Music, its histories, and Shakespearean (inter-) theatricality in Beaumont’s knight of the burning pestle

Linda Phyllis Austern*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


Music and musical taste are among many targets of theatrical satire in Francis Beaumont’s Knight of the Burning Pestle. Extant tunes have been matched to a number of the play’s song-texts since the mid-nineteenth century, and several widely-circulating editions of the work include notation and partial histories for at least some of these. Likewise, The Knight is referenced in such seminal collections of early modern English song and music as Thomas Percy’s Reliques of English Poetry, William Chappell’s Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Times, and Claude M. Simpson’s The British Broadside Ballad and Its Music. Scholars have long discussed the use of music in the work, especially Old Merrythought’s frequent quotation of pre-existing songs. What has gone unremarked are the ways in which songs and instrumental music performed and mentioned in this play form polyvalent connections to that circulating through the early seventeenth-century English theatre and the culture(s) from which the audience was drawn. Just as The Knight blends multiple forms of drama, speech, and performance in ways that challenge distinctions between them, so does its music. Most tellingly, the music in the play recalls with a parodic edge the histories of many genres as they appeared in London theatres, other entertainment venues, and as marketed accoutrements for social status and self-fashioning in Shakespeare’s era. It is generally agreed that Beaumont’s play was first performed by the Children of the Revels in the Blackfriars Theatre in 1607. It is also agreed that, as its first printer claimed, the original audience ‘utterly rejected it’, perhaps due to ‘want of judgement, or not understanding the privy marke of Ironie about it’. Modern scholars have offered further explanations, including the young playwright’s misjudgement of audience expectations at the Blackfriars, the work’s uncomfortable blurring of the line between performance and spectatorship, failed generic experiment, and being ahead of its time. Why and however it failed, its theatrical self-consciousness was especially appropriate to conditions of playgoing the year of its premier. In 1607, the fashion of attending plays was at its height in London. No fewer than six playhouses were in operation in and around the city, competing with each other for shares of a live entertainment market that also offered non-theatrical pleasures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationShakespeare, Music and Performance
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781316488768
ISBN (Print)9781107139336
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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