All the City’s a Stage, or Working and Playing in Jacobean London

Francis Beaumont’s Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607-ish)

Vim, Ph.D.
34 min readAug 28, 2021


The title of this lecture

If you did the reading for today, Act 1 of Francis Beaumont’s Knight of the Burning Pestle, you know that Beaumont’s play uses a framing device your editor labels the “induction,” a segment in which a Citizen interrupts the actor delivering a Prologue for a play called The London Merchant. The citizen objects not only to the play on the schedule, but also to all the plays that have been performed on the same stage for the past 7 years. He claims these plays all take pot shots at the Citizens and he’s sick of it. Instead, he insists, the playing company should “present something notably in honour of the commons of the city” (Induction, 26). Moreover, he demands that the protagonist in the play be “a citizen, and he shall be of [his] own trade.” That is, the play should be about a Grocer, and should depict this grocer as a person with admirable traits. Of course, from there, he and his wife add on to the proposed drama with a wide variety of demands: their apprentice, Rafe, should be the main actor; he should perform great deeds in the role of a knight. The player who reads the Prologue initially refuses and suggests that the Grocer should be content with a few other plays already in the company’s repertory; but this answer doesn’t satisfy our husband and wife pair. So, at a relative impasse, the Players do what they can to accommodate Rafe’s completely made-up part while continue staging their original production as planned: the show must go on! And so the play proceeds as two plays, The London Merchant and The Knight of the Burning Pestle, the latter a phallic and syphilis joke suggested sarcastically by the player that the citizens obtusely embrace. There’s also a third drama at work, those real-time moments in which The London Merchant is interrupted further by the Grocer and his wife: as the actors attempt to play their parts, George and Nell offer a running commentary, occasionally criticizing the choices of the company and the characters they are playing.

Having reminded you of the set-up of the play, I’ll conclude my own prologue by outlining my lecture’s goals for the time remaining.

Today’s lecture will not be the sort of lecture where I make an argument about the play in its entirety and present the evidence from the play for your review. Rather, I’m primarily interested in giving you contextual information so that you will be able to understand and enjoy the remainder of the play as you read it between now and our next meeting.

I have two main goals. The first is to help you more fully understand the social tensions at work within its depiction of life in Jacobean London, and that includes the jokes that both diffuse and exacerbate that tension throughout. It’s a very funny play — and one of the main questions worth asking about it is: funny to whom? Does it mock or celebrate a particular type of city-dweller? And if it does mock citizens, how do we characterize its brand of humor? Is it playful teasing, pointed or productive criticism, or mean-spirited burns?

My goals

The other main goal of my lecture is to help set up a unit of our course on “City Life, Colonialism, and Commercial Enterprise.” That middle term is one we’ll explore in later texts. Interestingly enough, the earliest date proposed for The Knight of the Burning Pestle’s composition is 1607, the year of the founding of Jamestown, England’s first settlement in the Americas. But England in 1607 was a far cry from the British Empire that it would become within the next century, and the world in the play is limited, as the Prologue’s opening suggests, “within the compass of the city-walls.” If it has little to teach us about the imperial aims of an emerging world power, it nonetheless is ideal for learning about the other two terms in the unit title. It’s not just centered on the lives of people engaged in commercial enterprise in London; it’s also about the business of theater itself.

Commercial theater really took off in London in 1567, after the construction of the first purpose-built playhouse. By purpose-built I mean that the playhouse was made specifically for the function of putting on dramatic entertainment and, more specifically, for putting on plays to make money. These structures not only had physical features particular to performance but also specific locations that defined their status within a larger entertainment marketplace. Between 1570 and 1642, about 20 different theaters had opened up, though only 7 or 8 were ever open at a time. Generally speaking, these can be divided into two main varieties: the first, and most familiar to you were the open-air theaters in London’s suburbs, located across the river alongside brothels and bear-baiting arenas, because “land was more readily available for new buildings and they were not subject to the authority of the city council.”[1]

Frame from The Agas Map showing the sites where The Rose & Globe theatres would be built.

This here is an image of that location from the Agas map of 1561, which has been digitized at high resolution and allows you to isolate all the playhouses on a map of London. The Globe and Rose theaters hadn’t been built when this map was drawn, but you can see where they would be, adjacent to the site of the bloodsports of the 16th century, Bear and Bull Baiting. The playhouses, when they arrived, were octagonal, consisting of various galleries with seats as well as a large open yard. Entry to the yard cost a penny, the galleries double that; there were also small rooms with cushioned seating that cost even more. The open-air houses were uncovered and could seat between 2000 and 3000 spectators, though receipts suggest they were typically only at 60% of capacity.[2]

The theaters in London (again from the Agas Map

In addition to these venues in the suburbs, there were also indoor theatres within the city proper. These were located in a few different locations, but here’s Blackfriars, a house where Shakespeare’s company played & where the KBP was performed, located in the wealthier western part of the city, near the Inns of Court, where the law students went to train.Indoor theaters like this one could seat between 200 and 700 spectators, and they were more expensive to attend. Playgoers paid 6 pence for a seat in the galleries; this is about 10% of what an artisan worker might make in a week. Those who liked being seen as much as seeing and could afford it could pay 24 pence (or two shillings) and be seated on a stool on the stage.

