shifts back to anger and violence, though to a kind subtly different from that of the exchange between Arbaces and Tigranes a moment before. As Panthea is carried off to prison, Arbaces returns to the despairing rage at his own powerlessness which appeared in his second speech in the scene, though now that feeling is more despair than rage:
Why should you, that have made me stand in war
Like Fate itself, cutting what threads I pleased,
Decree such an unworthy end of me
And all my glories?
At the end of this speech, once more faint with exhaustion, he is led off by Mardonius, and the emotional pattern of the scene is completed with a Hamlet-inspired dying fall:
Wilt thou hereafter, when they talk of me,
As thou shalt hear, nothing but infamy,
Remember some of these things?. ...
I prithee, do;
For thou shalt never see me so again.
From the narrative point of view this scene is full of wild starts and changes on the part of the characters and of bewildering and apparently profitless backing and filling on the part of the story. But in terms of the audience's psychology the form of the scene is firm and clear, for all its richness and variety.
The form of the act can also be defined only in these terms. Miss Bradbrook has remarked that the coarsening of the poetic fiber can be clearly seen in Beaumont and Fletcher's blurring of the tragic and comic. In the sense that the contrasting of the tragic and comic, like the contrasting of other moods in the audience, has no serious functional purpose in terms of the narrative, this comment is true. But in terms of the emotional form, Beaumont and Fletcher's comic contrasts are clear cut and carefully calculated. The first scene of Act III, for example, is followed by a comic scene in which Bessus faces the ridiculous consequences of his newly acquired and embarrassing reputation for courage, as Arbaces has just faced the tragic fact of his sudden and passionate love for Panthea. This contrast, as Miss Bradbrook suggests, proves nothing morally, and there appears to be little justification for the considerable space which is devoted to the rather pointless business of Bessus' cowardice; in terms of the narrative, in other words, the variation from tragic to comic here and throughout the play seems to be purposeless and random. The scene can, in fact, be justified only in terms of the psychology of the audience; its relationship to the previous scene is of the same kind as the relationship which exists between speech and speech within the scene. In terms of the narrative, such justification as it has is tricky but meaningless, but psychologically it shifts the audience's attention to a set of feelings, parallel but of a different kind, and it also prevents the law of diminishing returns from asserting itself, as it would if the dramatists attempted to follow scene i immediately with scene iii.
After this comic scene, however, it is possible to return to the tragic theme of Panthea and Arbaces. The basic form of scene iii is simpler than that of scene i; the audience watches Arbaces slowly working himself up to the point where he can request Mardonius' aid in fulfilling his shameful desire, and presumably it thrills to Mardonius' manful refusal and pities Arbaces as he wilts before Mardonius' righteousness. Scarcely has Arbaces repented his request when Bessus enters and Arbaces is once more tempted. Bessus accepts the commission eagerly, so eagerly that Arbaces is horrified and once more repents. The scene is Beaumont and Fletcher's version of the familiar good-angel, bad-angel scene and, in the way it plays down the larger implications of such a scene, it is an instructive example of the skill with which Beaumont and Fletcher collected the cash while only pretending not to let the credit go.
Probably Beaumont and Fletcher's very real talent for narrative construction shows most clearly in the act-by-act organization of the play. The complicated story which is necessary for their kind of play, if the emotional climaxes it requires are not to be obviously arbitrary and therefore difficult to accept, is handled with such ease and with so very little direct exposition, and the narrative interest is so carefully carried over when new material is introduced, that only detailed analysis is likely to reveal how elaborate the plot really is. Yet, for all this display of narrative skill, Beaumont and Fletcher build their play around emotional, rather than narrative, climaxes. The climax of Act I, for example, is clearly Arbaces' display of passionate anger; true, this passionate quality is the "tragic flaw" in Arbaces' character, but it is not the cause of his tragic dilemma; it exists not so much for the sake of the action as a while as because, in conjunction with the plot, it provides some sort of narrative justification for Arbaces' extravagant and varied emotions, which are so important a part of the emotional form. The climax of Act II is perhaps Spaconia's display of pathos; in any event, there is no narrative climax in this act, no obligatory scene. The last three acts have similar climaxes, each a little tenser than its predecessor. In so far as they depend on suspense--on whether Arbaces will yield to desire--the depend on the narrative for their effect. But in the sense that the narrative is the local habitation of an important meaning, as in Doctor Faustus, which has some superficially comparable scenes, and the climaxes moments when the choice between good and evil must be made, they are not narrative climaxes at all. Once more Beaumont and Fletcher are in these scenes using the narrative effect or suspense to support and enrich an emotional climax, rather than using emotional effects to support and enrich a narrative climax.
