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the knight of the burning pestle

22 february 2022

At some point between my graduate education in 1979-81 and the present Wikipedia pages on the subject, The Knight of the Burning Pestle went from being a "Beaumont & Fletcher" play to being credited to Francis Beaumont alone. Benjamin Griffith's 1963 Barron's edition, the only one in my university library, treats the play as a collaboration, though Griffith acknowledged even back then that some see it as entirely by Beaumont. Google does not cast up any meta-discussion of this authorship controversy, not that it would have gotten more than one click in the history of the Internet – by me, about 10 minutes ago.

And not that it matters. If Beaumont and Fletcher did not always write everything while looking over each other's shoulder, they were certainly a dominant "brand" in the 17th-century English theater world, and The Knight of the Burning Pestle remains the most famous play associated with either.

It is a seriously postmodern play. It takes place in a playhouse, where actors are about to perform a play, one of those comedies full of misunderstandings where a guy wants to marry his boss's daughter and the boss wants her to marry some rich dumbass. A pair of "citizens," a grocer and his wife, demand some revisions: they want to see their apprentice Ralph onstage, playing a knight in shining, or I guess burning, armor.

The company objects; they have no part for Ralph and he will mess up the plot, which is a London farce, not a Spenserian romance. But they relent, find the apprentice a costume, and commence trying to perform their play, which Ralph continually interrupts with his knight-errant nonsense.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle looks forward to mixed-up attempts at theater like Six Characters in Search of an Author and Ariadne auf Naxos. It also looks sideways toward Don Quixote, though there was probably no direct influence. Don Quixote did not appear in English till 1612, and Pestle premiered five years earlier. Griffith says "it is extremely likely that Beaumont and Fletcher could have seen" a manuscript draft of Thomas Shelton's English Quixote (xvi), an oddly qualified statement where a scholar imagines that creative writers must have a comprehensive scholarly knowledge of contemporary literary developments. But think of living writers; some do, some don't. Again, no matter. Parodies of knights-and-ladies romance were in the air, and knights-and-ladies stories are always already parodies of themselves. John Harington's version of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso appeared in 1591, and it's extremely likely that the playwrights could have seen that book, too.

In any case, the play proceeds with three colliding lines of action. (1) In the "play" proper, Venturewell wants to marry his daughter Luce to the idiot Humphrey, while she and the apprentice Jasper Merrythought are in love and determined to elope. (2) Jasper's father Merrythought, a man of subhuman hedonism, meanwhile dissolves his family, paying off Jasper, sending his wife and younger son out into the world so that he can stay home, drink, and sing (Merrythought is a part written for the best voice in a Jacobean children's company). The loose wife and kid give knight-errant Ralph a damsel and waif to succor. (3) The Citizens keep up a running commentary on the action, often stepping in to supply the needs of the characters they like and to heap verbal abuse on those they don't.

The actors keep complaining to the Citizens that Ralph is messing everything up, but they weirdly roll with every turn he takes, as if the whole thing had been written out in advance by Beaumont and Fletcher or somebody. Of course Jasper will win his Luce, after some blood-curdling developments, and of course Ralph will get his fight scene, his triumph, and his death scene, each equally far removed from the Venturewell/Merrythought action.

Griffith says that Ralph "might be tedious to unsophisticated playgoers" (xiv), but Ralph has the most energetic hijinks in the play and has always been the starring role. The smaller part of Humphrey is even better-written. While the other characters speak prose or blank verse in various registers, Humphrey speaks the worst rhyming couplets ever uttered on the English stage, constructed with remarkable skill by Beaumont (if it was Beaumont):

Good Mistress Luce, however I in fault am
For your lame horse, you're welcome unto Waltham. (31-32)
The tedious stuff, to my thinking, is the badinage of the Citizens. It is full of in-jokes that one hopes went over better in 1607, and it's a one-premise humor: that the Citizens do not know the difference between play and reality. There's a lot of this misprision, and it palls after a few scenes.

Somewhere in the farrago there is a lot going on about class in England, though under the cloak of nonstop wackiness. The Venturewells are bourgeois types with ambitions to gentility. An alliance with Humphrey seems to be a rung up that ladder, though Humphrey is simply rich, not particularly well-born. Everyone else in the play is a "city" type, in trade of some sort, but in Ralph's case smitten with the trappings of chivalry that had long since become more the stuff of popular entertainment than social rank. We are clearly invited to laugh at the Citizen couple as the most ill-bred of the lot, but they have money and can enforce their will on the proceedings. And who are "we" to laugh at them anyway? The original audience may have been aristocrats at a court theater, but the play itself represents a public playhouse where people of the urban business class laugh at plays about themselves, and at themselves, and via Ralph's pretensions at their betters, who then laugh at them all and at themselves as well.

This is too complicated for a lifetime of study, let alone a quick Internet book review, but it suggests that sharp, stupid plays like The Knight of the Burning Pestle embody the kinds of contradictions and ironies that still drive comedies of contemporary life.

Beaumont, Francis, and John Fletcher. The Knight of the Burning Pestle. [Performed 1607-08; first published 1613.] Edited by Benjamin W. Griffith, Jr. Great Neck, NY: Barron's, 1963.