Given the cost of admission, it seems rather obvious that the indoor theaters catered to a wealthier clientele. But just as the elite attended the inexpensive open-air theaters, there is some evidence in receipts and account books that “apprentices and modestly paid craftsmen attend[ed] plays [at the Indoor theaters] regularly,” despite the high cost of entry relative to their income.[3] It’s also worth noting that the same acting companies put on plays at both kinds of venues, and a single playwright might write for both kinds of theatres and multiple companies over the course of their careers.

At the beginning of the 17th century when Francis Beaumont began writing plays, the business of theatre was thriving. But the industry didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. Before the commercial theaters, there were performances in all kinds of contexts that would, as the market for public and private plays grew, help shape the industry, root it in historical practice, and also pave the way for innovation. Performances had long been commissioned at the royal court, where shows would be ordered to entertain and flatter the royal family and the wealthiest members of the aristocracy and those that served them. Travelling companies of players would also give performances in the country households of those wealthy nobles. Three additional forms of early performance that will be most pertinent for our study of The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Performances also took place at grammar schools and universities, since skills in oratory were highly valued in pupils of all ages; additionally, they were also a typical facet of daily life for boys in church choirs, who would sometimes be commissioned to sing and play outside of regular church service and rehearsals. Finally, plays had traditionally been performed on holidays by workers and their apprentices. In this I’m referring to the Mystery cycles of medieval England, which were plays on biblical themes put on in the towns by members of worker collectives called guilds — and “mystery” in this context is simply another word for trade or guild. So way before the 1570s, theater was thriving in England, with lots of people putting on plays and lots of people watching them.

But several things shifted in the decade leading up to that moment and the result of these shifts was an industry in which investors felt assured that significant return could be made. One important condition was the relative stability that came with a healthy monarch and what had increasingly become a powerful monarchy: Queen Elizabeth took the throne in 1558, reigning for 45 years, as both the head of the state and the Protestant Anglican Church, enforcing a religious settlement that was both expensive and dangerous for the nonconforming.

Ruling monarchs in the period in which commercial theatre first thrived in London. See these and other royal portraits at the National Portrait Gallery website:

In these years, Catholic rivals in Europe posed a significant foreign threat to English security, particularly as England was a small Island country with no standing army and essentially nowhere to go if Spanish or French forces invaded. Thanks to bad weather and a reasonably strong navy, Elizabeth’s forces at sea were able to defeat a major Spanish attempt in 1588, and this too helped create a relatively stable domestic economy that fostered good conditions for investors hoping to make money by patronizing an emergent and soon-thriving theater industry. In 1603, when the Scottish James VI succeeded Queen Elizabeth as King James I of England, he made peace with foreign enemies a priority and kept England out of the expensive enterprise of military action and what would later be known as the Thirty Years War.

Within the industry itself, the crown’s actions helped business thrive in perhaps surprising ways: Queen Elizabeth and her parliaments passed strict laws against representing religion or religious dissidence at the playhouses, which, while it may seem like a limiting force, actually opened up a space for a rich, secular theater culture. And both she and her successor on the throne patronized playing companies, specifically The Lord Chamberlain’s Men under Elizabeth, which changed its name to The King’s Men under James.

This brings me to one final facet of the marketplace for theater in the 16th and early 17th centuries, the competition between companies. The company I just mentioned was the most prestigious of a number adult companies — that is, consisting of maybe eight adult actors who performed under the auspices of a named elite patron. These players, as they were called then, made a share of the profits, though some of that money went towards hired men who did backstage work. Adult companies typically included one or two boys to play the roles of women and children. But there were also whole companies made up of boy actors. As you may know from a passage in Hamlet, these companies were quite popular and gave the adult companies a run for their money. To be clear, these boy companies did not put on plays for kids; some of the best playwrights of the period wrote plays with complex political context for them to master — to the point that they occasionally got into trouble. In 1608, the Children of the Queen’s Revels were officially dissolved for putting on a play that satirized not only King James, but also the entire French royal family.[4]

Now, it’s worth emphasizing the differences between theater companies because, as I think I noted in your handout summary of the play, The Knight of the Burning Pestle was probably performed first by a boy company, the Children of the Revels, at the indoor Blackfriars’ theatre. In your discussions later today and reading for next week, I hope you can keep these particular aspects — particularly the youth and size of the actors — in mind. I also encourage you to keep in mind the relatively posh venue and its audience, and bring that to bear upon the question I asked at the beginning: is Beaumont celebrating the economic and civic power of citizens or mocking them? But you won’t be able to think deeply about that without having read the entire play, and you also can’t make a call on that without knowing a bit more about the way status worked in London in relation to longstanding social hierarchies in England.

