(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A production in a London theater is abruptly interrupted when George, a greengrocer, declares that he wants to see a new kind of play, one in which the common man of London is glorified. Sitting beside him in the audience, George’s wife, Nell, further suggests that there be a grocer in the play and that he kill a lion with a pestle. The indulgent speaker of the prologue agrees to these demands after George offers his apprentice, Ralph, to play the part of the commoner-hero. The play begins.

For presuming to love Luce Venturewell, the daughter of his master, apprentice Jasper Merrythought is discharged. Old Venturewell chooses Master Humphrey, a foolish young citizen, for his daughter, but Luce, in league with Jasper, tells the gullible Humphrey that to win her love he must abduct her and take her to Waltham Forest, where she plans to meet Jasper. In the audience, Nell, the grocer’s wife, comments that Humphrey is a fine young man.

In a grocer’s shop, Ralph reads a chivalric romance and, yearning for the olden times, determines himself to become a knight-errant. He enlists his two apprentices, Tim and George, to be his foils: the one, his squire, the other, his dwarf. Dubbing himself the Knight of the Burning Pestle, Ralph explains the rules of knight-errantry to his amused followers. Nell, pleased with Ralph’s first appearance on the stage, clamors for his immediate return.

Jasper goes home and collects his patrimony—all of ten shillings—from his indigent but carefree father, old Merrythought. Mrs. Merrythought, sick of hard times, packs her few valuables into a small chest and, with her younger son, Michael, leaves home to seek a better fortune. In the pit, George and Nell grow impatient for the reappearance of Ralph, their prodigious apprentice. Simple-minded Humphrey tells old Venturewell of Luce’s whimsical conditions for their marriage, and the old man consents to the plan. Mrs. Merrythought and Michael, traveling afoot, arrive in Waltham Forest. While resting, they grow frightened and run away when Ralph, as the Knight of the Burning Pestle, appears with his retainers. George and Nell, from their places at the edge of the stage, shout a welcome to Ralph. Ralph, assuming that Mrs. Merrythought fled from some evil knight, follows her in order to rescue her from her distress. Jasper, arriving in the forest to meet Luce, picks up the casket containing Mrs. Merrythought’s valuables. Nell, scandalized, declares that she will tell Ralph what Jasper did. When Mrs. Merrythought reports her loss to Ralph, he, in extravagantly courteous language, promises to assist her in regaining her valuables. George and Nell commend themselves for having trained such a polite and virtuous apprentice.

Humphrey and Luce come also to the forest, where they find Jasper waiting. Jasper, after thrashing Humphrey soundly, departs with Luce. George and Nell, sorry for Humphrey, offer to call back Ralph to fight Jasper. The protests of the theater boy notwithstanding, the grocer and his wife want to change the plot to see Jasper properly punished. Ralph immediately abandons his search for Mrs. Merrythought’s valuables and sets out after the runaways. Overtaking them, he challenges Jasper in the language of knight-errantry. Nell, at this juncture, exhorts Ralph to break Jasper’s head. Jasper, taking Ralph’s pestle from him, knocks down the Knight of the Burning Pestle. George tries to explain Ralph’s defeat by saying that Jasper is...

(The entire section is 1420 words.)