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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...

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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.

Plot Summary

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.
Urs: Oh!
[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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1508

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 on, but without preaching. Cokes and his party, burdened with trinkets, also return to the booth. Waspe is miserable because Cokes is spending his money on every foolish article offered him. When a toyman and a gingerbread woman argue over customer rights, Cokes buys the wares of both and even retains the toyman to provide entertainment at the forthcoming marriage. Nightingale and Edgeworth fear that Cokes will spend all of his money before they can get at him again. Nightingale sings a ballad while Edgeworth lifts the second purse from the enchanted Cokes’s belt. Winwife and Quarlous look on with amusement. When Cokes realizes his loss and cries out, Overdo, who is standing nearby, is seized as a suspect. Waspe, sure that Cokes will lose everything he possesses, takes into his care a black box containing the marriage license.

Quarlous, meanwhile, discloses to Edgeworth that he has been detected stealing Cokes’s purse. In exchange for secrecy, Edgeworth promises to steal the contents of the black box.

Busy and his friends eat pork at Ursula’s booth. Encountering the toyman and the gingerbread woman, Busy, in a moment of religious zeal, attempts to seize the wicked toys and upset the tray of gingerbread figures. The toyman calls police officers, who take Busy, followed by Dame Purecraft, away to be put in the stocks. Littlewit and Win are now free to enjoy the fair as they choose.

Overdo, also in the stocks, overhears to his shame that he has a reputation for harshness in meting out justice. He does not reveal himself when the officers take him and Busy away to face Justice Overdo.

While Cokes is looking for the toyman and the gingerbread woman, in hopes of getting his money back from them, he is intercepted by Nightingale and Edgeworth, who trick him out of his hat, jacket, and sword. Wretched Cokes begins to understand at last that he was grievously abused at the fair.

In another part of the fair, Winwife and Quarlous, who attract Grace away from her group, draw swords to decide a dispute as to who should have Cokes’s attractive young fiancé. Grace bids them not to fight; at her suggestion, each writes a word on a tablet. The first passerby is to choose the word he likes the better. The one whose word is thus chosen will win the hand of Grace, who decides that Cokes is not the man for her. This business is interrupted, however, when Edgeworth urges both men to watch him steal the marriage license from Waspe, who is with the crowd in Ursula’s booth.

Waspe and his companions, including Mistress Overdo, are drinking ale; all are quite intoxicated. When Waspe gets into a scuffle with Knockem, Edgeworth takes the license from the black box. Quarlous laughs at the drunken antics of one of the group and has to fight. Officers enter and seize Waspe for disturbing the peace.

Littlewit, who has written the story of the puppet show, leaves Win at Ursula’s booth while he joins the puppeteers. While she waits, Win meets Captain Whit, a bawd, who tells her that he knows how she can live a life of endless pleasure and wealth.

Unable to find Justice Overdo at his lodgings, the officers return their prisoners to the stocks. Waspe, brought to the stocks, manages to escape before his legs can be confined. When a madman engages an officer in a scuffle, Overdo and Busy also escape, the lock of the stocks being left unclasped. Dame Purecraft suddenly falls in love with the madman Trouble-All, a lawyer who is distracted because of a past misunderstanding with Justice Overdo.

Later Quarlous, disguised as the madman and pursued by Dame Purecraft, returns to Winwife and Grace. Meanwhile, the real madman chooses Winwife’s word, “Palemon.” Grace then declares that she will become Winwife’s spouse. Overdo, disguised as a porter, comes upon Quarlous. Anxious to help the man whom he brought to distraction, Overdo gives him a seal and warrant for anything within reason that he might desire.

Cokes finds his way to the puppet theater, where he borrows money from Littlewit. When Captain Whit, Knockem, and Edgeworth come to the theater, they have with them Win, masked, and Mistress Overdo, who is sick from too much ale. Captain Whit offers Win to Overdo for his pleasure. Waspe also comes to the theater and joins his young master. The play is presented; it is an idiotic blending of the legends of Hero and Leander and Damon and Pythias. During the showing, Busy enters and threatens to break up the theater. Persuaded to argue the sinfulness of the puppet theater with one of the puppets, he is soundly defeated in the argument.

Quarlous, still disguised as the madman, comes with Grace to the theater. Littlewit, who went in search of Win, returns without her. The true madman and Ursula enter. When all are together, Overdo declares his intention of punishing all who engaged in rascality. When Quarlous questions his judgment and reveals Edgeworth as a cutpurse and not an innocent youth, as the justice supposed, Overdo decides there is such a thing as false judgment and that humanity is weak. Quarlous wins the hand of Dame Purecraft. Reassured that restitution will be made all around, Overdo invites everyone to his house for dinner.

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