A chart of the Agrarian-based social hierarchies in the 16th/17th centuries

To the left, I’ve laid out the basic social categories that people might occupy in the seventeenth century. The highest ranks in English society are lined up under the heading “agrarian,” meaning the people at the top of a land-based, hereditary economy. This socio-economic class was also a powerful political class, because if you were the Lord of a manor in a shire, you also were automatically a member of the highest legislative branch of government, that is a Member of The House of Lords in the English Parliament. Being in the upper house meant the ability to pass laws that would benefit and perpetuate the powerful status of those in the upper house. (For an example of such laws, take a look at Tudor Sumptuary legislation and this handy chart)

These ranks were not something that just any person could simply slip into after making significant sums of money; they were defined very strictly by land, birth, and blood. Birth and blood were premised on the notion that some families had noble blood and it was not to be mixed with anything less. And land was not just as a place to live, but a place that consistently brought in money in the form of rents, food and other products from livestock, and agriculture. The goal of the aristocrats in this period was always to keep land and bloodlines, and therein, wealth, consolidated within the hands of only a few families. If you were the patriarch in one of these elite families, you’d pass your land and its income down to your eldest son, the offspring of a woman of equally high stock, and he would pass it again to his eldest son. This legal system of hereditary landownership was called primogeniture, and as you can imagine, it wasn’t so great if you weren’t the first-born male in a rich family. It also put a lot of pressure on aristocratic fathers to approach marriages for their children as a matter of financial expedience rather than love.

As your reading from Norman Pounds’ The Medieval City (2005) last week suggested, this literal land-based system was starting to cede some metaphorical and practical ground to a market-based economy, with the primary agents of this disruption in the traditional forms of wealth in England being merchants and corporations who engaged in international trade. Mr. Venturewell in The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a fictional example of a successful merchant; when we meet him, he’s amassed enough wealth that his daughter Luce is a desirable marriage prospect for the gentleman Humphrey, though of course it seems that Luce prefers Jasper, her father’s apprentice.

You might be thinking rosily of the merchant as a rugged outsider whose business acumen allows him to displace those who were elite primarily by bloodline and strategic marriage. But before you get too excited, a couple things: First, merchants were scrappy enough, but by no means were they champions of the downtrodden or the poor. As you might have already guessed from Mr. Venturewell’s choice of Humphrey for his daughter in our play for today, they generally wanted to be part of the elite, not to replace structural inequality with a system rewarding intellectual merit or moral virtue. Second, the most successful merchants still could not attain the status of the peerage, even if they became wealthy enough to purchase goods and the land that sometimes came available when gentlemen had to pay off their debts.

Early modern writers clearly felt uneasy about the merchant class and their disruption of traditional forms of wealth and power; even writers that weren’t of the elite classes tended to reinforce the notion that social hierarchies were God-given and natural, possibly so as not to alienate the wealthy members of society who might support their work as patrons. There are a lot of comedic plots in Shakespeare where young aristocrats are temporarily barred from marrying their chosen mate, but none of these plots show us non-elite upstarts or the newly-moneyed winning the day. We’ll take, as a quick example, his comedy The Merchant of Venice, whose outcome perfectly encapsulates how the playwright’s work upholds the status of the landed nobility. At the beginning of the play, Bassanio, a spend-thrift gentleman, asks his merchant friend Antonio to lend him a large sum of money to take his entourage on a ship to Belmont to woo a very rich lady named Portia. Antonio, the Merchant, agrees so immediately that we assume he’s got enough assets to bankroll the trip. But soon after this, we see that Antonio must borrow this money a moneylender named Shylock, because his wealth is all tied up at sea and he has no access to ready cash. Later in the play, the news comes in that all eight of the ships he has out have crashed, and he can’t repay the debt he took on for his profligate aristocratic friend. At the end of the play — spoiler alert — Antonio and Bassanio are saved from their debts and their risky bets not by successful mercantile enterprise, but by Portia’s quick study of Venetian law, and also, of course, her dowry. What she inherits from her deceased father ensures Bassanio never has to learn how to live within a budget; I won’t go into the respective fates of the merchant and Jewish moneylender, but suffice to say any profession that requires making money through trade or a trade is inferior to a life in which one simply has it.

In early modern England as in our own time, there were a lot of structures in place that ensured the rich had safety nets and, despite their financial risks and poor planning, some rich nobles managed to get richer, or continued to live wealthily even while incurring massive debts. Whereas we have congress enacting massive corporate bailouts, seventeenth century England had a hereditary monarchy that was no less invested in the sanctity of blood than its aristocracy. To illustrate how this worked not just in a play, but from a real person’s perspective, I’ll turn to an account written at the turn of the 17th century by Thomas Wilson, a civil lawyer and nephew to Thomas Wilson, an expert in English law who had served in the previous decades as Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State. In a treatise called “The State of England dom. anno 1600,” the younger Thomas Wilson offered the following comments about the paradoxically stable instability of aristocratic wealth:

I have seen divers books…which did exactly show the severall revenues of every nobleman, knights and gentlemen through the realme….conferring these books together I find great alterations almost every yeare, so mutable are worldly things and worldly mens afaires; as namely, the Earl of Oxford, who in the year 1576 was rated at 12,000 a year sterling, within 2 followingwas vanished and no name of him found, having in that time prodigally spent and consumed all even to the selling of the stones timber and lead of his castle and houses, and yet he liveth and hath the first place amongst Earles, but the Queen is his gracious Mistress and gives him maintaynance for his nobility sake, but (to say the truth) out of the Bishoprick of Ely….”

