Bartholomew Fair

by Ben Jonson
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1165

Two years after the first performance of Bartholomew Fair, Ben Jonson published his accumulated plays in a folio volume entitled Works. Such an act was as unprecedented as it was audacious, because it implied both that Jonson considered himself worthy of serious attention as a writer and that the stage drama of the time should be considered an important part of literature.

Bartholomew Fair comes from Jonson’s greatest period as a comic dramatist. It is one of Jonson’s most direct defenses of drama (and art in general), a form that, although illusory, is a means to the truth. The play is also a clear portrayal of the reality of the world’s evil and a plea for a sober appreciation of the depth of that evil. Like Jonson’s Volpone (1605), Epicne (1609), and The Alchemist (1610), Bartholomew Fair is characterized by a remarkable unity provided by a particular event or location. Plot and character are thus focused around a prevailing mania or social evil particular to that event or place. Jonson, in all these plays, makes an incisive analysis of the social scene and shows his opposition to humanity’s acquisitive tendencies.

Bartholomew Fair teems with life and is probably unsurpassed for its delineation of English types—especially the low types—of the period. Jonson also holds the society of his day up for criticism in such figures as Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, the Puritan; Adam Overdo, the zealous justice of the peace; and Bartholomew Cokes, the well-to-do simpleton from Middlesex. That no great evil is done in the play and that no one comes to any grief indicates that Jonson, although a satirist, feels a real affection for all people in his beloved London.

Bartholomew Fair’s main plot, if there can be said to be one, is the story, reminiscent of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments of Harun-al-Rashid, of Adam Overdo’s mingling, in disguise, among people to whom he metes out justice. The other plots are hinted at rather than developed. The play is framed by an “induction” given by the stagekeeper and the bookholder, in which the illusory character of drama as reality is raised for the audience’s consideration. The induction includes an agreement between the audience and the author about what the audience can and cannot expect in the forthcoming drama, with a reminder that the audience should not look for real persons in the characters on stage, nor should it expect to see the Smithfield fair presented there. This disclaimer is ironic, because Jonson intends that his audience see itself in his characters. At the end of the play, the audience is invited to participate in the final celebration at Overdo’s house, thus bringing the convention of life-as-drama full circle by drawing the audience into the world of the fair.

The puppet play that occurs in act 5 is the center of Jonson’s statement about drama and art. The puppet play is referred to in each act, since Littlewit has written the script and several characters look forward to attending the production. It is the climax of Bartholomew Fair; in the puppet play, the various characters’ delusions are torn away. The range of possible aesthetic reactions to the illusion of drama is nicely detailed by the play-within-a-play. There is Cokes’s naïve belief, Busy’s Puritan denunciation of the theater, and Leatherhead’s manipulation (as puppetmaster) of the audience’s sensibilities. Grace, Winwife, and others in the audience not only watch the puppet show but also comment on Cokes’s and Busy’s comments, while Jonson’s audience or reader observes those observers. Cokes worries about the injury one of the puppets may have received with a blow on the head and naïvely repeats all the puppets’ lines as truth. Busy carries on the traditional Puritan argument against theater with the puppet Dionysius, charging that actors are unnatural since in theater, males dress up as females. The puppet answers that puppets are neither male nor female and lifts his garment to prove it. Busy, so gullible as to believe he is seriously arguing with a person, accepts the puppet’s refutation.

The puppet show reduces the two greatest myths of Renaissance literature—the Hero and Leander ideal of love and the Damon and Pythias ideal of friendship—to the story of Hero the whore and the alehouse rowdies Damon and Pythias. The obscenities and scatological references in the puppet play are appropriate in the context, in which humanity is reduced to that most elemental level at which even sexual differences disappear, as in the puppets themselves.

The protagonist of the play is the fair itself, and Bartholomew Fair becomes a metaphor for the world. The two sets of characters—the respectable fairgoers and the disreputable fair employees—are seen to be essentially alike. They come together in the common acts of buying, drinking, and eating. Finally, there is no difference between them. The madness of the fair is the madness of the world. Certain words recur as motifs in the play, and the action comes to reflect these words: “vapours,” meaning a game of arguing or irrational whims; “mad” and “madness”; “enormity”; and “warrant,” meaning license. For Jonson, the whole world is regarded as mad, governed by follies and vapours, committing enormities of one sort or another, entirely governed by irrationalities, and seeking warrants of various kinds to justify its behavior.

Different characters refuse to accept the fair for what it is or to acknowledge the reality of the world’s madness. Overdo disguises himself in order to catch troublemakers and mete out justice; instead, he is always too late and is mistaken for a criminal himself. Cokes is blinded by his innocent country origins and duped over and over again. Busy deceives himself by equating the fair not with the world but with sin. He reduces himself to an animal by closing his eyes to keep out the corruption of the fair and sniffing his way to Ursula’s tent for roast pig. Dame Purecraft goes to the opposite extreme by embracing madness; falling in love with the madman Trouble-All is a way out of the madness of the world. As she says, “Mad do they call him! the world is mad in error, but he is mad in truth.” Ursula is the only one who accepts her role without illusion or inhibition. She is a caricature of an earth mother—fat and gross, but honest.

Each of these characters, with the exception of Ursula, makes elaborate attempts to disguise from himself or herself the true nature of humanity; humanity’s animal nature is fully expressed at the fair. Justice Adam Overdo is gently chastened at the end of the play by Quarlous with a line that can stand for Jonson’s reminder to his audience: “Remember you are but Adam, flesh and blood.” In Bartholomew Fair, Jonson does not try to change the world; instead he urges acceptance, without illusion, of the corruption of the world.

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