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"Hear for your love, and buy for your money": Ballads and Theater as Experiential Commodities"
-- Claire M. BusseInthe second stanza of the ballad, “A Caveat for Cut-purses,” sung by the character Nightingale in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (1614), the ballad singer offers a defense against accusations that he is the “cause of this crime” (stealing purses) because he distracts his audience, enabling cutpurses to go about their trade. The content of his ballad is then enacted on stage, as Nightingale’s conspirator, Ezekiel Edgworth works the crowd to take advantage of the audience’s very distraction and cut their purses. The self-referentiality of Nightingale’s performance of the ballad intersects with and parallels the metatheatricality that dominates the play as Jonson himself uses the ballad to provide a preview of the remainder of the play to follow. For the ballad reasons that, if ballad singers are to be held responsible for such a crime, one would also have to hold judges, preachers, and the king himself accountable for providing a spectacle that enables crime, as well as hold its victims responsible for their own foolishness.
Recording of stanza two.
The events that follow Nightingale’s performance demonstrate the accuracy of his claims, showing the criminals to be clever, the fools gullible, and the judges and preachers (in the form of the disguised Justice Overdo) to be, in part, responsible for the criminal and immoral behavior that goes on in the fair.
The similarities between the plot of Bartholomew Fair and the lyrics of “A Caveat for Cut-purses,” suggest that one of these works influenced the other. Indeed, later broadside versions of this ballad, printed in the 1640s and 1650s, make direct reference to its appearance in Jonson’s play.
“A Caveat for Cut-purses.” Recording of stanza six.
As the extant copies of the ballad were printed well after Bartholomew Fair was first performed, it is unclear whether Jonson wrote the ballad for the play, or was drawing upon an already popular song.
The similarities between plot and ballad found in Bartholomew Fair were not uncommon, as ballads about Doctor Faustus, Titus Andronicus, and Alice Arden (pictured below) contain details similar to those found in plays depicting these figures.
“The Judgment of God shewed upon one John Faustus Doctor in Divinity.”
“The Lamentable and Tragical History of Titus Andronicus.”
“The Complaint and Lamentation of Mistresse Arden of Feversham in Kent.”
Nor was Bartholomew Fair the only case of a theatrical production invoking popular ballads, for ballads are sung in many early modern plays. For the purposes of this essay the origin of “A Caveat for Cut-purses” is less significant than the fact that Jonson draws a parallel between the plot of his play and Nightingale’s song to indicate similarities between ballads and theater. That Jonson is interested as much in the interrelated function of these art forms as he is in their content becomes clear though his use of metatheatre and his depictions of the commercial settings in which ballads and theater are performed.
Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607) also pairs ballads and metatheatre, but whereas Jonson’s metatheatre is structural—a device used to draw attention to the commercialized aspects of theater—Beaumont turns metatheatre into the subject of his play. More specifically, Beaumont depicts the space of performance within the commercial theater as a collaboration of audience and actor to the exclusion of the author (ironically, himself). Four lines into The Knight of the Burning Pestle, the Prologue's attempt to introduce a somewhat conventional play called The London Merchant, is interrupted by a Grocer (George) and his wife (Nell), who insist that the actors on stage perform a play more to their liking: the adventures of a Grocer Errant. The Grocer’s request for the tradesman’s equivalent of a Knight Errant—a travelling, adventuring knight—is most likely inspired by the apprentices of Thomas Heywood’s Four Prentices of London (c. 1592-94), four noble brothers who win Jerusalem for Christendom. At the same time, Beaumont implicitly suggests that there is something errant, or false, about the idea of a chivalric grocer and hints at the complications that will follow in the play due to the errors made by the character cast in the role of Grocer Errant. When the boy actors resist enacting this play, claiming they have no actors available for the lead character, the Grocer and his wife invite their apprentice Rafe onto the stage to play the part of the errant grocer. The rest of the play alternates scenes from each play with occasional overlaps between the two. And just as the metatheatre moves center-stage in this work, so does the performance of ballads. For the plot of The London Merchant, the original play to be performed by the actors, depicts the plight of the Merrythoughts, a family brought to penury and vagrancy by a patriarch, Merrythought, who seems to care only for drink, revelry, and song. By the end of The Knight of the Burning Pestle, the practical and pragmatic characters in this plot are all forced to sing ballads in order to submit to Merrythought, the play’s lord of misrule.
