The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1613 Quarto)

(Title Page Courtesy of the Digital Anthology of Early Modern English Drama)

Mr. C. Presents : The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1613)

Fletcher and Beaumont’s Knight of The Burning Pestle is a play famous for its ridicule of the parameters of the play-world (nonexistent if you ask me -I agree with Erika T. Lin’s formulation that there is no fourth wall to speak of in early drama: “We cannot break down the fourth wall before it was erected” (Lin 165)) ) and for its irreverent attitude towards the medieval ideology of chivalry. Hardly alone in this – one can point to Cervantes’ Don Quichotte (1605 y 1615) – The Knight of the Burning Pestle seems less unique when compared to similar drama of the period. While ignored during the long dark of “Shakespearean studies” – the play has accumulated significant attention for audience interaction. Moreover – the play was an “utter failure” (Zacharias) on the early modern stage – despite parodying Thomas Dekker’s popular The Shoemaker’s Holiday and Heywood’s The Four Prentices of London.

The play seems especially well suited to the BlackFriars Theatre- where it premiered – a venue which hosted another failure – Thomas Middleton’s The Witch and Christopher Marlowe’s Dido Queen of Carthage. The original venue hosted a boys’ acting company – a form generally reviled by the acting professionals – such as the King’s Men – who performed Middleton’s play.  The venue has a rich history – having undergone several transformations – from a Dominican monastery in 1275- to a parliamentary building in which Henry VIII famously repudiated Catherine of Aragon (Luminarium Web).

The first BlackFriars Theatre is relatively simple in design – with not much room for acrobatics nor elaborate stage machinery (Shapiro 134-5). As part of a liberty, BlackFriars was relatively immune from threats by civic authorities to shut down all performances in the city proper. It wouldn’t be until Burbage’s acquisition in 1597 that the space was renovated and equipped for more spectacular performances. One imagines the night flight of the witches in Middleton’s play. Most importantly – the BlackFriars playhouse was reputed for its satire – especially of civic officials and traditions. Boy companies were especially well known for their skill at ridiculing the older officials (often in the audience) and did so from 1575-1608. It was at that latter date that the Kings Men began to rule the roost.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is evidently written for a boys’ company and satirizes “the adult repertories” of the period (1). Composition likely began in 1607 – while the Chapel Boys continued to be the main attraction of this venue. More than chivalry – the play attacks the “romantic bravado” (3) of Dekker and Heywood’s plays.

The play begins with a Grocer and his wife (Nell) climbing up onto the stage and interrupting the prologue from introducing a play called “The London Merchant”. The couple demands that the troupe perform a play to their own liking – and after hearing Rafe quote I Henry IV – Nell decides that the bumbling apprentice should play a knight errant. The grocer then demands that Rafe begin to play “shawmes” – which he confesses the company does not own. Despite the obvious interruption – the London Merchant begins and presents a love triangle between a merchant’s daughter, her husband and a suitor. What is unique here is that while the main plot attempts to continue uninterrupted, Nell, the Grocer and Rafe continue to interrupt the action with their own desires.

(Image courtesy of The Spectator. 2014 production by the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London, England)

Overall – I found this play confusing to follow – in large part due to the muddling of on-stage/off-stage actions. There seems to be no such thing as diegetic/non-diegetic action in this narrative – it is all part of the same bizarre continuum of romantic plot and comical travesty. The attempted narrative – which the Grocer and his wife interrupt – is not overly interesting on its own. It seems so bland as to deserve interruption – the Grocer and Wife standing as the saviors for the audience through inviting Rafe to travesty the Romance plot. They invite the servant to the stage and ask the players to give him a “suit of reparel and necessaries” (Ind. 62-3). The romance plot could honestly be changed with any other number of early modern plays –  The Atheist’s TragedyThe Duchess of Malfi, and so on etc…. These plays usually feature a wealthy merchant or venture capitalist of some sort and his daughter, who is at the center of a violent love triangle. The Knight of the Burning Pestle throws a servant into the mix as a “knight” errant (Ind. 93). I much prefer the suggested title The Grocer’s Honour (Ind. 92).