What Wilson describes with the earl of Oxford here is the Queen taking income from church lands to keep the Earle afloat, a sort of robbing of Peter to pay Paul, allowing an Earl to take the tax revenue from Church lands. Queen Elizabeth had similar strategies for helping her favorites prosper, including the granting of monopolies to noblemen so that they alone might profit from a particular commodity. For instance, the notorious Earl of Essex was granted a lucrative monopoly on the taxes of Sweet wines. Elizabeth refused to renew his monopoly after he appeared to negotiate with rather than suppress a rebellion in Ireland, but the imports of wine initially generated huge profits.

If we really want to understand a force outside of global trade that genuinely disrupted England’s economic structures in from the middles ages to the early modern period, we should look not at the singular figure of the merchant or even to the shifting fortunes of the nobility as they gained or lost favor with the Queen or her successor. Instead, we need to know about a broader process of civic incorporation that was becoming widespread in cities all across England. This process of urbanization began with a legal charter, conferred by the crown, which gave cities the possession of and jurisdiction over a specified territory. Incorporation, as the historian Phil Withington notes, gave communities “a remarkable range of powers and privileges”: the ability “to empanel and sit on their own juries, supply their own justices of the peace; choose their own [House of Commons] representatives; and convene their own borough courts for minor suits.”[5]

Here too, I will take recourse to the 17th century lawyer Thomas Wilson, who describes the city structure from incorporation and its impact as follows:

Every city hath a peculiar jurisdiction among themselves granted by the King in divers times, by which jurisdiction, confermed by letters patens under the great seale of England, they have the authority Judge in all matters Criminell & cyvill,…They have in every Citty or Corporat Towne one chief officer which they call a mayor, who is the Qeen’s Lieutenant chosen by the greater part of Citzeens out of the number of 24 Aldermen which are of their Senate as it were, for a yeare onely, and his office is to Governe the City in good order and to make a lawe and constitutions for the benefit of the City, which must be confirmed by Comon council, and he is as it were, the Chancellor to compromitt matters to mitigate the rigor of the Lawe.

They have also 2 chief officers called Sherriffes, annuall also, which are the judges in all civil causes betwixt citizens or forraign causes brought thether, the one of the Sheriffs is for the Citty, the other for the Queen. They, or some by their appointment, see all execution done, either penal or capital.

As you can see here, the structure that these charters gave cities allowed them a path to social mobility — regardless of his parentage. And this was something celebrated in ballads with rags-to -riches tales like this one:

Londons glory, and Whittingtons renown or, A looking-glass for citizens of London (London, 1641) Wing 2123.2

In addition to the prospect of moving up a social ladder, cities gave communities a non-trivial degree of autonomy within their boundaries. City incorporation enabled a site-specific constitution and locally elected officials — notice in the passage from Wilson that the Mayor is described as the Queen’s Lieutenant, but is elected by the citizens out of a group of Aldermen, a group of people on a locally-elected city council, and Mayors would only occupy that position for a single year; the same conditions applied to one of the two people who occupies the position of sheriff, with the other being appointed by the crown. This near-autonomy meant that cities could be virtually self-governing: in Wilson’s words, “by reason of the great privileges they enjoy, every city [was] as it were, a Common wealth among themselves, no other officer of the Queen not other having authority to entermeddle amongst them…”

Now, I’ve just focused on the way that City charters allowed communities some autonomy from Royal interference and the strict land-based social hierarchy to which agrarian England had long been subject; but London was in many ways unique among cities and towns with Royal Charters because it was also, geographically speaking, attached to Westminster, the site of the principal royal residence, called Whitehall palace, as well as Westminister Abbey, where the Parliament and the English treasury would meet. So we have to imagine London as not easily separable from Westminster, the location of the nation-state that had formed at the end of the Tudor dynasty. Put another way, within London, we have the confluence of multiple and overlapping populations with their attendant hierarchies: we have the traditional inheritance peerage of England, that is, the Lords, Dukes, Marquises, Barons, many of whom hung out at the royal court or came to London from their country estates if the Queen or King called Parliament to session, and the people who accompanied them in service positions — often the younger sons of noblemen who wouldn’t get the title or estate as their inheritance. And they might occupy the same spaces alongside the inhabitants of the City of London: a group that included a mix of Free Citizens and those they elected into local offices as well as a larger number of young people, sometimes the sons of nobility, who had migrated from all over to pursue the status of Citizen.

