Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle and the Menace of the Authoring Audience.

Bill Angus


Francis Beaumont’s play, The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607) stages a disjunction between interpretation and legitimate authority, centred around an audience which is empowered partly by the threat of informing. As a contrast, Ben Jonson’s onstage audiences are often allowed only ridiculous or overblown reactions, a kind of instructional dysfunction, while remaining entirely under the control of the author. In The Knight of the Burning Pestle however, the onstage audience are allowed a much more actively intrusive role, as they attempt to hold sway over the writing and production of the play they inhabit. Beaumont’s onstage citizens therefore stage an authorship which feels itself to be under siege by a far more unruly form of audience empowerment and signify the fear of of venal interpretation and misheld authority. The end result is a theatrical form which accurately reproduces the critical atmosphere of the drama and of the material context of its production. In offering this Beaumont reveals the precarious nature of his own authority in relation to that of a potentially informing audience. His metadrama therefore  registers, in both form and content,  the solid fear that ‘unseemly speeches . . . mistaking the Author’s intention’ by informers may lead not only to ‘unkind reports’, but also ultimately to the horrors of the early modern gaol.


Beaumont, metadrama, informer, audience, authority, author

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