The Knight of the Burning Pestle

The Knight of the Burning Pestle

"The Knight of the Burning Pestle" is a play by Francis Beaumont, first performed in 1607 and first published in a quarto in 1613. It is notable as the first whole parody (or pastiche) play in English. The play is a satire on chivalric romances in general, similar to "Don Quixote", and a parody of Thomas Heywood's "The Four Prentices of London" and Thomas Dekker's "The Shoemaker's Holiday". Furthermore, the play is notable for breaking the fourth wall at its outset.


It is most likely that the play was written for the child actors at Blackfriars Theatre, where John Marston had previously had plays produced. In addition to the textual history testifying to a Blackfriar's origin, there are multiple references within the text to Marston, to the actors as children (notably from the Citizen's Wife, who seems to recognize the actors from their school), and other indications that the performance took place in a house known for biting satire and sexual double entendre. Blackfriars specialized in satire, according to Andrew Gurr (quoted in Hattaway, ix), and Michael Hattaway suggests that the dissonance of the youth of the players and the gravity of their roles combined with the multiple internal references to holiday revels because the play had a Shrovetide or midsummer's day first production (Hattaway xxi and xiii). The play is certainly carnivalesque, but the date of the first performance is purely speculative. The second quarto publication came in 1635, with a third the same year. The play was omitted from the first Beaumont and Fletcher folio of 1647 but included in the second folio of 1679.


If written for Blackfriars, "The Knight of the Burning Pestle" would have initially been produced in a small private theatre, with minimal stage properties. However, the private theaters were first to introduce the practice of having audience members seated on the stage proper (according to Gurr, "op cit." in Hattaway ix), which is a framing device for this play's action. Additionally, the higher cost of a private theater (six shillings, compared to a penny at some public theaters) changed the composition of the audience and would have suggested a more critically aware (and demanding) crowd. The play makes use of several "interludes," which would have been spare entertainments between the acts (but which are integrated into the performance in this case), again emphasizing the smallness and spareness of the initial staging (as interludes would have allowed for technicians to arrange the lights and scenery and to put actors in place).

Revivals of the play are largely undocumented, but some are attested. Hattaway suggests that it was performed in the Cockpit Theatre in Drury Lane in 1635, at court the next year, and then after the Restoration at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1662 and again in 1665 and 1667 (Hattaway xxix). The play "has proved popular with amateur and university groups," according to Hattaway, but not with professional troupes. The Royal Shakespeare Company performed it in 1981.


A grocer and his wife "in the audience" of the play interrupt to complain loudly that plays are always about nobility and that it is they, the common people, who pay for most of the tickets. The Citizen has a seat on the side of the stage, and he brings his wife up to sit with him (a violation of decorum). They demand that the players put on a play of their own choosing and suggest that one of them—in fact, their apprentice, Rafe—should have a part in the play. Rafe then gets the part of the "Grocer Errant" in the interrupted drama. He has a burning pestle on his shield as a heraldic device and has to undertake the daring rescue of patients being held by a barber named Barbaroso. The meta-fictional plot is intercut with the main plot of the interrupted play, where Jasper Merrythought, a merchant's apprentice, is in love with his master's daughter, Luce, and must elope with her to save her from the arranged marriage with Humphrey, a "swell" or City man of fashion. Humphrey is not at the level of fop, but he has multiple malapropisms and indications that his learning and breeding are false. Luce pretends to wish to elope with Humphrey so that her father will be expecting such a flight, but her and Jasper's plans go awry, and Humphrey and the merchant capture the lovers, and the merchant locks Luce in her room. Jasper feigns death and gets his coffin carried to the merchant's house (as the merchant is responsible for his apprentice). He then gets up from the coffin and pretends to be his own ghost and frightens the merchant into giving consent to his match with Luce.

The play hits a number of satirical and parodic points. The audience is satirized, with the interrupting grocer, but the domineering and demanding merchant class is also satirized in the main plot. Beaumont makes fun of the new demand for stories of the middle classes for the middle classes, even as he makes fun of that class's actual taste for an exoticism and a chivalry that is entirely hyperbolic. The Grocer and his wife are bombastic, sure of themselves, and certain that their prosperity carries with it mercantile advantages (the ability to demand a different play for their admission fee than the one the actors have prepared).

The broader humor of the play derives from innuendo and sexual jokes, as well as joking references to other dramatists. The players, for example, plant a winking joke at the Grocer's expense, as the pestle of Rafe's herald is a phallic metaphor, and a burning pestle/penis implies syphilis, on the one hand, and sexual bravado, on the other. The inability of the Citizen and Wife to comprehend how they are satirized, or to understand the main plot, allows the audience to laugh at itself, even as it admits its complicity with the Citizen's boorish tastes.


The play was a famous failure when it was first performed; though it won approval over the next generation or two. In Richard Brome's "The Sparagus Garden" (1635), the character Rebecca desires to see it "above all plays." Beaumont's comedy was performed at Court by Queen Henrietta's Men on February 28, 1636 (new style). [See Zitner's edition, pp. 42-3.]

A 1974 production of the play featured music by Peter Schickele, best known as the creator of P.D.Q. Bach.

External links

* [ Text of play (PDF)]



*Beaumont, Francis. "The Knight of the Burning Pestle." Michael Hattaway, ed. New Mermaids. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.
* "The Knight of the Burning Pestle." Sheldon P. Zitner, ed. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2004.

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