The Knight of the Burning Pestle

by Francis Beaumont

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

Francis Beaumont, the son of a knight, could well have been cruel in a dramatic treatment of the ordinary citizens of London, but in The Knight of the Burning Pestle, he reveals, beneath the hilarious burlesque of the plot, a warm sympathy for and a large understanding of the London lower middle classes, as represented by George, the greengrocer; his wife Nell; and Ralph, their apprentice. An outstanding feature of the play is the farcical audience participation. This device, a startling innovation in 1607, survives to the present day in semidramatic situations of broad humor. The Knight of the Burning Pestle was probably written under the influence of the keen interest taken by the literate of James I’s time in Spanish prose fiction; surely Beaumont had heard of, if he had not read, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), echoes of which mark the play.

The prologue to the 1635 Beaumont and Fletcher Folio reprint of The Knight of the Burning Pestle makes clear that Beaumont’s comedy was innovative when it was first presented about 1607. At that time the theatergoers’ rage was all for satires full of “invective . . . touching some particular persons.” This mock-heroic play, with its parody of romantic bombast and its warm treatment of the London lower middle class, enjoyed little success until it was revived about 1635; then the aristocratic court audience delighted in its wordplay, wit, and ingenious construction. The Knight of the Burning Pestle has three plots cleverly unified in one: a frame-story concerning George the grocer, his outspoken wife Nell, and his cloddish apprentice Ralph; a mock-romantic play, The London Merchant, which parodies stock conventions and concerns Jasper Merrythought, the witty apprentice who loves Luce, Venturewell’s comely daughter; and finally a parody of chivalric romances, featuring the apprentice Ralph, now cast as “the right courteous and valiant knight,” whose actions are a travesty to heroic traditions.

As Knight of the Burning Pestle, Ralph utters archaic, confused, hyperbolic language as he goes about his business of knight-errantry. Instead of performing brave, wonderful deeds, he confronts a monster who is in reality a barber; instead of being a noble warrior, he is in reality a grocer’s boy who is faithful to his profession; instead of marrying a beautiful princess, he remains faithful to his cobbler’s maid, Susan. In the end, instead of succeeding, he dies; indeed, he does not even die on stage but walks off with a forked arrow through his head.

Thus the play successfully parodies the whole gamut of romantic and heroic conventions. In addition to Ralph’s misadventures, other stock elements of the theater are employed in satirical jest. Jasper and Humphrey are the traditional “rival wooers”; Jasper and Michael are the “double sons.” George and Nell consistently support the wrong lover, as they display their lack of artistic sense. Venturewell, the rich London merchant, portrays the typical protective father-figure, just as Luce is the typical independent-minded daughter. Nevertheless, Beaumont’s parody of stock theatrical situations and personalities never descends to the level of insult. His intent is to “move inward delight, not outward lightness . . . soft smiling, not loud laughing.” Despite this modest disclaimer, The Knight of the Burning Pestle is Beaumont’s most amusing, inventive comedy.

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