Bartholomew Fair and The Knight of the Burning Pestle highlight similarities between ballads and theater as commodities that are experiential in nature, with Jonson foregrounding the analogous commercial transactions through which these artistic forms circulate, and Beaumont focusing on the similar way that ballads and theater are consumed. Their use of metatheatre specifically emphasizes the monetary transactions at the heart of theatrical production as well as the impact of such transactions on the relationships between audience, playwright, and performers, a subject echoed by their depictions of ballad singing and selling. In Bartholomew Fair, Jonson explores what it means for an art form to be a commodity—both in terms of its production and consumption. In The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Beaumont focuses on the flexibility of the art form, examining ways in which the consumers of the aesthetic experience can recast it to fit their particular needs. Whether the emphasis is on the marketplace in which ballads are sold, the use to which consumers put their ballads, the performance of actors, or the reception of the audience, both authors highlight how the interactive nature of theater and ballads blurs distinctions between producer and consumer. Jonson and Beaumont show ballads and theater to be potentially disruptive art forms, as it is impossible to control an audience’s experience and response to the works or a performer's presentation of the work.
Because of the experiential nature of early modern theater and ballads, their impact was determined as much by the particularities of each performance—their audience, the agents performing the work, and the circumstances surrounding the performance—as it was by their written text. While what remains today is the fixed, printed text of the ballad, broadside ballads were also performed events in which the experience of the audience influenced the reception of the text. Patricia Fumerton has argued that early modern production, reception, and consumption of ballads produced an art form that had an overall effect on its audience of fragmentation rather than cohesion. Fumerton posits that since ballads were sung and sold at different locations, an individual’s experience of a ballad, and thus perception of it, might be influenced by where and when it was heard. Thus, because of their various means of transmission as well as their intertextuality, ballads could not easily be identified as the product of any particular individual. An individual’s perception of a ballad would rest as much, if not more, on the circumstances in which they experienced it than on the specifics of the text.
Likewise, for the early modern theatergoer, plays were events in which a number of agents influenced how the play might be received. Given the multiple forces shaping the experience of early modern theater (whether audience expectations, actors’ performances, or the whims of the censors), authors had limited authority over their works. Ben Jonson makes this point clear in the contract with the audience his Scrivener presents in the Induction of Bartholomew Fair. The contract performs an attempt to establish authorial control over the play, which the play itself goes on to undermine by showing the futility of attempting to regulate this commercial product. The contract read by the Scrivener, attempts to control the audience by highlighting the economic exchanges at the heart of the performance, suggesting that the audience may only criticize the play to the extent, that is, up to the amount that they have paid. The contract itself reveals the number of ways that the audience can undermine the success of a play—whether through disruptive behavior, misinterpretation, or criticism. While the contract attempts to determine how the work will be received, its very presence points to the inability of theater companies to control audience perception and social fashions. By portraying himself as a figure determined to use legal methods to force the audience to cede this control to the author, Jonson reveals the very inability of the author to control the context for and reception of his work. Instead of an authorially controlled performance, the play becomes an enactment open to a multiplicity of responses and interpretations—none of which can be mastered or even predicted by the author.
Indeed, Jonson frames his play with scenes that draw attention to the disruptive potential of the commercial elements of theater. The audience is not the only potentially disruptive economic agent affecting the reception of a play, for the performance of a play depends on various workers—both on and off stage. Jonson’s Induction depicts dueling forces within the theater itself. By opening with a disgruntled Stagekeeper complaining that the author does not value his idea of what would make a successful play, the Induction draws attention to the theater’s reliance on its employees—and its vulnerability to their own wishes. The author, Book-Holder, and Scrivener’s attempts to limit audience reactions by establishing contractual terms between the audience and playwright are countered by the Stagekeeper, who warns the audience that they are bound to be disappointed by the play they are about to see. Jonson’s use of metatheatre here emphasizes that the context in which the play is experienced can overshadow and potentially undermine the content of the work itself. An audience’s reception of a play can be influenced by any number of agents—all with different investments in the performance.
