The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont (1607)

It is the spring of 1607 and a play is just about to start in the Blackfriars theatre. Unlike Shakespeare’s Globe theatre across the river, the Blackfriars is not open to the elements but roofed, and it is also small, meaning tickets are more expensive (sixpence compared to a penny admission at the Globe). Not surprisingly, it caters to a more upmarket audience, including courtiers and men-about-town who like to think themselves a cut above the middle-class merchants and artisans of ever-expanding London. The Blackfriars was a venue for ‘coterie drama’ for gentleman ‘wits’, in contrast to the more popular drama of writers like Shakespeare and Thomas Heywood across the water in Southwark.

One last point. The Blackfriars theatre was associated with the fashion for boy actors who grew increasingly popular from the turn of the century, specifically the members of the troupe called The Children of the Queen’s Revels. These boy actors were generally between the ages of 8 and 12! Yes, boys originally played all the roles in this play and many like them. Girls, women, heroines, matrons and old ladies, dashing heroes and crotchety old men – all played by boys.

The prologue

Anyway, a new play is about to begin and the actor playing the Prologue steps forward dressed in a long, black velvet cloak and a garland of bays to address the audience, setting the scene for the troupe’s new play which is entitled The London Merchant. But he hasn’t even completed three lines of the prologue before he is rudely interrupted by a member of the audience, who climbs up onstage to talk to him.

It quickly becomes clear that this man is George, a London grocer, and he starts decrying the new play before it’s even begun, moaning that it’s another one of those satires which mock honest merchants like himself.

Taken aback, the Prologue asks what he’d like instead. The merchant replies he wants to see something which stars a merchant like himself, and tales of romance and adventure. At which point his wife, Nell, starts yelling from down in the audience that she wants to see a play about a grocer who is a knightly hero and kills a lion with a pestle! – a random, off-the-wall suggestion which the loudmouth grocer promptly takes up.

The Prologue complains that they should have told him this request month ago, it’s too late now, they’ve rehearsed the new play and have no boys free to play a merchant. ‘I’ve got the solution’, says the merchant, ‘let my boy Rafe play him, his acting and impersonations are the highlight of every party’. And he promptly gets Rafe to prove it by hauling him onstage and getting him to declaim part of Hotspur’s speech from Henry IV part 1, loudly and confidently.

The Prologue reluctantly agrees that Rafe is pretty good, and tasks one of the assistants to take him backstage to be rigged up in acting apparel, then the Prologue asks for the merchant and his wife to be seated. Comically, they hustle and bustle themselves among the stools on the stage. (This was another feature of the Blackfriars theatre – that supposed wits and gallants paid extra to sit onstage throughout the play, making comments on it or chatting among themselves or grandstanding to the audience.)

By sitting on the stage you have a signd patent to engrosse the whole commodity of Censure; may lawfully presume to be a Girder; and stand at the helme to steere the passage of scaenes; yet no man shall once offer to hinder you from obtaining the title of an insolent over-weening Coxcombe…. If you know not ye author, you may raile against him, and peradventure so behave your selfe, that you may enforce the author to know you.
(The Gull’s Horn-Book by Thomas Dekker, 1609)

The grocer and his wife now rudely push themselves and their stools in among these posh gentlemen, presumably causing amusement in the wider audience down in auditorium at this breach of decorum.

Now the Prologue recommences his speech and out of this initial confusion it emerges that the play is going to have three distinct strands:

  1. The original plot of The London Merchant in which two young men – gentle but stupid Humphrey and charismatic but unpredictable Jasper Merrythought – vie for the hand of the merchant Venturewell’s daughter, Luce, with the usual round of complications.
  2. Rafe’s narrative – The Knight of the Burning Pestle – in which he dresses as a traditional knight errant of romance, is assisted by his squire and page (a fellow apprentice named Tim and a dwarf named George), declaims high heroic poetry and has a series of mock heroic adventures, some of which are based on Cervantes’ recent novel Don Quixote, but many of which stem from the same Iberian romances and mock heroic romances.
  3. Finally, the continual interruptions and commentary from George and his wife, specially whenever Rafe enters – applauding his every move when he’s onstage, and barracking the other actors and demanding his return whenever he’s absent, plus their running commentary on almost everything else, including the reactions of the audience and the gentlemen on stools.