What exactly is a “Citizen”? At its broadest, the word “citizen” might mean simply a denizen or inhabitant of the city; the Roman citizen was a member of the privileged patrician class. In terms more specific to English history, those who attained the status of “Citizens” and Freemen still ranked far below any of the titled nobles, and their status as freemen did not mean that they were free from London’s laws and rules, nor were they free of taxes or debt. Rather, it meant they were free of serfdom and at liberty to practice a trade or craft. In order to be one officially, you had to complete an Apprenticeship and had obtain the status of Freedom through membership in a livery company. A livery company was an extension of the medieval guild, a collective of workers that, like the city itself, had a charter of incorporation. These companies connected to, but also distinct from, the joint-stock companies my colleague Dr. Fazeli mentioned Tuesday. They existed and operated in great numbers across England. They were particularly concentrated in larger cities, and their enterprise of course affected the entire population of the city of London.

The London livery companies were subject to national law: specifically, they followed the 1562 statute of Artificers, which laid out the basic terms of a person’s position as an apprentice for a term of 7 years. During that period, the master of your trade would supply your housing and food along with the knowledge of the trade. Apprentices could earn wages in some cities as well, but wages were set down and kept low in the 1562 statute — and they basically did not go up from that time. In fact, though it was a form of opportunity for young people, it was also in a very real sense, obligatory. According to our friend Thomas Wilson, the pressing need to always be working was one of primary features of cities, though he does not weigh in explicitly about whether this is a good or bad thing; he merely says:

they are not suffered to be idle in their Cittyes as they be in other parts of Christendom, but every child of 6 or 7 years old is forced to some art whereby he gayneth his own lyving and some thing besides to helpe to enrich his parents or master. I have known in one City, Norwich, where the accounts having been made yearly of what children from 6 to 10 years have earned towards their keeping in a yeare, and it hath been accounted that it hath risen to 12,000 pounds sterling, which they have gained, beside other keeping, and that chiefly by knitting of fine jersey stockings, every child being able at or soone after 7 yeares to earn 4 shillings a week at that trade which the merchants uttered at London.”

Now — what he says here about child labor is possibly exaggerated, particularly with respect to the ages of children who entered into the workforce. Some children, at least, would have been enrolled in grammar schools run by the parish at 6 and 7, and probably would not have taken on an apprenticeship until they were twice that. The 1562 statute suggests that the ideal age for the apprentice to be at the end of his term was 24 years old, which puts his age the start somewhere in his later teens. But Wilson’s account does get at one of the harshest realties of city life: despite the autonomy it gave communities from the land-inheritance system, if you were a young man not in possession of land or noble status, you were required by English law to serve a master of some kind; if you did not, you were in defiance of a variety of Statutes passed against general vagrancy.

Multiple proclamations denouncing “masterless men” were issued throughout the late 16th and early 17th century, including this one from 1596 in which the queen called for a

By the Queene the Queenes Most Excellent Maiestie, being credibly informed that many vagabonds, rogues, idle persons, and masterlesse men, hauing nothing to liue on, doe dayly resort to the cities of London and Westminster (London, 1596) STC 8255.5

Search to bee made…in all common tabling houses, inns, alehouses, and tipling houses, as also in all Bowling Alleyes, and other places where any gaming or play is used and frequented, and there to apprehend and take such suspected persons, being masterless men, of evil name and fame, not having wherewithal to maintain their idle life, and the same so apprehended and taken, to commit to prison, there to remain, until they shall receive such punishment and correction as by the lawes and statutes of this realm is and shall be due to them.

From the Statutes or ordinaunces concernynge artificers, seruauntes, and labourers, iourneyme[n] and prentises drawen out of the common lawes of this realme (London, 1562) STC 9344

This fact should shed some important light on what you witnessed in the first Act of our play for today: when the merchant Venturewell turns Jasper out of service, it’s not an act of kindness or mercy. When Jasper tells Luce she is all that stands “between him and the statute,” he either means statutes invoked in the proclamations I just read, or the Statute of Artificers, which indicated he could be enforced into service again, and possibly under less desirable terms: “If a man be retained in service, & goeth out of service wandering, another ma[n] may compel him to serve because he is out of service.”[6]

Now, I hope you’re secretly wondering about masterless women… It’s basically the case that women were never masterless by definition because they were understood to be subject to the rule of their father or husband. But this is not to say that women didn’t work; most women who were not members of the nobility were indeed employed in domestic service of some kind — that is, not in commercial positions. This is akin to what my colleague Dr. Fazeli was discussing at the conclusion of his lecture about work that isn’t accounted for in the GDP.

But some women did enter into the livery trades by way of their husbands: widows inherited shops and continued to run them, for instance, and though, as Amy Erikson notes, “women were technically barred from membership in the livery companies,” apprenticeship records “ that girls were [also occasionally] apprenticed,” though more so in the period subsequent to the decades that this lecture covers. In The Knight of the Burning Pestle, the Citizen’s Wife Nell is remarkable not only because the outsized role she plays in dictating what should happen in the play, but also because of what we witness from many of her interjections: she’s clearly well versed in the commodities of the Grocer’s trade, the imported spices you read about on Tuesday, as well as candy and remedies for common ailments that we’d now expect to find over the counter at a pharmacy.

