Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle is another one of those plays one always sees in anthologies of Elizabethan plays. So I had to read it. It’s one of the few plays currently thought to be written entirely by Francis Beaumont though one also finds it included in collections of plays by Beaumont & Fletcher. They were, in terms of their reputation, the Lennon & McCartney of their day. It was said that they lived together in the same room, share their hats and cloaks, and shared a “wench” between them. Beaumont was born in 1584, some 20 years after Shakespeare, but died the same year as Shakespeare. He lived a short life, aged only 31 or 32, but in the decades that followed, especially during the Restoration, his collaboration with Fletcher was thought to represent the pinnacle of Elizabethan drama. Reading Beaumont & Fletcher, it’s hard to fathom why they were ever considered Shakespeare’s superior, but both Beaumont and Fletcher’s poetry were more immediately accessible than Shakespeare’s.
It’s an interesting footnote that the Restoration era may have been responsible for mucking up, once and for all, one of Shakespeare’s lost plays—Cardenio. The play was a cause for excitement in the early 1700’s when Lewis Theobald, a lawyer by training with aspirations to write professionally, announced the discovery of a lost play by Shakespeare. Interestingly, he stated that one of his copies (he claimed to have three) was “in the handwriting of the prompter to Sir William D’avanant’s Duke’s company in the 1660’s”. This was exceedingly bad news because Sir William D’avenant, along with other restoration poets like Dryden and the infamously bungling Nahum Tate, couldn’t resist bringing Shakespeare up to the august standards of the Restoration. As an example of D’avenant’s “improvements”, consider the following from his rewrite of Measure for Measure:
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where; To lie in cold obstruction and to rot; This sensible warm motion to become A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice; To be imprison'd in the viewless winds, And blown with restless violence round about The pendent world; or to be worse than worst Of those that lawless and incertain thought Imagine howling: 'tis too horrible! The weariest and most loathed worldly life That age, ache, penury and imprisonment Can lay on nature is a paradise To what we fear of death.
Oh Sister, 'tis to go we know not whither. We lie in silent darkness, and we rot; Where long our motion is not stopt; for though In Graves none walk upright (proudly to face The Stars) yet there we move again, when our Corruption makes those worms in whom we crawl. Perhaps the spirit (which is future life) Dwells salamander-like, unharmed in fire: Or else with wandering winds is blown about The world. But if condemned like those Whom our uncertain thought imagines howling; Then the most loathed and the most weary life Which age, or ache, want, or imprisonment Can lay on nature, is a paradise To what we fear of death.
Let’s just take a little detour from Beaumont to explore all the ways that D’avenant goes wrong. You could also think of this as a brief lesson in the difference between great poetry and mediocrity.
Right away, and for some inexplicable reason, D’avenant has Claudio address his sister rather than the subject at hand. This is supremely ironic given the Restoration’s obsession with “manliness” because rather than Claudio turning the audience’s attention to the subject of death—”Aye, but to die”—D’avenant’s Claudio turns to his sister with something like a frightened cry or sigh for comfort: Oh Sister, he says.
Next comes D’avenant’s change of “To lie in cold obstruction and to rot” to “We lie in silent darkness, and we rot”. This is just wrong on so many levels. The genius of Shakespeare’s “lie in cold obstruction” resides in his contrasting “lie” with the implied inability to move—”cold obstruction”. It’s not that we just lie there, but that we are horrifically trapped by the cold, indifferent obstruction of the earth, earth that had erstwhile been warm and nurturing. This is the genius packed into Shakespeare’s horrific and kinesthetic imagery. D’avenant inexplicably strips out the kinesthesia, opting for the bland and mediocre “silent darkness”. But who doesn’t put babies down to sleep in “silent darkness”. D’aventant’s imagery utterly loses the horror of Shakespeare’s original. Not only that, but whereas Shakespeare’s cold obstruction is the cause of our body’s decomposition, D’avenant’s “and we rot” is only related to “silent darkness” by a comma. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lain down at the end of the day, having accomplished nothing with my life and thought to myself: “we lie in silent darkness, and we rot”. But morning brings a new day. Not so with Shakespeare. That cold obstruction is nothing you or I will ever escape.
In the next few lines Shakespeare doesn’t let up:
This sensible warm motion to become A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice; To be imprison'd in the viewless winds, And blown with restless violence round about The pendent world...
