Study Guide

Bartholomew Fair

by Ben Jonson

Bartholomew Fair Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Winwife, a London gallant, comes courting Dame Purecraft, a widow who lives with her daughter, Win-the-Fight, and her son-in-law, John Littlewit, a proctor. Littlewit discloses to Winwife that Dame Purecraft was told by fortune-tellers that she will marry, within a week, a madman. In this connection, Littlewit suggests to Winwife that he deport himself in the manner of his companion Tom Quarlous, a city madcap.

Quarlous, entering in search of Winwife, kisses Win-the-Fight several times until Winwife cautions him to desist. Littlewit, who is not too acute, actually encourages Winwife and Quarlous to be free with his wife. Littlewit also reveals to his visitors that Dame Purecraft has a new suitor, one Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, a Puritan from Banbury. Busy has taken lodgings in Littlewit’s house.

Humphrey Waspe, the testy old servant of young Bartholomew Cokes, a foolish gentleman of the provinces, comes to Littlewit to pick up a marriage license for his master. Soon afterward, Cokes appears in company with two women. One is Mistress Overdo, his natural sister and the wife of Justice Adam Overdo; the other is Grace Wellborn, Cokes’s fiancé and Overdo’s ward. It is clear that Waspe is the servant of an extremely light-headed young man. Cokes declares his intention of squiring Grace to Bartholomew Fair before they return to Middlesex. Waspe objects but finally resigns himself to the inevitable. Winwife and Quarlous, sensing fun at hand, decide to go along. Not wishing to miss the fun, Littlewit declares that he will go too. Dame Purecraft and Busy both rationalize Puritan strictures against attending fairs and give the young couple permission to go so that Win might eat roast pig; Busy and the widow declare their intention of going with them to Bartholomew Fair.

In disguise and with a notebook in his pocket, Justice Overdo goes to the fair to seek out criminals and to record lawlessness. Suspecting Ursula, a seller of beer and roast pig, Overdo stops at her booth to test her. As he drinks, various shady personalities enter the booth. He asks Mooncalf, Ursula’s handyman, for information about them all, but Mooncalf’s replies are always vague. Overdo conceives a feeling of sympathy for one Edgeworth, a young cutpurse, although not suspecting Edgeworth’s profession. Overdo decides he should rescue the young man from such knavish company.

At Ursula’s booth, where Winwife and Quarlous condescendingly stop for a drink, Quarlous becomes involved in a fight with Knockem, a horse trader. Ursula, running from her kitchen to throw hot grease on Winwife and Quarlous, stumbles, and the grease burns her leg. Knockem declares that he will operate her booth while she sits by to oversee the business.

Cokes and his party arrive at the fair and make their way to Ursula’s booth, where Overdo warns them against the evils of tobacco and ale. Edgeworth steals Cokes’s purse and gives it to his confederate, Nightingale, a ballad monger. Mistress Overdo observes that Overdo, who is in disguise, speaks much in the manner of her own husband, Justice Adam Overdo. Missing his purse, Cokes declares indiscreetly that he has another one and that he defies cutpurses by placing it on his belt where the other one had been. Waspe, suspecting Overdo to be the cutpurse, thrashes the justice. As Overdo cries for help, Cokes and his party leave Ursula’s booth.

Busy leads Littlewit, Win, and Dame Purecraft into the fair, after cautioning them to look neither to left nor right and to avoid the sinful booths as they march toward Ursula’s booth to get roast pig. While they wait to be served, Overdo reappears, still determined to observe the goings...

(The entire section is 1508 words.)