The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVI. London and the Development of Popular Literature

§ 27. Burlesques

The literary resourcefulness of the age is also illustrated by a number of pamphlets which ridicule romantic ballads. The Heroical adventures of the Knight of the Sea (1600) was followed by Beaumont and Fletcher’s comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle in 1611 and by Moriomachia in 1613. In this clever prose burlesque, interspersed with rimes, Robert Anton tells how the queen of the fairies transforms a submissive and apathetic cow into a knight errant to do her business in the world. The knight’s adventures are as futile as those of Sir Thopas, but they serve the further purpose of satirising society. The hero blunders into encounters which set off the bluff kindness of the common folk beside the arrogance and vanity of the wealthy with their bought titles and pampered menials. At Moropolis (London), the adventurer visits the frivolous shows and sham prodigies of the city, and he catches some glimpses of city vice which much amaze his ingenuous soul. The burlesque ends in a mock-heroic contest. The Knight of the Sun enters the lists against the Knight of the Moon, but is worsted, and the earth is plunged in darkness. Amid the disorder which ensues, “fogging solliciters,” “extorting brokers,” “peaking pandars,” tapsters and others appear in their true characters. The tract has something in it suggestive of Candide as well as of Hudibras. In 1615, Rowlands brought out The Melancholic Knight, a verse monologue proceeding from a character disgusted with the commercialism of his own age and ravished by the enchanted world of medieval romance. He is a studious reader of fly-sheets and broadsides which tell of dragons and other monstrosities, and has himself composed “the rhyme of Sir Eglamour.” But this poem is really a burlesque imitated from The Knight of the Sea and its author proves to be a poltroon who despises money because he is in debt, refuses charity to beggars (the mark of the upstart nobleman of that age), grinds his tenants to clothe his wife bravely and smokes and spits all day long while nursing his melancholy. Don Quixote had been published in 1605, and its popularity may have stimulated this type of literature. But the real impulse came from the reaction of the “nineties” against Elizabethan idealism. The love of mythical and heroic literature was not, indeed, dead but was relegated to the uneducated and the old-fashioned. Verse satirists had already inveighed against the Spenserian school and the versified legends of old time. Now, less academic writers, following the city love of cynicism and ridicule, reproduced the same satire in a more humorous form.