Of course, she isn’t the only non-Citizen with this knowledge, since the apprentice Rafe is bound to her husband George and pursuing his own path to Freedom. It’s worth noting here that Apprentice’s path to citizenship was just a mere formality or a matter of simply serving out one’s 7 years. Patrick Walis’ work on apprenticeship completion rates from 1490 to 1660 suggests that just over 40 % of London apprentices were successful in become freemen or citizens. So in fact, a majority of those who wanted to attain the status of freemen did not. Some apprenticeship positions, Wallis notes, “inevitably coexisted with a significant risk of death and disability” and he estimates that roughly 10 percent of apprentices died as a result of their work. Some of the ones who survived

slipped into vagrancy or a marginal existence while others departed when their masters’ businesses could no longer support them. A number left after a breakdown in relations with their masters. Urban courts frequently heard cases in which apprentices and masters sought to be released from their indentures. [In these,] Apprentices cited a range of failings among masters, including excessive correction, abuse, lack of training, and failing to supply food or clothing. Conversely, masters complained about apprentices running away and refusing to return to their service, being drunkards, attacking them or their family, or embezzling money from the shop. Some masters pursued runaway apprentices and succeeded in forcing them to return or else had them punished.”[7]

Now, this a much darker version of the outcomes of apprenticeship than the celebrated triple-Mayorship of Dick Wittington, and it’s notably more antagonistic than the relationships you’ll see amongst Rafe, the grocer, and the grocer’s wife. But I think that’s important to keep in mind, and worth comparing as well with Jasper’s relationship with Mr. Venturewell. Throughout the play, Beaumont depicts Company Masters as quasi-parents — and you can compare these figures to his depictions of people who are actual-parents.

Just a few more comments about Apprentices, because this is a complex position to occupy both in our play, in London, and in the business of theater. First of all, like the Dick Whittington story I showed you, there were a great many books published in the late 16th and early 17th centuries that address apprentices directly as their intended audience. The preponderance of these books tells us a few important things: first, it confirms that literacy rates were pretty high within this relatively youthful demographic. Second, it tells us that apprentices were known to be consumers of culture in addition to being workers — and, as Mark Thornton Burnett argues, we can learn even more about them as a market segment by looking at the “books, ballads,…and plays which shaped their behaviour, social attitudes, and economic expectations.”[8]

Examples of books composed specifically about and/or for Apprentices

We can surmise from the comments of George the Grocer in the KBP’s Induction a sense that citizens more broadly were annoyed by the way they were represented in literature, and there’s a clear feeling of entitlement as he and his wife make demands of a company that saw its profits coming from another sector. Apprentices were a slightly different kind of consumer because they had less money and free time than their free masters. But writers nonetheless saw them as the buyers and audiences for books and treatises, and at times, they could be full of praise for their patriotism, industriousness, and virtue. In other cases, disparaged them for being unruly and prone to riot. As one early modern writer explained, “Of this base sort you shall find them at commonly Playhouses on holydayes, and there they will be playing their parts, or at some rout, as the [ac]complices, pulling downe of Baudie houses, or at some good exploit or other, so that if you need helpe, or you thinke yourselfe not able to make your part good with anie that you owe a grudge to, [think] no more but repaire to one of these, and for a canne of Ale they will do as much as another for a crowne: & these make no …conscience to beat or lame one, whom they never before saw nor knew.”[9] The sense here is that if you want to fight somebody, the rowdy apprentices could be easily swayed to leave the playhouse or whorehouse and take up your cause; they’ll beat up people they don’t even know for a beer.

This is not to say that they were always the aggressors; in fact, they could be both victims and perpetrators of class warfare. Take for example this account in a 1584 letter addressed to the Treasurer and future secretary of State, one William Fleetwood, which tells of a brawl that took place “very near the Theatre or Curtain Theatre at the time of the plays: There lay a prentice sleeping on the grass and one Challas alias Grostock did turn upon the toe upon the belly of the same prentice, whereupon the apprentice started up and after words they did fell to plain blows. The company increased of both sides to the number of five hundred at the least. This Challes exclaimed and said that he was a gentleman and…that the prentices were but the scum of the world. Upon these troubles the prentices began the next day…to make mutinies and assemblies and did to conspire to have broken the prisons and to have taken forth the prentices that were imprisoned, but my lord and I having intelligence thereof apprehend[ded] four or five of the cheif conspirators who are in Newgate [the prison] and stand indicated of their lewd demeanors.”

