The play is set in Paris, and opens with French travelers returning from their time abroad in Italy. De Gard comes to see his sister Oriana, who has been living as the ward of a gentleman named La Castre — an arrangement Oriana chose because she is in love with La Castre's son Mirabel. Three years earlier, before setting out on his travels, Mirabel had offered marriage to Oriana; now, she is eighteen, he is returned home, and she wants him to fulfill his commitment to her. De Gard, who came to know the mercurial and willful Mirabel in Italy, warns his sister against expecting too much; but Oriana is determined. As she puts it plainly, "My thing is marriage."
Mirabel's father La Castre also wants to see his son married, but looks to arrange a more lucrative match for him. When Mirabel reaches Paris with his two friends, Pinac and Belleur, La Castre introduces him to Rosalaura and Lillia-Bianca, the two daughters of the wealthy Nantolet. Yet Mirabel finds neither young woman to his taste. His two friends are more interested; since opposites attract, the big but bashful Belleur is drawn to the bold and outgoing Rosalaura, while the merry Pinac decides to court her serious and intellectual sister.
The straightforward Oriana confronts Mirabel directly, reminding him of his promise, and asks him if he intends to honor it. And Mirabel, just as directly, tells her that he doesn't; for him, oaths and promises are mere words and air. He shows her his own version of a little black book, in which he records all his romantic affairs, and says, "I have tales of all sorts for all sorts of women." He tells her, frankly and shamelessly, that he will not marry her. Oriana leaves in tears. Her offended brother de Gard comes close to challenging Mirabel to a duel, but reflects that this may only discredit his sister the more; he recognizes Mirabel as "A glorious talker, and a legend maker / Of idle tales, and trifles," whose words cannot be taken seriously by serious men.
Pinac and Belleur try to pursue Nantolet's daughters, but find the going very rough; the two girls seem to switch personalities in the process. Belleur meets Rosalaura again, but finds her haughty and distant; he's so distressed by his poor showing as a wooer that he storms out looking for a fight, threatening to "beat all men." Lillia-Bianca surprises Pinac by turning effervescent; she exhausts him with dancing and singing, and leaves him frazzled and confused. It turns out that both young women are under the curious tutelage of a man named Lugier, and have enacted the "taught behaviors" he espouses; but both want husbands, and neither is happy with their result so far. The three of them, however, are united in their dislike of the conceited Mirabel; and Lugier claims he can help Oriana to obtain her desires and humble the arrogant man in the bargain. He stages a charade in which a disguised De Gard pretends to be Oriana's new love, a Savoyard lord, wealthy and powerful. Mirabel is taken in at first; but a servant abused by Lugier gives away the plot. The wild goose escapes.
Pinac and Belleur try stratagems to regain the initiative with the ladies. Belleur acts the braggadocio, quarreling with everyone and attempting to overawe Rosalaura by sheer intimidation; it seems to work — until a crowd of Rosalaura's female friends jeer and ridicule him unmercifully, calling him a "mighty dairymaid in men's clothes" and "Some tinker's trull with a beard glued on." Belleur is so upset he seems half-crazed; he demands that strangers ridicule and kick him in the street. Pinac pretends to have obtained a prestigious and advantageous new love, an English gentlewoman; but Lillia-Bianca exposes her as a courtezan who's been hired to play the part for the occasion.
Lugier tries to get back at Mirabel by staging an audacious trick. It is reported that Oriana, broken-hearted, has lost her reason and is dying. De Gard, Nantolet and Rosalaura and Lillia-Bianca, and even La Castre, eager to have his son married, all take part in the fraud, and once again Mirabel is fooled; but Oriana is too honest to play the joke to the end, and confesses that she is not really mad or dying. The wild goose escapes again.
The third time is the charm. Mirabel is informed (falsely of course) that a merchant he'd known and helped in Italy has died, and left Mirabel "some certain jewels" in his will. The merchant's sister has come to Paris to fulfill her late brother's bequest. The fictional sister (Oriana is disguise) is presented as such a desirable catch that Mirabel, in a moment of enthusiasm, says that he would marry her "immediately." La Castre, De Gard, Lugier, and Nantolet suddenly appear; and Mirabel, caught and worn down by the pursuit, gives in. Belleur and Pinac talk about resuming their travels — but Rosalaura and Lillia-Bianca inform them that they will follow the men wherever they go, to Wales, to Turkey, to Persia, even to "live in a bawdy-house." The men realize they're beaten; and three madly-matched couples head for the church. Mirabel has the closing line: "This wild-goose chase is done, we have won o' both sides."
The Wild Goose Chase is one of the very rare plays in Fletcher's canon that has won some measure of approval from modern feminist critics; the women in the play are smart and independent, vigorous and appealing.
The works of the English playwright John Fletcher (1579-1625) are noted for their stylistic grace, ingenious plotting, and exciting theatricality.
John Fletcher was baptized on Dec. 20, 1579. His father was an Anglican minister who became chaplain to Queen Elizabeth and eventually bishop of London. John was educated at Cambridge and acquired a reputation as a literary man. It is not known when or why he turned to the stage, but by 1608 he had launched a long and fruitful career as a dramatist.
Although some 15 plays have been attributed to him as sole author, Fletcher did most of his work in collaboration with others. From about 1608 to about 1613, he and Francis Beaumont formed one of the most famous and successful partnerships in literary history. During this period he probably also assisted Shakespeare in one or two plays. After Shakespeare's death in 1616, Fletcher became the leading playwright of the King's Men, the most prestigious theatrical company of the period. From this time until his death in 1625, he generally served as senior partner in collaboration with Philip Massinger, Nathan Field, Samuel Rowley, and others.
Fletcher's plays were written for the elite, sophisticated audiences which frequented the "private" theaters of Jacobean London. Although his plays are still admired for their dramatic craftsmanship, they are commonly thought of as refined entertainments lacking the larger significance and universality of appeal which distinguish the work of his greater contemporaries.
Fletcher employed a variety of dramatic forms, including revenge tragedy (Valentinian, ca. 1614), satiric comedy (The Humorous Lieutenant, 1619), and farce (Rule a Wifeand Have a Wife, 1624). But his most characteristic kind of play is the "tragicomedy," which he described as a play which "wants [that is, avoids] deaths … yet brings some close to it [death]"(from his first play, The Faithfull Shepherdess, ca. 1608). But his description gives an inadequate idea of this new dramatic genre. A better illustration of Fletcherian tragicomedy is to be found in a play of narrowly averted incest, A King and No King (ca. 1611, probably written with Beaumont). Only in the last scene of this play, when King Arbaces is on the verge of yielding to his incestuous passion for Panthea, is it revealed that his beloved is not really his sister after all. Fletcher's principal concern is with the effects attending the sudden surprise which turns near-tragedy into comedy.
Fletcher died in 1625, reportedly a victim of the plague. He was buried at St. Saviour's Church in London.
Gerald Eades Bentley, The Jacobean and Caroline Stage, vol. 3 (1956), contains most of the essential information about Fletcher's life. For further information, some of it based on early gossip of questionable value, see the first volume of Alexander Dyce's edition of The Works of Beaumont and Fletcher (1843). Clifford Leech, The John Fletcher Plays (1962), discusses Fletcher's artistic merits. □