It’s funny but it’s a real ragbag. Jasper, the rascally apprentice, is fired by merchant Venturewell, but manages to ravish young Luce off to the romantic venue of Waltham Forest. There’s an episode where the couple lie down to sleep, and Luce indeed falls asleep, at which point Jasper undergoes a curious transformation and decides he will wake her, threaten her with his sword, declaring he must have her blood to avenge her father’s wrongs (in booting Jasper out of his apprenticeship). This is ludicrous to begin with but is made doubly so by the immediate intervention of Nell the grocer’s wife, who’s never liked him and now starts damning his behaviour.

Later the pallid, useless apprentice Humphrey enters and confronts Jasper, who promptly beats him black and blue, leading Nell the grocer’s wife to not only berate him again, but cross over to poor HUmphrey and offer him several herbal remedies for his poor bruises.

Meanwhile we learn that Jasper’s parents are Old Merrythought and Mistress Merrythought, and their younger son, Michael, still lives with them. Old Merrythought is a strange ‘comic’ creation, he speaks almost entirely in songs, unstoppably answering every question and accusation and request by singing an excerpt from one of the many popular songs of the time.

OLD MERRYTHOUGHT: I would not be a serving-man
To carry the cloak-bag still,
Nor would I be a falconer
The greedy hawks to fill;
But I would be in a good house,
And have a good master too;
But I would eat and drink of the best,
And no work would I do.

He is utterly spendthrift, gay and merry, giving absolutely no thought for the morrow, and so drives his wife mad with his careless insouciance. In fact his wife has determined to leave him because he has spent all their money on drinking and partying.

OLD MERRYTHOUGHT: This it is that keeps life and soul together, mirth; this is the philosopher’s stone that they write so much on, that keeps a man ever young.

Nell, the grocer’s wife, once again is fiercely critical of Old M, not least in the scenes where he shows his complete indifference to his wife, for being ‘an ingrant old man to use his bed-fellow so scurvily’.

The London Merchant moves towards a big scene in the final act, where Venturewell has recaptured his daughter Luce, from Jasper, and locked her in his house, preparatory to her marrying the good apprentice, Humphrey. Jasper concocts a Cunning Plan, which is to pay a boy and some carriers to convey a letter to Venturewell saying that he, Jasper, has died and he has one dying request, can his corpse be conveyed into Venturewell’s house so that Luce can pay her last respects, say goodbye, and be ready to marry Humphrey.

As you might expect, this is a scam, the coffin arrives and Jasper is in it alright, lying still under a black velvet cloth. Venturewell allows it into the living room and leaves Luce to weep and mourn and declaim a page of sad verse over the body of her beloved, before Jasper suddenly leaps up out of the coffin and nearly scares her to death. He quickly gets her to swap places, covers her with the velvet cloth and gets the boy and carrier to convey her out, as if carrying Jasper to a cemetery.

Meanwhile, Jasper hides and covers his face in white flour so that, when Venturewell comes back on stage, Jasper suddenly appears like a ghost, terrifying Venturewell and threatening to haunt him for the rest of his life until he makes things right, beats and punishes Humphrey. Poor Humphrey enters at this stage and is promptly beaten for the second time in the play.

This is more or less the climax of the main play as Venturewell promises to do absolutely anything to make things right with the ghost and avoid being haunted – at which point Jasper reveals that he is not in fact dead, invites Luce back onstage, and gets the relieved Venturewell to agree to their being married. Finally.

Meanwhile, this narrative has been interwoven with a series of comic mock-heroic escapades featuring Rafe.

RAFE: My name is Rafe; I am an Englishman,
(As true as steel, a hearty Englishman,)
And prentice to a grocer in the Strand

It is clear from the moment he comes back onstage, hurriedly dressed up in the best knightly costume that the boy players can be spared, and sets about telling his squire (Tim the apprentice) and George the dwarf that they must no longer call him Rafe but address him as ‘the Knight of the Burning Pestle’ and so on, that his segments are going to be the most amusing.

RAFE: I charge you that from henceforth you never call me by any other name but “the right courteous and valiant Knight of the Burning Pestle;” and that you never call any female by the name of a woman or wench, but “fair lady,” if she have her desires, if not, “distressed damsel”; that you call all forests and heaths “deserts,” and all horses “palfreys.”