At the end of the play Jonson returns to the concerns of the Induction when he depicts the interactions between audience, authors, and performers in the outrageous puppet retelling of Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, puppetry that became all the fad in the nineteenth century.That we are meant to draw comparisons between the Induction and the puppet show becomes clear when the audience member Bartholomew Cokes demands to see the actors before the performance. The puppeteer Lantern Leatherhead agrees and brings out the puppets, including one serving as the Ghost of King Dionysius.
The hilarity and fascinating paradox is that Dionysius, who is first identified as King Dionysius, but later shifts into Dionysius, god of the theater, is in Jonson’s puppet play costumed “in the habit of a Scrivener,” suggesting to Jonson’s actual audience that what will be depicted in this scene is a manifestation of the earlier contractual concerns of the Induction (5.3.88).
The depiction of the audience’s arrival to the puppet show at the end of the play once more emphasizes the economics of the performance transaction, prioritizing the audience over the content of the performance. When Bartholomew Cokes asks the doorkeepers about the type of performance he would be paying for, they ignore the question and instead assert: “we’ll take your money within” (5.3.12-13). At least five times in the next sixty some lines there is a direct reference to the payment required to attend the play. And, in another echo of the Induction to the play in which the various employees of the theater debate who determines its value, we find a discrepancy between the author and theater company at the puppet play about the monetary worth of the performance. Bartholomew Cokes admits that he has no cash on hand, so he borrows from the puppet show’s author. Overestimating the value of his play, Littlewit gives Cokes a crown. Despite the Doorkeepers assertions that the play costs twopence, Cokes pays them twelvepence—thus determining the value of the performance and inverting the author’s position in the contract, wherein the price of the performance should determine the audience response.
The farce of the show that follows provides a means for Jonson to directly address the impact of commodification on art. The puppet show, a rewriting of Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, reveals how even the most sophisticated texts can be brought low by market forces, transforming Marlowe's poem into something similar to the Punch and Judy type show pictured above. Through the discussion surrounding the performance, Jonson reveals the devolution of an aesthetic work when it becomes a commodity. Fearing that Marlowe’s version is “too learned and poetical for our audience,” the puppeteer, Lantern Leatherhead, reassures his audience, specifically the juvenile and dim-witted Bartholomew Cokes, that he “entreated Master Littlewit, to take a little pains to reduce it to a more familiar strain for our people” (5.3.110, 104). Littlewit confirms these changes. He informs Cokes, who admits that he has read but not understood Marlowe’s poem, that he has “only made it a little easy, and modern for the times,” suggesting that all he has done has been to update the classical settings of Marlowe’s work, moving it to London where Leander is a “dyer’s son about Puddle-warf” and Hero “a wench o’ the Bank-side” (5.3.112-116). The performance that follows bears little similarity to Marlow’s text other than the title and names of characters: Hero appears as a drunken whore and Leander, Damon, and Pythias (who somehow end up added into this work) are back-stabbing, drunken brawlers. Because of the author and performer’s desire to accommodate the paying audience, Marlowe’s poem is made unrecognizable.
The puppet show also demonstrates how the conditions of performance enabled a direct relationship between audience and performer to the detriment of authorial control. Notably, the one figure not present for this performance is its author—who has left to search for his wife. As in the Induction, Jonson presents an author who is worried about his lack of control over the performance. As Littlewit leaves the stage he commands Lantern Leatherhead, “look you be perfect; you undo me else i’ my reputation” (5.5.10-11). And he is rightly concerned, for during the course of the puppet show the puppet master loses control of the plot and his puppets, who turn against him, cursing and beating him while the audience, represented through Bartholomew Cokes, eggs them on. Neither the actors nor the audience can be contained within the bounds of the play—a point Jonson emphasizes in the scene immediately following the puppet show, when the Puritan Zeal-Of-The-Land-Busy attempts to shut down the performance. Leatherhead defends the play, offering that, since it has been approved by the Master of Revels, it is “licens’d by authority” (5.5.14, 16). He cannot, however, control his puppet-actors and Puppet Dionysius breaks through the fourth wall to argue with Busy about the puppet show’s legitimacy.
Just as the puppet show reveals the impact of commodification on a work’s integrity, Nightingale’s singing of “A Caveat for Cutpurses” draws attention to the fact that the performance of ballads is also a commodified experience. As Nightingale informs Bartholomew Cokes, his eager audience and potential customer, “I sing it [A Caveat for Cutpurses] in mine own defence. But ‘twill cost a penny alone, if you buy it” (3.5.39-41). Cokes makes it clear that he is a customer, and reminisces about previous ballads he purchased, offering at the end of the singing to “buy the / whole bundle too” (3.5.45-6, 168-9). When Nightingale calls out a list of “fine new ballads” to tempt potential customers (2.4.10), he presents a mishmash of titles:
Hear for your love, and buy for your money!Nightingale’s list offers something for everyone: ballads seeming to titillate by hinting at sexual relations (“The Ferret and the Coney”) countered by those that offer “preservatives” against the danger of sexual relations, condemnation of fashion taken straight from anti-theatrical pamphleteers matched with morality depicted as fashion, and stories of scatological farting witches followed by a song about Saint George.
A delicate ballad o’ The Ferret and the Coney!
A Preservative again’ the Punks’ Evil!
Another of Goose-Green Starch, and the Devil!
A Dozen of Divine Points, and The Godly Garters!
The Fairing of Good Counsel, of an ell and three quarters!
What is’t you buy?
The Windmill blown down by the witch’s fart!
Or Saint George that O! did break the dragon’s heart! (2.4.10-18)
Left, “A Godly new Ballad, Intituled, A Douzen of Points,” Pepys 2.30, EBBA 20653.
Right, Robert Guy. “A warning for all good fellowes to take heede of Punckes inticements,”
Pepys 1.288-289, EBBA 20135.
The mix of ballads in the list above reflects Nightingale's needs to appeal to the diversity of individuals attending the fair. At the same time, this need to please his varied audience/customers creates a space in which the moral authority of particular works is potentially diminished by their companion texts. While Nightingale’s list gestures at pleasing the more upstanding members of society, balancing the profane with a number of ballads meant to moralize, elevate, and educate, the placement of these ballads among more crass titles subtly undermines their authority. As a product, the moral “A Dozen of Divine Points” is ascribed the same value as the “Windmill blown down by the witch’s fart.” By juxtaposing moral ballads with ridiculous, lewd, and perverse ones, Jonson draws attention to the ways in which the context in which a work appears redefines its meaning. Similarly, the inclusion in his list of “Goose-Green Starch, and the Devil,” a ballad that depicts a woman punished by the devil for her love of fashion, right before two ballads that use positive images of clothing and fashion as a vehicle for their moral lessons, draws into question the content of “A Dozen of Divine Points” and “The Godly Garters”—the latter an attempt to dress up morality with the very thing that has just been targeted as immoral.
Careful attention to the titles in his list of ballads reveals that Nightingale is even more actively adapting individual ballads to his own commercial purposes, and—through the context in which he places them—reshaping their meaning, potentially putting his own slant on their contents.
Martin Parker. “Houshold Talke, OR; Good Councell for a Married Man.”
Nightingale’s recasting of advice ballads such as Martin Parker's "Household Talk, or Good Council for a Married Man" into "The Fairing of Good Counsel'" raises questions about how effective such advice will be, how it will morally “fare,” and also points to its commodified nature—“fairings” were tokens and souvenirs brought home from events like Bartholomew Fair. Nightingale’s reference to the “delicate ballad o’ The Ferret and the Coney” also uses the language of the “delicate ballad” that appears in a number of ballads depicting young lovers uncertain about their relationships.
A delicate new Ditty composed upon the Posie of a Ring: / being, I fancie none but thee alone: sent as a New-years gift / by a Lover to his Sweet-heart.