Shakespeare’s thought process, just have to say, is beautiful to observe. And one sees it over and over again. He reminds me of JS Bach in that he takes a single theme or idea, like a fugal subject, states it, than develops with an almost contrapuntal ease and precision. The theme that tantalizes Shakespeare’s imagination is “cold obstruction”—the implication of trapped motion. He immediately expands this thematic idea into “This sensible warm motion to become/A kneaded clod”. Do you see how this is just a restatement of “cold obstruction”? And it’s not enough to say that motion becomes a clod. The contrast of motion and immobility is constant. The word “sensible” implies motion and inquisitiveness, warmth contrasts with the cold of “cold obstruction”, while motion contrasts with “clod”. But describing our body as a lifeless clod isn’t enough. With the theme of motion and immobility working in Shakespeare’s mind, he writes “kneaded clod”. Kneaded implies motion, but paradoxically the kneading is the motion of earth’s obstruction, kneading our bodies, having become clay-like, with a cold indifference to our erstwhile “sensible warmth”.
From there, Shakespeare’s imagination moves from body to soul which, no less than the body, contends with contrasts—opposites always in the dramatist’s mind—with motion and immobility. It’s not enough to say that the “spirit is tormented by fire”, but Shakespeare combines opposites, applying the imagery of water to fire, by describing the soul as bathing in floods of fire. And it’s not enough that it’s the soul, but Shakespeare echoes the earlier imagery of the “sensible warm motion” with “the delighted soul”. On other words, the soul, capable of delight and warmth and motion, is tormented by just those qualities in the “warmth” of the firea and “motion” of the floods. And yet for all that, the soul, like the kneaded clod, is trapped, not in the earth, but in the floods of fire; the “thrilling”—again riffing on sensible—thick-ribbed ice, like the bars of a jail cell; and paradoxically imprisoned in the violent, restless, viewless—in the sense of both blind and without purpose—winds. Not even the earth is still in this paradox of the grave’s imprisonment and the soul’s violent motion. The earth is pendent, ceaseless in its cruel forward motion, burying all it gives birth to, like a remorseless clock.
It’s all there. This is why Shakespeare is considered the greatest writer who ever lived, because he could pack into a few lines of verse who paragraphs of meaning.
And then there’s D’avenant.
All of this is lost on D’vaenant. All of it. Like a Salieri revising Mozart, he tosses all of that out for the towering mediocrity of the following lines:
Where long our motion is not stopt; for though In Graves none walk upright (proudly to face The Stars) yet there we move again, when our Corruption makes those worms in whom we crawl. Perhaps the spirit (which is future life) Dwells salamander-like, unharmed in fire: Or else with wandering winds is blown about The world.
He retains, as a faint echo, the driving force of Shakespeare’s imagery, the claustrophobic entrapment of the body and soul in the never ceasing motion and torment of death. But whereas Shakespeare drives Claudio’s thoughts forward in a single, driven, obsessive sentence, D’avenant turns Claudio’s cry into a pendantic disquisition interrupted by “for though”, and “yet there” and “perhaps” and “or else”, “but if”, turning Shakespeare’s Claudio into Rowen Atkinson’s Blackadder.
D’avenant first interrupts the cascading terror of Shakespeare’s speech by essentially putting a period after “Where long our motion is not stopt”. D’avenant understands that small part of Shakespeare’s imagery, that our motion doesn’t stop, but utterly misses the the paradoxical horror of both entrapment and violent motion captured by Shakespeare. Instead he makes the comically trite observation that no one walks upright in the grave whilst proudly facing the stars. Whereas Shakespeare draws us into the experience of death, appealing to our sense sight, organic and kinesthetic sensation, D’avenant draws us out of the experience by making us observers: “yet there we move again, when our Corruption makes those worms in whom we crawl”. The imagery is entirely visual. But then, most egregious of all (and probably the entire reason for D’avenant’s monkey-Jesus) is the following: “Perhaps the spirit (which is future life)/ Dwells salamander-like, unharmed in fire”. One has to assume that D’avenant’s religious and Restoration sensibilities were offended by the decidedly un-Christian fate of Shakespeare’s soul and worried for the sensibilities of the audience. D’avenant utterly undercuts the terror of Shakespeare’s passage by reassuring the audience that the soul remains our “future life” and nothing, after all, can harm it. In short, D’avenant sacrifices the dramatic effectiveness of Elizabethan Drama for the sake of 17th century religious prudery and propriety. It was a strain of piousness that would ruin much poetry in the 18th and 19th century. Finally, D’avenant closes this disastrous revision with the utterly bland and clichéd “wandering winds” rather than the powerful “viewless winds”—the latter suggesting both the invisibility of the winds but also the soul’s helplessness and purposelessness in such aimlessness.
Finally, whereas Shakespeare offers no hope, adding that the fear of death even drives us to imagine fates—too horrible!—worse than the worst we already imagine howling, D’avenant piously reassures us that such a fate only applies to the “condemned” by writing—”if condemned”. We can all relax. The Claudio of D’avenant’s play indulges in a mere rhetorical aside.
