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,...
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