Three of his adventures stick out. He and his liegemen travel out to Waltham Forest (where their tracks cross, at various points, Jasper and Luce, and Mistress Merrythought and her son, Michael) and put up at the Bell Inn which is transformed, in his imagination, into a castle.

The host of the Bell twigs to the joke and then Rafe to visit the cave of the monster Barbaroso who is, in fact, the village surgeon-barber, and where they find three ‘victims’ languishing in his ‘dungeons’, who are in fact a customer having his hair cut and two others undergoing the totally quackish treatment Elizabethan surgeon-barbers were famous for. (The red and white swirly pole outside barbershops to this day recalls the times when surgeon-barbers let blood as well as shaving and trimming their customers.)

And lastly Rafe leads a number of his fellow prentices out to Moorfields in what, onstage, amounts to half a dozen small boys drilling with toy weapons, but in Rafe and the grocer’s imagination, becomes an army training before setting off to the wars in France.

But, Nell, I will
have Ralph do a very notable matter now, to
the eternal honour and glory of all grocers.

All the way through Rafe’s high-blown heroic poetry and noble sentiments, especially when he meets a damsel in distress (for example Mistress Merrythought when she gets lost in Waltham Forest), are undercut by the fact that he occasionally lets slip that he is in fact a grocer’s apprentice whose girlfriend is Susan, a cobbler’s daughter from Milk Street.

What’s odd because it’s inconsistent about these scenes is that we all understand they have been extemporised i.e. they’re not part of the rehearsed play being performed for us – and yet Rafe and the other characters in his ‘romance’ parts of the plot – the innkeeper and his daughter, the barber Barbaroso and his victims – all play along with the gag. This doesn’t really make sense – how could all these people be prepared, dressed and rehearsed with no time?

And it’s even weirder, because they are not only – on the face of it – extemporising with impressive speed, they are extemporising a play within a play within a play: because not only is Rafe 1. performing a play whose scenes 2. have been inserted into The London Merchant, but 3. he is shown explaining to the actors playing an innkeeper or a barber, that they in fact need to 3. speak and act on another level, as heroic characters from romance.

Some of Rafe’s scenes closely echo scenes in Cervantes’ long fiction Don Quixote, the first part of which had been published only a few years earlier, in 1605, although there is scholarly argument about whether Beaumont took the scenes from Cervantes or from earlier mock heroic comedies which are common sources for both.

The Rafe plot concludes after the grocer and his wife loudly demand a heroic ending for their Rafe and so, once the Jasper-Luce-Venturewell happy ending is tied up and they’ve exited the stage, Rafe staggers onstage with a fake arrow through his neck, as if mortally and heroically wounded in the wars, before delivering a long and ‘moving’ death speech and expiring to the floor – despite the disapproval of one of the main players:

WIFE: Now, good husband, let him come out and die.
CITIZEN: He shall, Nell.—Ralph, come away quickly, and die, boy!
BOY: ‘Twill be very unfit he should die, sir, upon no occasion — and in a comedy too.

Nell the grocer’s wife is beside herself with emotion, and immediately makes Rafe get to his feet and take a bow and introduces him to the fine gentlemen sitting on their stools and commends him to the audience. Everything has a happy ending and the audience go away happy.

The title

The title has about three sources and/or meanings. The pestle was one of the many signs hanging outside the shops of tradesmen in London, the pestle from a mortar and pestle used to grind up the spices sold at a grocer’s shop.

The pestle can also be thought of as a kind of weapon, along the lines of a club, and appears as such on the heraldic shield which the players quickly knock up for Rafe. And on the level of sexual innuendo which absolutely drenched Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, it symbolises a penis, and the burning sensation can be attributed to the very common sexually transmitted diseases of the period, syphilis and gonorrhea.


Related links

There is no author’s name on any of the early printed editions of the play and the tradition grew up that it was one of the many collaborations between Beaumont and John Fletcher. Thus the 1913 edition of the play which Project Gutenberg has transferred online indicates that the play was written by both authors. But according to the editor of the 1986 New Mermaid edition, Michael Hattaway, recent, detailed studies of the play’s language have conclusively proved it was by Beaumont alone.

Jacobean comedies

Elizabethan art

17th century history

Restoration comedies

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: