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...
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