By the time The Knight of the Burning Pestle was first performed on stage, the potential for riotous apprentices was well known. In fact, they had been notorious for protesting on holidays like Shrove Tuesday, a day of feasting before Lent, or on May Day, a traditional celebration of Spring and a time where hierarchies were playfully and temporarily overturned. One particular May Day had a special place in English history: in 1517, apprentices rioted in opposition to protections and privileges granted to immigrant workers, so-called strangers from the continent who were granted asylum to stay in London by Henry VIII. The apprentices saw these immigrants as competition, moving into citizenship & free status without having done the 7 years of work. These complaints sound vaguely familiar. Lacking the political power of a US attorney general, the apprentices registered their grievances in another way: they plundered and burned down the home of a prominent Frenchmen among other sites in the city, and their destruction of the city would be remembered thereafter as “Evil May Day.”

Two account of “Evil May Day” in John Stowe’s “The survey of London containing the original, increase, modern estate and government of that city, methodically set down” (London, 1633) STC A13053

So again it’s something to think about as you read: how well do Beaumont’s apprentices live up to the reputation that preceded them? Jasper, for his part, has already shown a streak of insurrection, and Beaumont’s audiences no doubt could imagine the potential for Rafe’s zeal for knightly action to transform into xenophobic rage. But here’s the other thing that the audience would have known: Apprentices were essential for the business of theater. As David Kathman has discovered, “many professional players were members (or freemen) of the livery companies that collectively oversaw most of the trades in London, and theatrical apprentices were often formally bound as goldsmiths, grocers, drapers, or some other trade, even when all their training was on the professional stage.”[10] In fact, John Heminges, a longtime member of the King’s Men and famous as the co-compiler (with Henry Condell) of the 1623 Shakespeare First Folio, was apprenticed to a Grocer, for nine years, and he was sworn in as a Freemen of the Grocers in 1587. Roughly ten years after he gained freedom, we he had bound at least 10 apprentices under him, and all signs make clear these youths were not working in a grocery. Under the auspices of his old livery company, Hemmings was helping these young men produce the commodity of theater. And the same thing was happening with many of their peers.

I don’t mean to give you any impression that George the Grocer is intended to be a caricature of a specific and real Grocer/theater practitioner. Hemmings was far from the only person who had left his trade but continued to pay dues and reap the benefits of freedom. But knowing of this example is useful in the context of the KBP, because it helps give context to the assumptions the citizens have that Rafe will be ready to perform. They mention previous stints at acting in a well-known play involving a bear called Mucedorus before the all the Grocers in the guildhall, and Rafe himself quotes a line from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II. We must remember, then, that professionals in the theatre were also often professionals from other professions.

We’re nearing our time for our first discussion section, but please don’t start to rustle or pack up yet, because in order to fully prepare you, I need to cover three more things.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle (London, 1613) STC 734:10

First, I’d guess you’re probably wondering what Beaumont’s original audience thought. There’s a persistent notion in pretty much everything you’ll see on the internet about the play that it was a flop when it was first performed. This argument is based almost exclusively on a single piece of evidence, and that’s the letter preceding the 1613 printed edition of the play from the printer to the man who had financed the boy acting company. [See Page 3 of your edition!] In it, the printer said that the “wide world” “utterly rejected it,” because the original audiences lacked judgement or that they failed to understand “the privy mark of irony about it.” In early scholarship on the play, critics posited that the elite Blackfriars audience wouldn’t have rejected because it mocked citizens, but that the play may have failed because it did not mock them nearly enough.

But the play’s original reception is complicated and impossible to determine with certainty. In the same opening letter, the printer claims he’s giving the play another shot by putting into circulation as a book, and also expresses hope that a sequel might be written to avenge its poor reception. The most recent scholarship has done well to understand that this letter is itself a marketing ploy and shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value. As Tracey Hill notes further, we can’t easily assume that even citizens in the audience would be totally offended by what they saw, since in many ways the play pays homage to the city and the lively workers who lived there.[11] The idea that somebody was willing to take a risk in publish this play in 1613 also suggests it wasn’t a total failure, though by that year Beaumont was totally famous and his renown as both a poet and writer of plays and masques may have made the year an auspicious time to put out his earlier endeavor. Evidence of much else is lacking; whatever reactions its early performances elicited, we know more certainly that it was revived by the Queen’s Men in the 1630s, and it continues to delight 21st century audiences.

The second thing I want to add before concluding is a little information about Francis Beaumont, who I’ve only mentioned a bit in passing. That’s because there’s also limited documentary evidence about his life outside of the literature he wrote. The common line about him on the internet is that Beaumont was a gentleman and member of the social elite. But, as you know now, social status and economic hierarchies in the early modern period are quite complicated. He was born in 1583, the son of Francis Beaumont Senior, a knight and judge of a common pleas court. He attended Oxford in his early teens — not because he was a prodigy but because that’s the age that young men of relative means went to university then. As is also somewhat common for the time, he didn’t stay to finish a degree. Around 1598, his father died and at that point he headed to London. Once there, he entered the Inner Temple, one of the institutions for legal training in the period. It might seem that he intended to follow the career of his father, but he didn’t become a lawyer as I bet you could guess: at some point between 1600 and the following year, he fell in with a group of writers and he began to earn a name for himself — though not necessarily any money — as a poet and playwright. We know that in 1605, he came of legal age to inherit the lands left to him by his father, information from a will that has led to the misleading impression about his social status that I mentioned before. Very recent research by Lucy Munro makes clear that any land Beaumont might have owned was lost to him by 1609, when an indenture shows him selling off property, and he probably did this to pay off debts. We don’t know how he incurred those debts, but Munro has located civil court records indicating that Beaumont was sued twice, for money he owed after borrowing 300 pounds from Sir Edward Randill in 1607, and for borrowing over 200 pounds from Edward Shoreland in the following year.[11] These details don’t tell us enough to interpret his play by biography alone, but they paint the behavior of Jasper’s father, Old Mr. Merrythought, in a more compelling light.

