The Faithful Shepherdess, recently and unjustly much disliked at the Blackfriars, is a charming and beautiful play. Much of it you’ve seen and heard before: it is self-consciously a throwback, to Spenser, to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to Italian and Latin pastoral. Because it’s this kind of throwback, and a really committed one at that, it’s also not like anything you’ve seen recently. Who is John Fletcher and what does he think he’s doing, thrusting a pastoral romance, positively gleaming with allegorical self-righteousness, into a theatrical culture currently reveling in such decadent potboilers as The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Rape of Lucrece—and at a theatre best known for plays like Eastward Ho and Law Tricks? This certainly seemed to be the question many spectators were asking themselves a little less than halfway through the play, and those few of us who stuck around to the end did so mostly for the sheer pleasure of complaining about how long it was.
John Fletcher, just shy of 30 years old, is a bishop’s kid and a Cambridge man with a diplomat uncle (Giles), a cousin who is by all accounts a serious pastoral poet in his own right (Phineas), and a phalanx of well-regarded poetizing friends (Jonson, Chapman, Beaumont) who sat and glowered along with him through the entirety of his unfortunate theatrical debut. His privilege and his connections don’t actually mean that everything has come easy for him (quite the contrary, if you know anything about his father), but he has obviously gone through life with a high expectation of success. Lucky for him, he happens to be a first-rate poet, and while he might have known that the fashionable spectators at the Blackfriars would be baffled by something as unfamiliar as The Faithful Shepherdess, he is certainly justified in being irritated at them for refusing to listen to it closely enough to give it a fighting chance.
Tis not the white or red
Inhabits your cheeke, that thus can wed
My minde to adoration: nor your eye,
Though it be full and fair, your forehead hye,
And smooth as Pelops shoulder: not the smile
Lies watching in those dimples, to beguile
The easie soule …
That’s the shepherd Thenot speaking to the titular faithful shepherdess Clorin. It is, like all the poetry in the play, smooth and lustrous, and no less perfectly managed for being highly conventional. Thenot’s point, you will be unsurprised to hear, is that Clorin’s virtue and fidelity are more attractive to him even than her looks. The speech gets considerably more complicated, even perverse, in its imagery once the blazon pattern runs its course, but the syntax is only occasionally (and then only barely) strained. The poet maintains the same delicate, slightly asymmetrical balance between phrase and rhyme even as he alters the rhythm to convey the new intensity of thought:
All these, were but your constancy away,
Would please me lesse than a blacke stormy day
The wretched Seaman toyling through the deepe.
But whilst this honourd strictnes you dare keepe,
Though all the plagues that ere begotten were,
In the great wombe of aire were setled here
In opposition, I would, like the tree,
Shake off those drops of weakness, and be free
Even in the arme of danger.
This is gorgeous and weird. And the violence of the imagery, roiling with uncertain implication and in no way demanded by the blazon, has already been anticipated, in the blazon, by the allusion to Pelops. You may or may not know that Pelops is the son of Atreus, who was given a shoulder of ivory by the gods after his real shoulder had been eaten by Demeter in the cannibalistic feast served up by his father Tantalus at dinner on Mount Olympus. John Fletcher knows it; the incongruity of the allusion to Pelops, the open question whether it is domesticated by the form (who really listens to a blazon?) or gestures wildly in unthought-of poetic and psychic directions is entirely at home in a play where the unseen god Pan—repeatedly referred to as feasting with his paramour—is invoked as the divine authority who will punish unchastity, and where a satyr faithfully serves Clorin in her work healing lovers who suffer the consequences of intemperate desire.
It might be the case that the ironies are too subtle, or that John Fletcher is not yet aware of either how complicated his material is, or how good a dramatist he might be. The play does not tell a story so much as it anatomizes different types of lovers and love problems. There is Clorin, exemplary in her fidelity to a dead lover, and her hanger-on Thenot, who worships her for her chastity: the only way she can get rid of him is to pretend that she might reciprocate his love, thus puncturing the ideal. There is Cloe, a lustful shepherdess who is unable to find a man willing to satisfy her desires; cleverly, Fletcher keeps her entirely separate from the one man who would be willing, the Sullen Shepherd, equally indiscriminate and equally frustrated. The Sullen Shepherd’s attentions are given mostly to Amaryllis, an envious lover (Helena to her friend Amoret’s Hermia) who is in love with Amoret’s beloved Perigot. When Amaryllis enlists Sullen’s help to break up Amoret and Perigot, he suggests the direct route of slander: he’ll tell everyone that he has slept with Amoret, and pay another shepherd to swear that he saw them “at our private sport.” Amaryllis has something else in mind, a complicated plot wherein the Sullen Shepherd will dip her in an enchanted well and speak a charm that causes her to look like Amoret. Silly as it is, this is theatrically quite rewarding, especially when the ensuing complications cause the confused Perigot to stab the real Amoret not once but twice—the second time after she has already been healed by Clorin! All of this action is handled with a light, almost effortless touch and, especially in the scene where Clorin deceives Thenot, or where the Satyr has to collect the wounded Amoret again, you don’t get the sense that the playwright takes too seriously the impossible ideal to which his characters aspire. But it’s hard to be sure, not least because the play offers no real alternative to the ideal other than violent intemperance.
Young sheepheardesse now, ye are brought againe
To virgin state, be so, and so remaine
To thy last day, unlesse the faithfull love
Of some good sheepeheard force thee to remove,
Then labour to be true to him, and live
As such a one, that ever strives to give
A blessed memory to after Time:
Be famous for your good, not for your crime.
So Clorin to Amaryllis at the end of the play. The speech just barely acknowledges a life livable without complete chastity (a shepherd would have to force you into it), and seems eager not to think of children (the only labour of the hypothetical union is in fidelity), imagining a blessed memory as sufficient posterity. This is as sterile and willfully myopic as the Priest of Pan’s view, articulated a scene earlier, that Nature’s imperative to reproduce amounts to mere “Blood and Lechery.”
It seems to me quite possible that the unmarried bishop’s kid John Fletcher still carries around with him, somewhere, the adolescent embarrassment and outrage caused by his father’s scandalous second marriage, and that he has talked himself into believing in the absolute ideal that the pastoral form demands or makes readily available. It seems equally possible that the innovative fledgling (and, no doubt, future) playwright John Fletcher is playing a joke on his audience, concealing within the archaic pastoral form a bitter, even nihilistic, send-up of Arcadian virtue, where there is only the smooth verse and predictable imagery to distinguish between the necrophilia of a Clorin and a Vindice. Either possibility is pretty irritating, and the play as it’s written would not really allow them to coexist or inform one another. So it is understandable that the spectators at the Blackfriars felt like their time was being wasted; but that doesn’t make The Faithful Shepherdess a bad play.
–Jeremy Lopez, London, 1608