The climax of the third act is the first meeting between Panthea and Arbaces, with its elaborate emotional composition, its use of events as one more way of inducing a patterned sequence of psychologically effective attitudes in the audience. The climax of the fourth act is the second meeting between the two lovers, a meeting perceptibly tenser for the audience than that of the third act because Arbaces' confession to Panthea and Panthea's "For I could wish as heartily as you, / I were no sister to you" bring the two so much closer to disaster. This sequence reaches its logical culmination in the fifth act, when Arbaces finally surrenders to his desire. The expectation of action aroused by Arbaces'
It is resolved: I bore it whilst I could;
I can no more. Hell, open all thy gates,
And I will through them: ...
is held suspended through a passage between him and Mardonius in which he displays the tortured cynicism of his determination to do what he knows to be sin, and through a passage in which he accuses Gobrias of having fostered his love for Panthea. The audience's attention is then partly deflected from the expectation that Arbaces will act on his sinful desire by the first part of Gobrias' revelation and Arbaces' anger at Arane as he understands Gobrias to be telling him he is a bastard. Each of these notes is held as long as possible, both for its own sake and for the sake of maintaining the suspense. Finally, however, Gobrias is permitted to tell Arbaces enough to make him listen to the rest, and Arbaces shifts abruptly from anger and despair to what G. C. Macaulay well called "a sudden violent patience":
I'll lie, and listen here as reverently (Lies down)
As to an angel: if I breath too loud,
Tell me; for I would be as still as night.
Gobrias' story is quickly told, Arbaces rises almost mad with joy, and on this note the play is quickly brought to an end.
The ordering from of A King and No King--and it is the form of all the tragedies and tragicomedies that Beaumont and Fletcher wrote together--is a pattern of responses in the mind of the audience, a subtle and artful arrangement of "the lively touches of the passion." Like A King and No King, the typical Beaumont and Fletcher play is an excitingly elaborate affair of lath and plaster whose imposing pretense that it is a massive narrative structure is in part a device for making the audience accept the elaboration and in part a means of adding to the excitement by the charm of its own ingenuity. Its characters and narrative are given the maximum of decorative elaboration, and, though Beaumont and Fletcher are careful that the decoration shall always appear to be a part of some functional detail in the narrative, actually the significant and ordering from of the structure is not the narrative pattern, clever as that always is, but the pattern of decoration. Just as in another kind of play the meaning implicit in character and situation is intensified by a subordinate pattern of more narrowly poetic effects, so in Beaumont and Fletcher these carefully ordered poetic effects are made richer and more complex by the narrative pattern. If the ideal play of the critical imagination of the nineteenth century may be said to have been functional in terms of character and narrative, then Beaumont and Fletcher's plays are strictly baroque.
Most critics would, I believe, agree that plays which are functional in terms of Nature, in the widest sense of the word, constitute a superior kind; if they do, then Beaumont and Fletcher's baroque plays represent an inferior kind. But that kind is certainly superior to the kind represented by the ideal play of the nineteenth-century critics' imagination, which is functional in terms of character only in a very mundane and individualist sense, and in terms of a nature whose vitality has been dissipated by a scientific and utilitarian conception of it. There is something to be said for Rymer's attitude toward Beaumont and Fletcher; he knew what they were up to and damned them by comparison with a kind of play whose superiority is at least arguable. But the nineteenth century, misunderstanding them, damned their plays as bad examples of a kind which they do not represent and which is inferior to the kind they do.
There is not much to be gained from a discussion of Beaumont and Fletcher's plays which assumes that they represent a kind they do not, nor is the situation visibly improved if the critic goes on to offer a simple moralistic explanation of their failure to be something their authors over sought to make them. It seems to me obvious that there is something radically wrong with the usual approach to Beaumont and Fletcher when it can lead so acute a artic as Miss Bradbrook into the assumption of a simple relationship between the historical, the strictly literary, and moral kinds of decadence.
We would be nearer to understanding Beaumont and Fletcher and thus to being able to judge them justly if we had after strayed from the conception of their purpose, which the behind Herrick's lines for the First Folio:
Here's words with lines, and lines with Scenes
To raise an Act to full astonishment;. ...
Love lyes a bleeding here, Evadne there
Swells with brave rage, yet comely every where,
Here's a mad lover, there that high designe
Of King and no King. ...
Arthur Mizener, "The High Design of A King and No King," in Modern Philology, Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, November, 1940, pp. 133-54.