The Knight of the Burning Pestle

by Francis Beaumont

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Francis Beaumont's 1607 comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a parody of the sort of drama that was successful during this particular time in English history when James I was king. The events of the play and the two parallel plot lines reinforce the most significant themes of the play concerning the popularity of certain kinds of dramatic conventions and the power play that exists between audience and artist. Both of these themes are a reminder that perhaps drama is not a genre to be taken overly seriously.

The dramatic conventions targeted in The Knight of the Burning Pestle are ones that Beaumont deems somewhat ridiculous. His satirical take on drama in general as an art form is clear from the start of the play, when the Citizen grocer interrupts the players on stage to comment on what he thinks should be happening. This incident compromises the power of the players, as well as the creator of the play, called "The London Merchant," calling into question the role of dramatic art in general. The reaction of the players further explores the potential meaninglessness of their art as they accept the feedback of the Citizen and his wife. As well, the conflict between certain characters, ones who want to protect the drama in its purest form and others who want to customize it according to their own whims, calls into question the tastes of society at this time. After all, if popular dramas, like the ones "The London Merchant" imitates, can be so disrespected, what value should they have?

As the two plots unfold, the original plot written into the players' lines and the invented plot suggested by audience members, the actions and events become more and more disrupted. Thanks to the interference originated by the Citizen and his wife, the performance descends into chaos: conventionality is in conflict with art, and conventionality appears to win. The hostility of the audience members, as expressed by their rude comments, their throwing of objects at the players and their general rejection of the drama as a whole, is a clever way for Beaumont to remind his playwright colleagues not to take their art too seriously; any attempts at depicting reality on stage will be met with resistance by somebody as it is impossible for art to imitate life completely.

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