Finally, that third thing: while the play’s exploration of social tensions in the city are important with respect to our course theme, I don’t want you to lose sight of another obvious target of satire. The Knight of the Burning Pestle is of course a comedy and one example of a newly popular kind of comedy focused on the city. But it is also a send-up or burlesque or parody of chivalric romance. As some of you learned about the genre of romance last semester in C&E, romances were narratives about marvelous experiences and adventures; the term Romance doesn’t refer to love, it’s a reference to the genre’s origins in roman history and languages, though examples of romances typically do contain love plots intertwined within other plots involving quests of some kind. In the chivalric romances of the middle ages, the heroes are typically knights often undertaking journeys and killing giants or dragons on behalf of ladies in need or attribute their bravery as a sign of loyalty and respect performed in the name of a noble Lady or the Queen.

A fairly late edition of Palmerin (included here because its title page is illustrative of the tropes that were common to Chivalric Romance.

Romances were written and read by the elite throughout the middle ages; after the advent of the printing press, increased literacy, and the increasing availability of secular texts, they not only kept their place in the hands of aristocrats but also found new audiences in the city, with people in a variety of social ranks visiting the book stalls across from St. Paul’s Cathedral. They’d purchase works with titles like “The Mirror of Knighthood” and “The Knight of the Sun,” and the one you’ll see Rafe reading in The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Tales like Palmerin of England. While Rafe laments that chivalry is dead in his own time, there is ample evidence that he was far from the only person reading about the adventures of knights. As it transpires, the play engages in an exuberant deflation of knightly values, which brings me to one final literary context that is necessary for understanding this play.

The front pages of the English translation of Don Quixote (1612).

I wonder if you have heard of called The Adventures of Don Quixote. The Quixote is the story of the many feats performed by the titular knight, a man who’s read one too many romances and believes himself to be more competent at brave feats than he is. This book by Cervantes was of course published in Spain in 1605 and 1615; the 1605 edition was not translated into English until 1612, but Beaumont brought his own Knightly send-up to the stage in the intervening years. The publication of the KBP in 1613 was, in many ways, an acknowledgement that the playwright had been at the front of the trend.

Now I think you’re ready to discuss The Knight of the Burning Pestle, a play with a fascinating relationship to the city, its citizens, and commercial enterprise in London. I will conclude on a personal note. When I first read it, I could hardly believe that something like this existed — it was like the Shakespearean play-within-a-play but totally next-level. Unlike you, I had never been introduced to it in college, and in fact, it remained unknown to me until I was an English Phd student. It was instantly (and has remained) my favorite play since 1997 — for the last two decades nothing has replaced it — and I hope you enjoy thinking about it as much as I do.

(Citations are occasionally linked above rather than listed here)

[1] Sioban Keenan, Acting Companies and Their Plays in Shakespeare’s London (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

[2] Much of this information appears in Keenan, cited above and below, and Peter Womak, English Renaissance Drama(Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006). Both are excellent guides that take a century’s worth of scholarship and distill it into a highly accessible account of the business.

[3] Keenan, 140; see pp.129–168.

[4] Also from Keenan; see pp. 12–33.

[5] The Politics of Commonwealth (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005) 9.

[6] From the Statutes or ordinaunces concernynge artificers, seruauntes, and labourers, journeyme[n] and prentises drawen out of the common lawes of this realme (London, 1562). STC 9344

[7] “Apprenticeship and Training in Premodern England” The Journal of Economic History, 68 (September 2008): 843.

[8] Mark Thornton Burnett, “Apprentice Literature and the ‘Crisis’ of the 1590s,” The Yearbook of English Studies 21 (1991): 28.

[9] Quoted in Thornton Burnett, 32.

[10] “Grocers, Goldsmiths, and Drapers: Freemen and Apprentices in the Elizabethan Theater” Shakespeare Quarterly 55 (2004): 1–49

[11] “‘The Grocers Honour’: Taking the City Seriously in The Knight of the Burning Pestle” Early Theatre 12.2 (2017): 159–178.

[12] “Beaumont’s Lives” Early Theatre 20.2 (2017): 144.



Vim, Ph.D.

Early Modernist, Associate Prof, college hoops fan, crazy cat lady. Tweeting out of conviction or exhaustion or both. Views my own. My head hurts.