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Book review: The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont, edited by Sheldon P. Zitner

October 11, 2017

The Knight of the Burning Pestle [The Revels Plays]The Knight of the Burning Pestle [The Revels Plays] by Francis Beaumont
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Unlike many of William Shakespeare‘s comedies, the humor seemed clear to me from the page, and I often laughed aloud. The momentum winds down a bit after Rafe’s encounter with the barber, which is enough of a comic highlight that it was edited for a collection of “Rump Drolls” called The Wits, or Sport Upon Sport, that were supposedly performed during the Civil War (meaning the Oliver Cromwell period, for Amerocentrics). This version is included as Appendix B, but one wonders as to the point, since it seems the only difference is that the old-style spelling was retained whereas the body of the play has standardized the spelling to contemporary usage. Zitner claims (165) that a number of lines were omitted, but they certainly weren’t as he presented them. I didn’t check line by line, but I didn’t notice any major discrepancies, and when those the editor points out as omitted on page 165 appear on page 168, one wonders the point of the inclusion.

While there are many reasons I can think of to show a military drill a the end of a drama, Rafe’s training of the military is neither as exciting or funny as the barber episode, ans one wonders if its anticlimactic nature isn’t so much a mistake as a joke on the backwardness of the citizens who call for it, such as Shakespeare’s “Coast of Bohemia” in The Winter’s Tale (which some editors in previous centuries actually altered, pretending that the compositor made a mistake).

While Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker seemed to invite Mary Frith onto the stage, she died in 1659, and there is no evidence that she ever played herself in The Roaring Girl, but here we have a grocer and his wife come on stage and insist upon changes to the narrative and offering their own apprentice, Rafe, as the actor. At only one point do the stories actually intertwine, when there is a brief battle between the protagonists of the two separate arcs, Jasper and Rafe. Shakespeare’s contemporaries are not known for effectively tying two plots together the way he could, one of a number of assertions against Charles Hamilton‘s attribution of The Second Maiden’s Tragedy as Shakespeare’s Cardenio. Nevertheless, the effect is something resembling postmodernism, and despite being one of the best known and most published plays of the period not by Shakespeare or Ben Jonson, it was initially a flop. Zitner’s explanation of the play’s historical background and tie to the “children’s company” (despite the name the boys tended to range in age between 8 and in their 20s) tradition at Blackfriars Theatre is most informative for contextualizing the play, in which references to the play being performed entirely by boys is most common.

I was amused by Zitner’s use of rhyme on page 70, note 184: “The sense intended is clear, but the phrase is awkward here.” On page 73, line 244-8, there is an amusing quote from L. Stone’s The Crisis of English Aristocracy, “The language used by men of . . high social standing is often so intemperate as to be almost deranged,” which is parodied by Rafe making fun of aristocrats saying things like “the son of a whore” and “damned bitch,” which made me think of Donald Trump. On pp 129-130, a theatre called the Red Bull is disdained as low brow, which I also see as unintentionally contemporary humor.

I do have some specific issues with Zitner’s notes in the play. On page 69, note 172, he refers readers to Act IV, line 418. In this edition, Act IV has only 320 lines. I believe he intended to put Act III, where the reference to a special diet for syphilitics occurs (there are a lot of jokes in the play about people claiming war wounds that are really effects of syphilis), but writing IV when you mean III is a serious editorial issue. A similar mistake appears on page 150, note 182, when Zitner refers readers to Act I, line 219, when he really means line 222. On page 71, note 212.2, Zitner refers to pp. 000 of the introduction. I don’t get this. On p. 94, note 311, he references “Jasper’s wordplay and action in lines 303-4.” Did anyone proofread this? Lines 303-4 are spoken by Tim, have no stage direction close by, and don’t make mortar and pestle jokes, although they are to be found on the page. On page 143, note 10-11, Zitner makes a reference to a “Stubbes” who describes and deplores the Morris Dance, but there is no indication of his first name or the source either in the note or in the list of sources on pp. ix-x. Finally, on page 173, there is a footnote that appears not to lead anywhere. Again this makes me wonder if any of the general editors read this before it got published (1984) and reprinted (2004).

I read several English Renaissance plays last year, some mentioned above, and references to The Knight of the Burning Pestle were in at least one of them. I thought it was an interesting title. I didn’t necessarily recognize it as a joke due to its age, thinking a pestle at a larger size could potentially have been an actual weapon. It refers to a garish parody of a the grocer’s guild seal as it was similarly featured in Thomas Heywood‘s The Four Prentices of London, which is mentioned throughout the introduction and notes. I suspect The Winter’s Tale is the one with the most references to The Knight, due to them both (as detailed by Zitner and Arden Winter’s Tale editor John Pitcher) mocking the recent translation of Aristotle‘s Poetics, or at least the prescriptive use of it. Ben Jonson immediately accepted what it had to say as the truth of how plays should be written–specifically with the unities of time space and action. The one Jonson play I have read, The Alchemist, definitely respected the unities of space and action–it takes place entirely in the master’s house as his servants try to scam various people. It was hard for me to imagine people making so many return visits to the “alchemist” without any lapse of time, however, but This is what became known as “the “well-made play.” Pitcher discusses the translation of Poetics and Zitner details its influence in making certain types of theatre, particularly the Romances (which we would think of today more as adventures than as romances of the Harlequin sort), to be looked down upon by a certain class of people. Pitcher describes how Shakespeare wrote The Winter’s Tale to go into all-out defiance of the Aristotelian unities. Zitner notes that Beaumont quite precisely keeps the unities of time space and action by setting it entirely in the theatre, no matter where what George and Nell are watching is supposedly taking place, having “audience” members on stage constantly reminds us that we are in the theatre, while a member of the company interacts with them, telling them they don’t have the resources, for example, to show Princess Pompiona in a room of gold and velvet, as well as have George go off stage to get beer and so forth. the constant reminder that one is in the theatre breaks any illusion that one might be seeing an adventure play for any length of time. I tweeted out that Beaumont and Shakespeare “lampoon” the Aristotelian unities. After I posted that, I learned that the temporally correct word is “burlesque,” both words having been coined around the mid-seventeenth century, and the difference between the two noted in the anonymous prologue that was added to a performance in the late 1660s (163), the difference being in the level of harshness. The Knight of the Burning Pestle, while quite witty towards the play’s class issues, lacks the harshness “lampoon” would imply back then, which Zitner also theorizes as being cause for the play to initially flop, as the children’s companies were expected to be more strongly satirical and have the effect of youths mocking their elders (13).

Beaumont’s play should appeal to the casual fan of Shakespeare with its gentle satires of moments in Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth (all identified in the footnotes, but often readily apparent), but perhaps the most commonly referenced scenic comparison is to King Henry IV, Part Two, from which Zitner tells us Samuel Taylor Coleridge considered a passage in this play plagiarism. The play is also valuable for a glimpse at how the plays were actually executed by its use of music in dances in way that normally would not have been included in the script because of the way that George and Nell comment on these moments. I am reminded of my college screenwriting professor, Ying Zhu, telling us “Don’t direct,” as we read each others’ screenplays aloud in class with heavier and camera stage directions than are industry standard, but when you’re being creative, it’s difficult to resist even if you know you would need to cut it later to submit it on spec. Here we get more than usual put on paper than we do in other dramatic writing of the period.

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