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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433

Francis Beaumont wrote The Knight of the Burning Pestle , which was performed in 1607 in the Blackfriars Theater. Unlike the outdoor theaters such as the Globe, the Blackfriars catered to a more sophisticated and wealthy audience. This play is a delightfully metatheatrical production with running commentary on the art...

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Francis Beaumont wrote The Knight of the Burning Pestle, which was performed in 1607 in the Blackfriars Theater. Unlike the outdoor theaters such as the Globe, the Blackfriars catered to a more sophisticated and wealthy audience. This play is a delightfully metatheatrical production with running commentary on the art of theater and audience expectations. It has sometimes been described as postmodern in its ethos, and that might not be too far from the truth.

The play belongs to what are called city comedies, which are plays that focus on London merchants, rather than nobles such as Shakespeare uses in his romantic comedies, or peasants, which sometimes appeared in farces.

The play uses a framing device. Overtly the play that is to be seen is called "The London Merchant," but a grocer in the audience objects that it will be yet another comedy satirizing the good merchants of London. He and his wife approach the stage, demanding that the actors change their play to something more pleasing: a romance like Don Quixote in which their apprentice Rafe can become a knight/grocer-errant.

The London Merchant involves a young apprentice (Jaspar) in love with the merchant's daughter (Luce), who is supposed to marry another Man of the City (Humphrey). The young lovers conspire to elope by tricking the father and Humphrey. Meanwhile, Jaspar's mother decides to leave his father due to his father's drinking.

Jaspar's mother and brother end up lost in the woods and lose the jewels they have taken to start a new life. Jaspar ends up in the same area of the woods, followed by Luce and Humphrey. Jaspar attacks Humphrey and elopes with Luce. Eventually, after a few of Rafe's interventions, Jaspar is able eventually to cleverly arrange for his marriage to Luce, though he must fake his own death to achieve this.

Interspersed in this plot, the Grocer Errant Rafe appears, misreads the situation, engages in a series of comic mistakes, but nonetheless performs his part with admirable enthusiasm. The Grocer and his Wife demand more of Rafe, more romantic adventure, and eventually a tragic death scene in which Rafe can perform a dramatic ending.

Overall, while the play is somewhat madcap, one can draw a few messages. First, the impulse to satirize belies a narrow and prejudiced perspective. The play is more fun with the addition of Rafe and his innocent desire to be of service. Further, the tyranny of the audience causes playwrights to bow to trends and tastes rather than write the play they might wish to compose. And finally, the line between life and art is tenuous.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1420

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 endowed with magical powers.

Ralph, his retainers, Mrs. Merrythought, and Michael put up for the night at the Bell Inn in Waltham. When they mistake the inn for a castle, the innkeeper indulgently joins them in their make-believe. Humphrey, meanwhile, returns to old Venturewell, to whom he complains of his treatment at the hands of Jasper. Irate, Venturewell goes to old Merrythought and threatens to kill Jasper. George and Nell at this point are so taken with the plot of the play that they believe it to be real. Old Merrythought, carefree as usual, pays no heed to Venturewell’s vengeful threats. That night, while Luce is asleep in Waltham Forest, Jasper decides to test her love for him. Drawing his sword, he arouses the girl with threats that he intends to kill her because her father discharged him. Nell excitedly urges George to raise the London watch, to prevent what appears to her to be certain violence. As Luce trustingly submits to Jasper’s threats, Venturewell, Humphrey, and their men appear and rescue her. Jasper, hopeful that he might somehow explain his behavior to Luce, follows them.

Next morning, at the Bell Inn, Ralph, unable to pay the reckoning, is threatened by the landlord. George gives Ralph twelve shillings so that he can pay. Mrs. Merrythought and Michael, disenchanted, go home. Ralph, still in search of romantic adventure, is directed by the innkeeper to a barbershop in the town, where, he says, a giant named Barbaroso commits enormities every day. At this point Mrs. Merrythought returns to the stage, only to be dragged off by George and Nell, who cannot wait to see Ralph’s fight with the barber.

Ralph, after challenging the barber to mortal combat, knocks him down. While he begs for mercy, Ralph directs his retainers to liberate the barber’s victims. One is a knight whose face is covered with lather. Another is a man on whom the barber did minor surgery. As other victims appear, the barber is spared on the condition that he no longer subject humans to such indignities. George and Nell beam with pride at Ralph’s conquest of the giant Barbaroso, and Nell allows Mrs. Merrythought and Michael to appear on the stage.

Mrs. Merrythought despairs because she is unable to get old Merrythought to have a serious thought. Nell, furious at the old man’s carefree indifference, orders a beer to calm her temper. Then the action of the play becomes somewhat too pedestrian for the tastes of George and Nell. The couple next request that Ralph be involved in a truly exotic adventure. Ralph suddenly finds himself an honored guest at the court of Moldavia. Courteously rejecting Princess Pompiana’s favors, he declares that he was promised to Susan, the daughter of a cobbler in London. George gives Ralph a handful of small coins to distribute as largess to the royal household. Nell commends Ralph’s loyalty and patriotism in preferring a London girl to a princess of a foreign land.

Luce, meanwhile, is confined to her room with the prospect of marriage to Humphrey in three days’ time. Mrs. Merrythought seeks aid, unsuccessfully, from old Venturewell. Venturewell receives a letter of repentance from Jasper, allegedly written by the youth as he lay dying of a broken heart, with the request that his body be conveyed to Luce. Hard upon the letter comes a coffin, which is carried to Luce’s room. Jasper, quite alive, springs from the coffin, makes explanations to Luce, places her in the coffin, and has it removed from the room. He hides in the closet. Venturewell, still vengeful, orders the coffin to be delivered to old Merrythought, who by this time is penniless although still merry. George, no respecter of plot, demands that Ralph appear again. Ralph, in the guise of Maylord, presents the month of May to the city of London.

Jasper, meanwhile, covers his face with flour and, appearing as a ghost, tells old Venturewell that he will never see his daughter again. Thoroughly frightened and repentant of his past actions, the old man thrashes Humphrey, who came to see Luce, and sends him away. George and Nell, their interest flagging, demand a diversion in which Ralph will be the center of attention. Ralph appears as a highly efficient captain leading a parade of London volunteers.

The coffin containing Luce is delivered to old Merrythought, who continues to be indifferent. When Jasper appears and reveals Luce’s presence, the young people prevail upon old Merrythought to take back Mrs. Merrythought and Michael. Venturewell, still mindful of Jasper’s ghost, tells old Merrythought that he forgives all Jasper’s transgressions. Jasper and Luce then confront Venturewell, who offers them his blessings. George and Nell, unaware of dramatic proprieties, ask for the stage death of Ralph so that the play can end properly. Ralph, with a forked arrow through his head, delivers an absurd speech about Princess Pompiana and Susan. Highly pleased with the sad ending, Nell invites the audience to partake of tobacco and wine at her house.

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