John Fletcher was born in December 1579 in Rye, Sussex, the son of Richard Fletcher, in turn Dean of Peterborough, Bishop of Bristol, Bishop or Worcester, and later Bishop of London and chaplain to the queen. John Fletcher was cousin to the poet Phineas Fletcher, author of The Purple Island. He attended Bene’t College, Cambridge (now known as Corpus Christi College) of which his father had been president, but when his father died in 1596 he was in bad financial circumstances.
Virtually nothing is known about him until 1606, when he is recorded as one of the group of literary men and wits who gathered at the Mermaid Tavern. This is where he likely met his most famous collaborator, William Shakespeare, along with Ben Jonson and Francis Beaumont, with whom his name is almost inextricably bound when his comedies are discussed. Fletcher’s collaboration with Beaumont lasted from 1607 until the latter’s death in 1616. He also wrote plays in conjunction with Massinger, Middleton, Rowley, and Jonson himself.
Fletcher’s first recorded sole-authorship play was The Faithful Shepherdess (c.1609) and he continued to write plays on his own. These included the historical tragedy Bonduca (1614), the comedies The Chances (c.1617), an adaptation from Cervantes, The Tamer Tamed (1624), which answered Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, a political drama, The Loyal Subject (1618), and a tragedy, Valentinian (1610-?1614). Fletcher is likely to have collaborated with Shakespeare in two plays, The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613-16) and The Life of King Henry the Eighth (1613). In the case of the latter, however, as David Bevington suggests, “the case for Shakespeare as author of essentially the entire play is impressive” (Shakespeare, Works, Ed. Bevington, 893). There seems to be some scholarly agreement, on the other hand, that Shakespeare and Fletcher did write The Two Noble Kinsmen together, although it was not printed in the 1623 folio of Shakespeare’s works. It may be interesting to note that the first person to suggest Fletcher as Shakespeare’s co-author in Henry the Eighthwas Tennyson, followed by his friend James Spedding, who analysed the verse (see Bevington 893 for details). Bevington omits The Two Noble Kinsmen from his edition of Shakespeare but retains Henry the Eighth.
Fletcher seems to have preferred comedy as his genre, and this is certainly what he is best-known for. The first of the plays written in collaboration with Francis Beaumont (1584-1616) was The Woman-Hater(1607), but their most famous play was the uproariously-funny Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607) in which Beaumont and Fletcher, influenced of course by Cervantes, made fun of knight-errantry, heroic domestic drama like Thomas Heywood‘s Four Prentices of London, and the heroic verse of Shakespeare. They even satirized the audience, especially people who liked to sit on the stage and interfere with the play. After the immense success of this play, Beaumont and Fletcher never looked back. They had struck a close friendship, and a prosperous collaborative creative relationship. The two were so close, in fact, that John Aubrey reported that they even shared clothes sometimes. Their collaboration also produced Philaster (c.1609), a romantic mistaken-identity play, The Maid’s Tragedy (c.1610), a play about murder and betrayal, and, finally, A King and No King (1611), a “black comedy” complete with incest and more mistaken identities, which somehow ends happily. It was a sad day for English theatre when Francis Beaumont died prematurely of a fever in 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death. The first collected edition of the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher came out in 1647. The plays remained popular down to the eighteenth century and are frequently revived today.