The Faithful Shepherdess

The Faithful Shepherdess

"The Faithful Shepherdess" is a Jacobean era stage play, the work that inaugurated the playwriting career of John Fletcher. [Terence P. Logan and Denzell S. Smith, eds., "The Later Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama," Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 1978; pp. 31-2, 55-6.] Though the initial production was a failure with its audience, the printed text that followed proved significant, in that it contained Fletcher's influential definition of tragicomedy.


The play was premiered onstage most likely in 1608, acted probably by the Children of the Blackfriars, one of the troupes of boy actors popular at the time. The King's Men later obtained the rights to the play, and acted it at Somerset House before King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria on Twelfth Night, January 6, 1634. (The production utilized the sumptuous costumes left over from the 1633 masque "The Shepherd's Paradise," which Henrietta Maria then donated to the actors.) The King's Men also performed the play in their normal venue, the Blackfriars Theatre.


"The Faithful Shepherdess" was first published soon after its stage premier, in a quarto issued by the booksellers Richard Bonian and Henry Walley; though the first edition is undated, it almost certainly appeared in 1609. (The partnership of Bonian and Walley is traceable only from late December 1608 to mid-January 1610.)

The first edition contained commendatory poems by Ben Jonson, George Chapman, Francis Beaumont, and Nathan Field, and dedications by Fletcher to Sir Walter Aston, Sir Robert Townshend, and Sir William Skipwith. It also provided Fletcher's famous and often-quoted address "To the Reader," which includes his definition of tragicomedy. Fletcher states that the original audience, unfamiliar with the term and concept of tragicomedy, expected a play with characters "sometimes laughing together, and sometimes killing each other." For Fletcher, in contrast, "A tragicomedy is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy...."

An entry in the Stationers' Register shows that Walley transferred his rights to the play to stationer Richard Meighen on December 8, 1629. Meighen issued a second edition in 1629. Meighen capitalized on the 1634 revival by issuing a third quarto of the text in that year (printed by Augustine Matthews); subsequent editions followed in 1656 and 1665. [E. K. Chambers, "The Elizabethan Stage," 4 Volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923; Vol. 3, pp. 221-2.] The play was also included in the second Beaumont and Fletcher folio of 1679.


Fletcher described his play as a "pastoral tragicomedy." It was not the first English drama of its type in its time: Daniel's "The Queen's Arcadia," also labelled a "pastoral tragicomedy," dates from 1605. [Chambers, Vol. 3, p. 276.]

Fletcher exploits the traditional elements of pastoral form in his play, which is set in Thessaly and includes characters named Amaryllis (from the "Eclogues" of Virgil) and Daphnis and Cloe (from the novel of that name by Longus); one of the characters is a satyr. Critics have seen in the play the influence of Renaissance works like Guarini's "Il Pastor Fido" (1590) and Antonio Marsi's "Mirzia". [Logan and Smith, p. 31.] The play "represents an attempt to integrate Italianate pastoral with the English tradition exemplified by the Spenserians, drawing on both versions of pastoral in ways in which each is complicated and ironised." [Lucy Munro, "Children of the Queen's Revels: A Jacobean Theatre Repertory," Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005; pp. 124.]

The heroine of the play is the shepherdess Clorin; her love has died, yet she remains loyal to his memory and retains her chastity. This point illustrates the essential flaw and limitation of the play: little actually happens in it. "Fletcher glorifies chaste womanhood is a Spenser-like faery atmosphere...The play is an esthetic, not a moral failure, with lack of plot as its basic fault." [Logan and Smith, p. 32.]

Fletcher would learn from his mistake; the tragicomedies he would later write, on his own and with Beaumont, Philip Massinger, and other collaborators, tend to be rich with (perhaps, in some cases, over-supplied with) variegated action. [Philip Edwards, "The Danger not the Death: the art of John Fletcher," in: John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, eds., "Jacobean Theatre," London, Edward Arnold Ltd., 1960; pp. 159-78.]


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