So, getting back to Beaumont and Fletcher, whose speed of thought and temperaments were much more congenial to the fastidious and pious Restoration poets, if a collaboration between Shakespeare and Fletcher were to fall into their hands, which poet do you think they would edit out of the play? Well, it’s a curious thing, about Cardenio (or Double Falsehood) as it comes down to us through Theobald. The portions of the play that appear to be intact are Fletcher’s, whereas all those portions of the play that hint at Shakespeare:
I do not see that fervour in the maid Which youth and love should kindle. She consents, As 'twere, to feed without an appetite; Tells me she is content and plays the coy one, Like those that subtly make their words their ward, Keeping address at distance. This affection Is such a feign'd one as will break untouched; Die frosty ere it can be thawed; while mine, Like to a clime beneath Hyperion's eye, Burns with one constant heat.
O do not rack me with these ill-placed doubts, Nor think though age has in my father's breast Put out love's flame, he therefore has not eyes, Or is in judgement blind. You wrong your beauties. Venus will frown if you disprize her gifts That have a face would make a frozen hermit Leap from his cell and burn his beads to kiss it, Eyes, that are nothing but continual births Of new desires in those that view their beams. You cannot have a cause to doubt.
Bear all the marks of having been butchered by a poet like D’avenant or Tate. In short, the instinct of Restoration poets was to edit out the Shakespeare and to keep intact the Fletchers, Beaumonts and Massingers. And that’s why, for a period of time, the folios of Beaumont and Fletcher were more highly praised than those of Shakespeare.
Perhaps the only lines of Shakespeare that survive intact in Double Falsehood are the following:
Violante ...Home, my lord. What you can say, is most unseasonable; what sing Most absonant and harsh, nay, your perfume, Which I smell hither, cheers not my sense Like our field-violet's breath. Henriquez Why this dismission Does more invite my staying.
And why a D’avenant, a Tate, or possibly Theobald saw fit to leave these lines unmolested remains a mystery.
But getting back to Beaumont, most every discussion of Beaumont involves Fletcher to the same degree that discussions of Lennon involve McCartney. Beaumont is generally considered the greater poet, wrote the tragic and comic-satiric portions of any given collaboration and possessed greater insight into personality. Whereas Fletcher’s character’s were often plot driven, Beaumont’s plots were character driven. In A Short View of Elizabethan Drama, Thomas Marc Parrott and Robert Ball put it this way:
Fortunately the work of Beaumont is marked by such individual characteristics that it is comparatively easy to distinguish his hand from Fletcher’s, although when they worked together it is not always possible to assign a play scene by scene to one of the other. Beaumont’s verse is more regular than Fletcher’s, patterned apparently on the verse of Shakespeare in the The Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar. It is marked by an abundance of run-on lines, and a frequent use of rhyme. As his mood changes from grave to gay, he shifts from verse to prose, which Fletcher seldom uses. A stronger mind, apparently, though younger than his friend, he seems to have been the guiding force in their collaboration. The serious, tragic, and pathetic scenes in their joint work are as a rule his: so too are the comic-satiric scenes, for Beaumont was a disciple of Jonson as well as a lover of Shakespeare.p. 185-186
And it’s Beaumont’s comic-satiric gifts that shine in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. The play is the first full length satire in the history of English drama. In it, Beaumont, ever the aristocrat at heart, lampoons and satirizes the tastes of the common London playgoers. What strikes me as applicable to our modern day? Anyone who watched the dramatization of Game of Thrones is probably aware of the fan-criticism that attended the close of series. Some fans went so far as to altogether rewrite the closing season. The Star Wars series has also been shaped by criticism from its audience—and to its detriment according to other fans and critics.
Some things never change. It was far from uncommon for Elizabethan audiences to interfere in the progress of the play and even confuse, then as now, the play with reality. Larry Hagman, who played JR on Dallas, was often accosted by fans who treated him as though he were the character. Elizabethan acting troupes, accustomed to such audiences, were always prepared to change the endings of scenes and plays on the spot. It was also
“not uncommon for an aspiring amateur to take over a leading part.” Ibid. 187. Authorial integrity mattered less to them than the income of a successful performance (unless you were Ben Jonson, who complained incessantly about the fools to whom he was forced to subject his plays ).
Beaumont’s play satirizes this impulse by having two characters, playing members of the audience (a citizen grocer and his wife), immediately interrupt the play, demanding that their own preferences and subject matter be adopted.