“Richard Crimsal. Pretty Nannie: OR, A dainty delicate new Ditty, fit for the Contry, Town, or Citty, which shewes how constant she did prove unto her hearts delight and onely Love.”
“A delicate new Song, Entituled, Sweet-heart, I loue thee.”
“A most delicate, pleasant, amorous, new Song, made by a Gentleman that enioyes his Loue, shewing the worth and happi-nesse of Content, and the effects of loue, called, All Louers Ioy.”
But Nightingale then combines the delicate ballad with the sexual innuendo found in depictions of men and women as “ferrets” and “coneys.” The reference to “coneys” adds additional possible associations with the roguery of coney-catching pamphlets popular at the time. He also makes a possible reference to the specific ballad “A man cannot lose his money, but he shall be mockt too, OR, Suttle Mals love to a simple Coney, / To make him an Asse to spend his money” (c. 1625, Magdalene College Pepys 1.467, EBBA 20219), in which a young gentleman is conned by a young women into spending all his money on her, which she takes and then leaves him to marry another—in other words, a ballad directly at odds with the sentiments found in the “delicate new” ballads.
“A man cannot lose his money, but he shall be mockt too, OR, Suttle Mals love to a simple Coney, / To make him an Asse to spend his money.”
What Nightingale does here, however, is no more than ballads themselves do to more conventional stories. Nightingale’s transformation of Saint George into a heartbreaker of dragons is only one step away from George’s transformation from religious hero to heartbreaker of virgins in “An excellent BALLAD of St. George for England, and the King of Egypt's only Daughter, whom he delivered from Death: And how he slew a monstrous Dragon” (British Library Roxburghe 3.620-621, EBBA 31318), a retelling of Book One of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which is as perverse as the puppet show’s retelling of Hero and Leander. Note that several characters in the ballad use the same “o” that Nightingale uses when he describes the ballad of “Saint George that O! did break the dragon’s heart!,” suggesting that the edition reproduced in the Roxburghe collection might be the ballad Jonson is invoking.
“An excellent BALLAD of St. George for England, and the King of Egypt's
only Daughter, whom he delivered from Death: And how he slew a monstrous
Jonson’s depictions of plays, ballads, and puppet shows explore the ways in which these commodified experiences escape the influence of their authors and are reconfigured by the audience and the individuals performing them. Whereas Jonson emphasizes the production of these commodified experiences, Beaumont, in The Knight of the Burning Pestle, highlights their consumption. In his play Beaumont depicts the lack of authorial control over a production when he stages an audience taking over the plot of the play being staged and convincing the actors go along with this rebellion, if somewhat unwillingly. George, Nell, Rafe, and the actors actively revise the two plays being performed on stage, changing content and structure to suit their momentary needs, a strategy echoed by the ways characters within the plays employ ballads.
While Beaumont also highlights the commercial transactions at the heart of the theater, he does so to reveal the influence of the consumer on such transactions. Willing to pay more for the performance they desire, George and Nell force the actors to revise the play on the spot, revealing just how much a theater company must cater to its audience’s interests. To this different end, Beaumont, like Jonson, draws attention to the commercial nature of theater by directly staging cash exchanges between the audience members and the actors in moments ranging from George’s insistence that the boys hire shawms (musicians playing an oboe-like instrument) at his expense to Nell’s tipping the boys that please her with their dancing.
If George and Nell are employed as characters by Beaumont to show how consumers can affect the content of the theatrical product, their apprentice Rafe reveals just how malleable a performed work of art is when it enters the marketplace. George and Nell expect Rafe to represent their interests on stage. Rafe’s performance, however, seems to undermine the intentions of his employers. For while George and Nell call for a Grocer Errant—a figure that “represents [the] trade, “in honor of the commons of the city” by doing “admirable things” (Induction 30, 25, 34) —Rafe’s character of the grocer errant rejects the commercial aspects of trade, adopting the mantle of chivalric hero as a means of cheating and taking advantage of the various tradesmen he encounters, failing to pay bills, and destroying shops along the way. Rafe essentially rewrites his employer’s plot to articulate his own desires rather than that of his masters, as can be seen in the extended commercial transaction at the King of Cracovia’s house. When Nell calls for a scene in which Rafe wins the love of the King’ s daughter, Rafe rejects the daughter’s love in favor of his beloved cobbler’s maid Susan, a plot itself made popular in ballads such as Thomas Deloney’s “The Spanish Lady’s Love.”
