Bartholomew Fair

by Ben Jonson

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Bartholomew Cokes

Cokes is an esquire of Harrow (a neighborhood in Greater London) and the fiancé of Grace Wellborn. He comes to Littlewit's house at the start of the play, in the company of Mistress Overdo and Grace, to retrieve his marriage license. He is the quintessential nitwit, stripped of his money bags by a knife-wielding cutpurse and of his clothes by other thieves at the fair.

During one scene at the fair, Cokes listens to Overdo's anti-tobacco speech while the cutpurse Edgworth steals his purse. In another scene, Cokes admires all the junk that Leatherhead and Trash are hawking. In his naivety, he offers to buy the entire shop from Leatherhead, as well as Trash's gingerbread basket. The sacral parody that so informs this play also involves Cokes, for Jonson makes the most brainless character its token Catholic. The repeated stress on Cokes as a resident of “Harrow o’ th’ Hill” would have reminded early modern audiences of this London suburb’s notoriety as a haunt of Catholic holdouts—thus, it would have flagged Cokes as Catholic by extension. That he is duped at the fair, just like the representative figure of the Puritan firebrand, Busy, suggests that Bartholomew Fair works to tear down sectarian walls by showing both factions as equally fallible, neither one superior to the other.

Humphrey Waspe

Waspe, also called Numps, is Cokes's servant. He is perpetually angry, has a biting tongue, and censures his master for his naivety. Exasperated by Cokes's vapidity, he regrets coming to the fair: "Lord send me at home once, to Harrow o'the Hill again . . . If I travel any more, call me Coriat; with all my heart."

However, he is exposed as no better, because even as he rebukes his master, he is robbed. In act 1, contemplating Cokes’s vulnerability at the fair, he says, “Pray heaven I bring him off with one stone!” But when the cutpurses, having already robbed Cokes, turn their attention to Waspe, Edgworth describes Waspe as so wrapped up in his game of vapors that “you may strip him of his clothes, if you will."

Waspe is thoughtless, like Cokes, but for the opposite reason: his mind is in such endless motion that there is no time to establish a fixed center. While Cokes embraces all the world to a fault, Waspe rejects it all, thereby showing no more discrimination than Cokes. Thus, it is appropriate that Waspe takes such relish in the game of vapors—"every man to oppose the last man that spoke, whether it concerned him or no."

John Littlewit

Littlewit is a proctor. According to the stage-keeper in the induction, he is an officer at the Court of Arches, the ecclesiastical court of appeals. He is infatuated with his own negligible wit and his connections in the sub-literary world of petty taverns and puppet theaters. His pretty and mindless wife, Win-the-fight Littlewit, becomes fair game for everyone at the fair, since her husband is too foolish to hold onto her.

Win-the-fight Littlewit

Win is John Littlewit's equally witless wife. She is tricked into dressing like a harlot while at the fair.

Dame Purecraft

Dame Purecradt is Win Littlewit's mother and John Littlewit's mother-in-law. She is torn between two suitors, Busy and Winwife. While at the fair, she becomes inexplicably attracted to Troubleall, since a prophecy states that she will marry a madman. After Winwife transfers his affections to Grace Wellborn, Dame Purecraft ends up marrying Tom Quarlous, who has disguised himself as Troubleall.

Zeal-of-the-land Busy

Busy is a Puritan pastor and one of Dame Purecraft's suitors. He is arrested and put...

(This entire section contains 835 words.)

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in the stocks after attempting to preach to the people at the fair.

Ned Winwife

Winwife begins the play as a suitor to Dame Purecraft, but he ultimately ends up marrying Grace Wellborn after she grows exasperated with the idiotic Cokes.

Tom Quarlous

Quarlous is Winwife's friend and co-conspirator. Together with Littlewit, they lure Dame Purecraft to the fair and establish a plan to steal Cokes's marriage license, resulting in Winwife being able to marry Grace and Quarlous marrying Dame Purecraft.

Justice Overdo and Dame Overdo

The Overdos are a wealthy, genteel couple who serve as Grace's guardians. Justice Adam Overdo is overcome with reformative zeal and he sets out in disguise to identify and punish misdeeds at the fair. However, after Dame Overdo becomes intoxicated and is found dressed as a harlot, he abandons his crusade.

Grace Wellborn

Grace is a lovely and intelligent woman who is initially engaged to marry Cokes. However, his idiotic antics and neglect exasperate her and she ultimately offers to marry either Quarlous or Winwife based on the outcome of a pseudonym contest to be judged by Troubleall, from which Winwife emerges victorious.


Troubleall is a madman with whom Dame Purecraft becomes infatuated.

Ezekial Edgeworth

Edgeworth is a young, handsome cutpurse who steals money and the marriage licenses from Cokes and Waspe. He attracts the attention of the disguised Justice Overdo, who attempts to offer Edgeworth moral guidance.