Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1509
The play Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson is a broad, loosely plotted comedy, set mainly in the fun, riotous backdrop of the fair itself as it revolves around the various pursuits of its main characters. With a massive cast of thirty speaking parts and dozens of background characters, the play has a fast-paced, carnival atmosphere as it depicts a single day of events in the life of the fair.
Four distinct plots play out at the fair. The first three plots are introduced in act 1, in the morning at the home of the proctor John Littlewit and his wife, Win-the-Fight Littlewit, who are great hosts and friends with the various folk we meet, as they prepare to go to Bartholomew Fair that day.
The first plot is the courtship of the aforementioned characters Winwife and Quarlous. They are friends and friendly rivals, and they both want to make decent (and wealthy) matches. The women they have their eyes on are Grace Wellborn and Dame Purecraft.
The second plot follows the secondary, and more broadly comical, characters Bartholomew Cokes and his irascible servant, Waspe. Cokes begins the play engaged to Grace Wellborn, but he manages to lose his engagement by the play's end. He is an innocent, sometimes foolish man surrounded by tricksters. Waspe is a country bumpkin and a hothead, best at starting fights.
The third plot involves the man who is initially engaged to Dame Purecraft, the Puritan Zeal-of-the-Land Busy. Busy is a long-winded fellow whose appetites for "vice" are scarcely concealed by his rationalizing. He readily agrees to go to the fair because his presence there, he says, will be godly:
we may be religious in the midst of the profane, so it be eaten with a reformed mouth, with sobriety and humbleness; not gorged in with gluttony or greediness . . .
The fourth plot starts at the fair, in act 2, as we meet the judge Justice Overdo, who is taking it upon himself to wear a disguise so that he may ferret out the "enormities" of the fair, thus revealing to all of London the fair's vices and reforming it. He is gathering intelligence, as he puts it:
all our intelligence is idle, and most of our intelligencers knaves; and, by your leave, ourselves thought little better, if not arrant fools, for believing them. I, Adam Overdo, am resolved therefore to spare spy-money hereafter, and make mine own discoveries.
Each of the four plots play out this day at the fair, raveling and unraveling—for the fair itself is a wild, fractal affair, and nothing plays out as the characters expect.
Winwife and Quarlous arrive first at the fair and immediately manage to provoke an altercation with several of the sellers there. They have "nothing to do but see the sights," until the objects of their affection, Dame Pureblood and Grace Wellborn, arrive, so they fall into the company of Ursula, who runs a pig-booth, and Knockem, a horse seller. The slumming gallants only seem interested in making fun of Knockem and Ursula and antagonizing them, picking a fight with Knockem, until Ursula angrily rushes out and returns:
Re-enter URSULA, with the dripping-pan.
Edg. Night: ’Ware the pan, the pan, the pan! she comes with the pan, gentlemen! [Ursula falls with the pan.]— God bless the woman.
[Exeunt Quarlous and Winwife.]
This moment is typical of the play, with its broad, coarse humor. Ursula has returned to bash the snobbish men with her frying pan, but she accidentally trips over it as Winwife and Quarlous dash out to escape. It is one wild incident after another at the fair today.
Playwright Jonson turns the various "courtly" and "noble" pursuits of the characters on their heads. The courtships of Winwife and Quarlous actually revolve around the theft of the marriage licenses that can be used to prove wedlock with Dame Pureblood and Grace Wellborn. And Quarlous is a fun-loving rogue, with little respect for anyone, including the women he pursues:
My roarer is turn’d tapster, methinks. Now were a fine time for thee, Winwife, to lay aboard thy widow, thou’lt never be master of a better season or place; she that will venture herself into the Fair and a pig-box, will admit any assault, be assured of that.
All's fair in love and tom-foolery at Bartholomew Fair. (Don't look to this play for strong female characters. Except for Ursula, who has a big, wild Falstaffian air about her, the other women are mere ciphers, with little to do but look pretty. Jonson is not well known for complex female characters—look to his contemporary Shakespeare for those.)
Meanwhile, poor Bartholomew Cokes manages to have his purse stolen and then gets carried around piggy-back by one of the fair's cut-purse rogues. Cokes' servant, Waspe, fights with the various criminals who are pestering his master, and Justice Overdo, still disguised and spying on it all, also gets beaten up by Waspe and runs about screaming, "Murther, murther, murther!"
Waspe and Overdo both end up in the stocks at the fair for their troubles, though they manage to escape when yet another fight breaks out close by.
The Puritan Busy stalks through the fair, sternly pointing a finger at everything and everyone he sees:
the whole Fair is the shop of Satan: they are hooks and baits, very baits, that are hung out on every side, to catch you, and to hold you, as it were, by the gills, and by the nostrils, as the fisher doth; therefore you must not look nor turn toward them.
Busy is quickly arrested for preaching without a license and also put into the stocks.
The climax of the play is a puppet show offered by Lanthern Leatherhead. Bartholomew Cokes, philosophically good-natured about having his money and wife stolen from him, tours the show backstage beforehand and amusingly approves of the players (i.e., the puppets):
Well, they are a civil company, I like ’em for that; they offer not to fleer, nor jeer, nor break jests, as the great players do: and then, there goes not so much charge to the feasting of them, or making them drunk, as to the other, by reason of their littleness.
Quarlous and Winwife have managed to snare Wellborn and Pureblood, respectively. Justice Overdo is both shocked and chastened when he is presented with the spectacle of his own drunken wife publicly vomiting after a day of too much excess at the fair. Overdo forgives everyone and invites them all over for dinner at his place later (all of Littlewit's friends, anyway).
The puppet show is an epic burlesque of the tale of Hero and Leander, bawdy and profane, until finally the puppet-spirit of Dionysus, god of wine, rises up and exclaims,
O Damon, he cries, and Pythias, what harm Hath poor Dionysius done you in his grave, That after his death you should fall out thus and rave, And call amorous Leander whore-master knave?
The play is interrupted when the Puritan Busy rushes in and gets into a fight with the puppets about morality and the depravity of players in the theater:
Busy: Yes, and my main argument against you is, that you are an abomination; for the male, among you, putteth on the apparel of the female, and the female of the male.
Busy makes a case many Puritans leveled against the various theaters and players of England. The puppets respond calmly:
Pup. Dion: It is your old stale argument against the players, but it will not hold against the puppets; for we have neither male nor female amongst us. And that thou may’st see, if thou wilt, like a malicious purblind zeal as thou art.
[Takes up his garment.]
The puppets pull up their costumes and reveal they have no sex at all; Busy admits he is converted and has no ethical arguments left against the play proceeding.
As the play ends, the various characters leave to have dinner with Justice Overdo and the sellers at the fair pack up for the night and prepare to do it all again tomorrow. Bartholomew Cokes invites the players to come along with them so they can watch the rest of the play at home.
All in all, this was just another lively day at Bartholomew Fair. Everyone has had a bit of fun, the cut-purses have made some extra money, Ursula has sold at least two whole pigs (they were eaten by Puritan Busy), two weddings have been arranged, and the puppet show players have made out very well, as getting invited home to show their play will no doubt fill their purses as well.
Bartholomew Fair is an irreverent, lively farce. The play has been rarely produced, even to this day. With its vast cast of performers and epic staging, it is a challenge to pull off. Yet it remains a gorgeously imagined piece of writing, powerful in its comic scope and ribald realism of scenes of London life from the day, a unique satiric creation of Jacobean theater.