Rafe, the Grocer and the Wife are perhaps the most worthy subjects of investigation here – in a later scene – the wily couple suggests to Rafe that he kill a “giant” – who is in fact a Barber (III.350) and inspire a scene that has absolutely nothing to do with merchant/daughter plot. The play takes a bizarre Arthurian twist here, and Rafe speaks with a knight whom he anoints his “trusty squire” (III.387) and a Dwarf (George, a name earlier taken by Rafe) also gives himself chivalric designation – calling himself “Sir Pockhole” (III.395). The Barber returns as a giant and the three knights fight him to the death and are joined by a “woman with diet-bread and drink” (III.432).

This chivalric episode is followed by banter between Old Merrythought and Mrs. Merrythought, who crack fart jokes (III.572) and generally insult each other. The interlude begins with music – the Grocer and his wife bring beer with them and enjoy a dance by a boy. This boy continues his role in the next act, where he makes fun of the Red Bull theatre and The Travels of Three English Brothers. In this way – The Knight of the Burning Pestle would almost seem contemporary – in its similarity to popular Hollywood films and their obsession with self-referentiality.

The play’s fourth act concludes with a speech by the servant Rafe – who resembles a lot of Misrule in his speech to present “the merry month of May” (Int. IV. 27). He declares himself “far inferior to the flock of gracious grocery” (Int IV. 32) and yet – as a boy bishop perhaps – holds a “gilded staff and crossed scarf” (Int IV. 34). He leaves the audience by encouraging them to search out Hogsdon or Newington “where ale and cakes are plenty” (Int IV. 56) and gives a final hurrah to the “youths of London” (Int IV.47)

If you still believe there is a main narrative to find here – the Grocer declares that “everybody’s part is come to an end but Rafe’s and he’s left out” (V.276-7). The Grocer demands that Rafe “come away quickly and die” (284) – he enters the stage with a “forked arrow through his head” (V.289). The Grocer again determines the action of the main play – he sits on the stage and determines what should be and what should not.

I would like to conclude by saying that this play confused me greatly. I need to give it other readings due to my misunderstandings. Perhaps that’s all it is – a bizarre misunderstanding of drama manipulated into a coherent whole. This is the play that breaks classical understandings of theatre – of the fourth wall – of naturalism. Brecht himself sought to emulate early modern drama for its own effects of alienation (See Brecht on Shakespeare: A Revaluation.” Comparative Drama, vol. 30, no. 2, 1996, pp. 158–187. Print). The Knight of the Burning Pestle is the performance incarnate – the experience has no ego – no bearings – no act to speak of. It merely is. The vortex unto which all performance is pulled.

Mr. C.

Works Cited:

Beaumont, Francis, and Sheldon P. Zitner. The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Manchester University Press, 1984. Print.

Beaumont, Francis. “The Knight of the Burning Pestle.” The Knight of the Burning Pestle | Folger: Early Modern English Drama, Digital Anthology of Early Modern English Drama, 21 Mar. 2017, Web.

ENGL 534 Spring 2014 Students, SDSU. “Blackfriars Theatre.” The Map of Early Modern London, The Map of Early Modern London, 1 Apr. 2014, Web.

Jokinen, Anniina. “The Blackfriars Theatre.” Luminarium: Encyclopedia Project, 19 Mar. 2002, Web.

Lin, E. Shakespeare and the Materiality of Performance. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Print.

Maltby, Kate. “Review: The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.” The Spectator: Coffee House, The Spectator, 28 Feb. 2014, Web.

Shapiro, Michael. Early (Pre-1590) Boy Companies and their Acting Venues. The Oxford Handbook to Early Modern Theatre. Ed. Richard Dutton. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. 120-35. Print.

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