Enter Speaker of the Prologue. S. of Prol. From all that's near the court, from all that's great, Within the compass of the city-walls— We now have brought our scene—" Citizen leaps on the Stage. Cit. Hold your peace, goodman boy ! S. of Prol. What do you mean, sir ? Cit. That you have no good meaning : this seven years there hath been plays at this house, I have observed it, you have still girds at citizens; and now you call your play " The London Merchant." Down with your title, boy ! down with your title ! S. of Prol. Are you a member of the noble city? Cit. I am. S. of Prol. And a freeman? Cit. Yea, and a grocer. S. of Prol. So, grocer, then, by your sweet favour, we intend no abuse to the city. Cit. No, sir ! yes, sir : if you were not resolved to play the Jacks, what need you study for new subjects, purposely to abuse your betters? why could not you be contented, as well as others, with "The legend of Whittington," or "The Life and Death of Sir Thomas Gresham, with the building of the Royal Exchange," or "The story of Queen Eleanor, with the rearing of London Bridge upon woolsacks? S. of Prol. You seem to be an understanding man : what would you have us do, sir ?
And so it begins. The citizen and his wife (his wife who constantly mistakes the play for real events) ceaselessly interfere in the progress of the play going so far as to force the acting troupe to include their prentice, Ralph, as the character of the the Knight of the Burning Pestle. Now, if you read the opening above and scratched your head, saying to yourself—Well, I guess you had to be there—you’re in luck. Listen to this performance of the opening scene and tell me you don’t laugh:
It’s worthy of Monty Python, and this was written by Beaumont in 1608. And here’s Part 2.
Apparently, the play didn’t go ever well with Elizabethan playgoers. While playgoers may not have appreciated being the butt of the joke, I more suspect that they didn’t like the illusion of reality being constantly undermined. Audiences, then as now, probably wanted to forget themselves, to be swept up in the story, not constantly reminded that the play was just a put on and that they were all the dupes. Alas that Beaumont died at such a young age. Twenty years later the play was revived by the Queen’s Company with great success.
Being satire, and being primarily comedic, the play doesn’t give much scope for flights of poetry, but there’s a fun and charming moment when the grocer’s wife demands that Ralph Dance the Morris, at which Ralph randomly appears on stage dressed as a May-lord:
London, to thee I do present the merry month of May; Let each true subject be content to hear me what I say : For from the top of conduit-head, as plainly may appear, I will both tell my name to you, and wherefore I came here. My name is Ralph, by due descent though not ignoble I Yet far inferior to the stock of gracious grocery ; And by the common counsel of my fellows in the Strand, With gilded staff and crossed scarf, the May-lord here I stand. Rejoice, oh, English hearts, rejoice! rejoice, oh, lovers dear! Rejoice, oh, city, town, and country! rejoice, eke every shere! For now the fragrant flowers do spring and sprout in seemly sort, The little birds do sit and sing, the lambs do make fine sport; And now the birchen-tree doth bud, that makes the schoolboy cry; The morris rings, while hobby-horse doth foot it feateously; The lords and ladies now abroad, for their disport and play, Do kiss sometimes upon the grass, and sometimes in the hay; Now butter with a leaf of sage is good to purge the blood; Fly Venus and phlebotomy, for they are neither good; Now little fish on tender stone begin to cast their bellies, And sluggish snails, that erst were mewed, do creep out of their shellies The rumbling rivers now do warm, for little boys to paddle; The sturdy steed now goes to grass, and up they hang his saddle; The heavy hart, the bellowing buck, the rascal, and the pricket, Are now among the yeoman's peas, and leave the fearful thicket: And be like them, oh, you, I say, of this same noble town, And lift aloft your velvet heads, and slipping off your gown, With bells on legs, and napkins clean unto your shoulders tied, With scarfs and garters as you please, and " Hey for our town ! " cried. March out, and show your willing minds, by twenty and by twenty, To Hogsdon or to Newington, where ale and cakes are plenty; And let it ne'er be said for shame, that we the youths of London Lay thrumming of our caps at home, and left our custom undone. Up, then, I say, both young and old, both man and maid a-maying, With drums, and guns that bounce aloud, and merry tabor playing! Which to prolong, (Sod save our king, and send his country peace, And root out treason from the land ! and so, my friends, I cease.
I can’t help but hear a touch of Shakespeare, much admired by Beaumont. And that’s that. There’s much more one could write about The Knight of the Burning Pestle, including its parallels with Don Qixote (which by that time was just beginning to reach the wider populace in a new English language translation) but maybe that gives just a little taste.
The only other observation might be the relationship between the grocer and his wife. The wife’s enthusiasm and the grocer’s indulgence of his wife’s whims and enthusiasms bespeaks a relationship as loving and fun-loving as any portrayed in an Elizabethan play before or after—when it seems that all Elizabethan men and women could think of was killing each other. One gets the sense that we loved each other then just as much as now.
And with that I leave you with a lovely little line, a little piece of pure poetry, by Beaumont:
Sorrow can make a verse without a muse.
April 25th 2020 ❧ upinVermont