Though George and Nell hand Rafe money to compensate the King of Cracovia’s household so that he “be not beholding to him,” Rafe compensates members of the household not in accordance with their status but based on the specific services they have done for him personally. In doing so, Rafe revalues the worth of these individuals, giving the Horsekeeper more than the Chamberlain, and the Chamberlain more than the King’s daughter—only the boy who wiped his boots receives less than her. Rafe prioritizes labor over status and rejects the alliance between the trades and nobility that his employers desired.
Just as the metatheatre moves center-stage in Beaumont’s play, so does the performance of ballads, which are also reimagined by those who consume them. In The London Merchant, the play interrupted and rejected by George and Nell, the ballad-singing lord of misrule/patriarch Merrythought compels the other characters to sing their way back into his good graces. Throughout The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Beaumont emphasizes the various ways in which individuals draw upon the fluid nature of ballads and adapt them to speak to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Beaumont uses this strategy to show how ballads, like theater, are malleable to the desires of their performers and audiences. The ballads sung throughout the play are truncated, revised, and re-contextualized very much like what Patricia Fumerton describes as the likely result of the early modern experience of ballads: “such fragments of print and song and image themselves created fragmentary gatherings or partial ‘wholes’ of assemblages in the minds of contemporaries.” Ballads could be changed or co-opted to suit the need of the individual singing them, whether seller, as with Nightingale in Bartholomew Fair, or consumer, as is demonstrated in The Knight of the Burning Pestle.
Whereas Jonson depicts the economic nature of ballads and the pressure their status as commodities puts on their content, Beaumont focuses instead on the ways in which individuals mentally “own” ballads. I put “own” in quotes here because no one in the play buys or sells ballad artefacts. It is not at all clear that any of the characters have purchased a broadside. When the characters in the play sing ballads, furthermore, they rarely sing them as extant ballads are printed, but instead make them “proper” to themselves, just as Rafe has co-opted his role as the Knight of the Burning Pestle. Merrythought is perhaps the easiest to make sense of; indeed, his use of song has been the subject of a number of studies. Merrythought uses song as a means of communication, drawing upon a range of musical styles to respond to other characters’ demands and to comment on various situations. Rarely does he sing more than a few lines of any one song; rather he excerpts the lines most relevant for his purposes. Merrythought is a bricoleur using lines as necessary and disposing of the context from which they came.
While Merrythought’s use of song in the play is somewhat straightforward (he invokes the lines he needs and discards the rest), it is more challenging to make sense of the song choices made under duress by Mistress Merrythought, Michael Merrythought, and Venturewell when they are forced to sing their way back into Merrythought’s graces. When Old Merrythought requires his wife and son to sing in order to reconcile with him and gain entry into their home they choose the ballad “A Rare Example of a Vertuous Maid in Paris”:
The song itself relates the story of a Protestant child who rejects her mother’s commands that she attend Mass and is burned at the stake for her defiance. It does not clearly match the situation at hand. Critics have thus attempted to understand the ballad in terms of its personal relevance to its singers, suggesting that the characters are choosing a ballad that reflects their Protestant values or “Puritanical Sympathies”. Yet there is little in the play to suggest that Michael or his mother are strongly devout, much less Puritan. Mistress Merrythought’s criticism of her husband seems to be more pragmatic in nature, based on the fear that her husband’s refusal to work is wasting away their money.
The ballad chosen by Venturewell, who is seeking Merrythought’s forgiveness for the supposed death of Merrythought’s son Jaspar, seems equally incongruous. Venturewell sings the ballad best known as “Fortune my Foe,” in which a young man laments the potential loss of his beloved after fortune has turned against him:
Recording of stanza one.
