Wednesday, 30 January 2002

Francis Beaumont & John Fletcher: The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607)

Edition: Robert Holden, 1926 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1056

To a modern reader or theatre audience member, The Knight of the Burning Pestle irresistibly suggests another seventeenth century story, the far better known Don Quixote. When it was reprinted and revived in 1633, it was given a preface refuting the idea that it was derivative, by pointing out that its original performance occurred before the first appearance of Cervantes' novel in England. (This denial is a measure of just how popular Don Quixote was already by the 1630s.)

The structure of The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a double play within the play. A group of players is about to perform The London Merchant, a romantic comedy satirising that class, when two members of the audience object. A grocer and his wife are not used to play-going, but they fear that their trade isn't going to be taken seriously; and they insist that the grocer's apprentice, Ralph, be permitted to take a part which shows grocers in a better light. This is done, Ralph taking the part of a modern knight errant, an apprentice fired by tales of chivalry to take up a device appropriate to his origins, a shield showing a burning pestle (as in pestle and mortar). His adventures, and the constant interference of his not too bright master and mistress, play havoc with the drama that is meant to be on stage.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is very funny, and ends up (of course) satirising the aspirations of the merchant class a great deal more strongly than would have been the case with The London Merchant alone. That's probably the reason that it failed when first produced, before an audience a little too similar to that which it parodies, but success on revival (and its bizarre title) has left it one of the best known Jacobean comedies.

No comments: