The Two Noble Kinsmen | Study Guide

William Shakespeare & John Fletcher

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William Shakespeare & John Fletcher | Biography


William Shakespeare

Childhood and Family Life

The childhood of William Shakespeare is a murky area for scholars because few records of his early activities exist. Very little is known about his birth, education, or upbringing. However, according to church records, he was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, which leads scholars to the conclusion that he was born on April 23 of that year. Birth records were not usually kept in Shakespeare's time, although such church records—baptisms, weddings, burials—were kept fastidiously by clergy.

Shakespeare's family was solidly middle class, and he would have had a typical education for an English boy of his time at a public school endowed by Queen Elizabeth I, which would have included studying the Latin language and Roman and Greek classical literature. At age 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his elder who was already pregnant with their daughter Susanna. Anne gave birth to twins—Judith and Hamnet—a few years later. Church records also reveal Hamnet died in childhood.

Theatrical Life

Shakespeare moved to London to pursue a career as an actor and playwright, and over time, he achieved success. He became a shareholder in the open-air Globe Theatre in London and had widespread fame as a playwright and poet whose works included romantic and classically inspired comedies, histories, and tragedies. He is credited with writing at least 37 plays and over 150 sonnets.

Throughout his career Shakespeare and his fellow actors were supported by the patronage of the nation's monarchs—first by Elizabeth I (1533–1603), under whose reign Shakespeare's company was known as The Lord Chamberlain's Men. When James I (1566–1625) assumed the throne in 1603, the company was renamed The King's Men. Although many of Shakespeare's plays were written for performance at the Globe, The King's Men also performed at the nearby Blackfriars Theatre, a smaller indoor space, after 1608.

Retirement and Legacy

In 1610 or 1611 Shakespeare retired, moving back to Stratford-upon-Avon. Despite his retirement from London life, the playwright continued to do some writing, contributing to Henry VIII (1613) and Two Noble Kinsmen, as well as to another play, Cardenio, now lost. Scholars believe these final works to be collaborations with John Fletcher (1579–1625), a contemporary playwright. However, the question of Shakespeare's collaboration with Fletcher has been queried from time to time by scholars and critics, even if generally accepted as true.

Shakespeare most likely died on April 23, 1616, leading to the romantic notion he was born and died on the same date, although there are no precise records of either event. He was 52 at his death and was buried on April 25 at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. Over 400 years after his death, Shakespeare is still regarded as the greatest playwright of the English-speaking world.

John Fletcher

Childhood and Education

Born in Rye, Sussex, English playwright John Fletcher was baptized on December 20, 1579. His exact date of birth is unknown. Fletcher, who had eight siblings, was the son of Anglican minister Richard Fletcher who rose to prominence as Bishop of London and chaplain to Queen Elizabeth I. Moving in relatively wealthy circles, Fletcher's family had literary interests as well and included several poets: his uncle Giles Fletcher (the Elder; 1546–1611) and his two cousins Phineas (1582–1650) and Giles Fletcher (the Younger; 1585–1623).

His education and affluent upbringing likely contributed to Fletcher's knack for realistic dialogue in his upper-class characters. At age 11 (1591), Fletcher entered school at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, with his studies aimed toward a career in the church. He became a Bible clerk (a student who read lessons in church or said grace) in 1593 and gained a strong reputation in literature over time. Little else is known of Fletcher's early life beyond the fact his parents had died by 1596, in debt. Fletcher would have been about 17 at the time.

Dramatic Career

Attracted by the theater world, Fletcher wrote more than 50 plays during his career, often coauthoring with other playwrights. Fletcher first collaborated with his friend Francis Beaumont, beginning in 1605, and worked together on more than a dozen plays. Most were presented at the Globe and Blackfriars theaters, the home theaters of The King's Men, a prestigious theatrical company headed by William Shakespeare. Some of the plays Fletcher and Beaumont worked on together include the tragicomedies Philaster (1609) and A King and No King (1611). During this time Fletcher also produced some of his own works, such as The Faithful Shepherdess (1608), a pastoral tragicomedy. Not particularly well received by theatergoers of the time, it has since become one of his best-known plays.

After Beaumont married in 1612 and retired from theater life in 1613, Fletcher continued to coauthor plays, particularly with Philip Massinger, with whom he produced 11 plays. Fletcher coauthored one play with Shakespeare, The Two Noble Kinsmen (1612) and likely assisted on others (Henry VIII and Cardenio, now lost). Fletcher also collaborated with playwrights Ben Jonson, Nathan Field, and William Rowley, among others. After the death of Shakespeare in 1616, Fletcher succeeded him as lead playwright for The King's Men.

Death and Legacy

Fletcher died in London in 1625, likely from the plague. He was buried in Southwark Cathedral alongside former collaborator Philip Massinger and Edmund Shakespeare, the younger brother of William. Although Fletcher's work has been eclipsed by that of Shakespeare, his contributions to English drama are nonetheless substantial. Two of Fletcher's best-known independent works include the tragicomedy The Loyal Subject (1618) and the comedy The Wild Goose Chase (1621), both still performed today. Fletcher is known particularly for tragicomedies, mixing both types of drama, though he also penned farces, satiric comedies, and revenge tragedies. Naturalness of speech and detailed descriptive passages have been praised as distinguishing features of Fletcher's style. With his intricate, suspenseful, and clever plotlines, Fletcher, too, is hailed as a master of the dramatic craft.

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