When discussing Venturewell’s choice, critics move away from focusing on the text of the ballad to emphasize instead the ballad’s haunting tune, which was frequently used in goodnight ballads and ballads depicting tragic figures. Whether the interpretation is grounded in text or tune, critics of The Knight of the Burning Pestle have approached the ballads in it as fixed texts with specific meanings and limited interpretations—“ A Rare Example of a Vertuous Maid in Paris” is a Protestant martyr song; “Fortune my Foe” a morbid gallows song.
Rather than seeing the ballads as set texts with stable significations, it may help to rethink the ballads based on the contexts in which characters sing them. In other words, a character’s nature should not alone be determined by his or her choice of ballad. Singing “A Rare Example of a Vertuous Maid in Paris” does not necessarily mark one as Protestant, nor does invoking “Fortune my Foe” decidedly indicate conservatism or morbidity. Rather, Beaumont shows his characters employing these ballads to serve their purposes, reshaping their meaning as they go. If we consider that Michael and Mistress Merrythought’s choice of “A Rare Example of a Vertuous Maid in Paris” is sung when they are forced to accede to the demands of Merrythought, then the choice of the ballad could be viewed as a response to domestic tyranny, particularly with its subtitle’s reference to compulsion.
Recording of stanza three and Recording of stanza eleven.
In singing this ballad, Michael and Mistress Merrythought are able to obey the demands of their patriarch while at the same time expressing their frustration with and resistance to oppressive authority through the particular lines of the ballad found in stanzas three and eleven linked in the recordings above.
Venturewell’s choice of ballad is similarly astute. By singing a tune associated with criminals expressing regret, Venturewell admits to his sense of culpability for the (supposed) death of Merrythought’s son. But, despite the adoption of its tune for goodnight ballads and the seemingly ominous nature and haunting tone of its opening lines, the original “Fortune My Foe” (National Library of Scotland, Crawford.EB.398, EBBA 33202) after which the tune was named is not a ballad of failure but is instead a lover’s lament. The title of the ballad reveals clearly that it is ultimately a ballad about success.
Venturewell is, in fact, singing a ballad in which a character who fears fortune has turned against him discovers that it has not. In the second half of the ballad, the lady reassures her lover that human relationships can survive the whims of fortune. In singing this ballad, Venturewell positions himself as suffering only a temporary loss while also providing Merrythought with a model for sympathy and reconciliation. While he sings a ballad about young lovers, he is using it instead to emphasize the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation.
The reshaping of ballads to fit the singers’ needs and interests echoes the ways in which the fictional audience members of The Knight of the Burning Pestle rework the play to suit their personal desires and needs. Like Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, Beaumont's play employs metatheatre to draw clear parallels between theater and ballads. Both plays posit the stage as a potentially anarchic space in which the audience and actors have as much (if not more) influence as the playwright. Similarly, ballads are shown to have no inherent meaning, but are reconfigured by the context in which they appear—whether as a list of commodities to be sold or as a means of solidifying social relations. Both the commercial and experiential nature of ballads and theater place them as much in the control of the various economic agents participating in the experience as in that of their creators.
In Bartholomew Fair and The Knight of the Burning Pestle, theatrical productions, like ballads, are commodities that can be purchased, taken home, and made one’s own. The two plays depict these commercial experiences in a positive light, as they also serve to develop new communal relationships. At the end of both works, commercial theater is no longer disruptive, but the center of sociability. The Knight of the Burning Pestle ends with Nell inviting the gentlemen in the audience to accompany her home to enjoy “a pottle of wine and a pipe of tobacco” as well as the opportunity to tell her their responses to Rafe’s performance: “I hope you do like the youth, but I would be / glad to know the truth” (Epilogue 5, 6-7). And while Bartholomew Fair begins with a depiction of different groups competing with each other, it ends with a comfortable sociability created in large part through their attendance at the puppet show. Indeed, the final word of Bartholomew Fair is given to ballad purchaser and theater lover Bartholomew Cokes who, after Justice Overdo invites the playgoers to his house for dinner adds, “Yes, and bring the actors along, we’ll ha’ the rest o’ the play at home” (5.6.117-118).