Last Updated September 5, 2023.
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.