At Smithfield, horse dealers and cloth manufacturers hold an annual fair--complete with games, sideshows, and entertainments--on St. Bartholomew’s Day. Jonson uses the fair as a microcosm of society. Here men and women pursue pleasures, connive to get ahead, and try to escape life’s limitations. Hardly any of them find what they expect.
Justice Overdo, disguising himself in order to detect criminals, unwittingly befriends a pickpocket and finds himself accused of stealing. By the day’s end he has been beaten, arrested, and locked in the pillory.
Bartholomew Cokes, a self-assured man of means, accompanies his fiancee Grace Wellborn to show off his sophisticated tastes and worldly wisdom. Within hours he is broke: defrauded by a toy-maker, cheated by a gingerbread woman, and robbed twice by pickpockets. Grace decides on a more sensible beau and chooses the gamester Winwife who knows how to keep his money and to get more.
Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, a Puritan who condemns the fair’s pleasures, is positive he can resist temptation and lead others away from them. His visit teaches him otherwise: He cannot resist the pork pies, and his penchant for preaching leads him to argue with a puppet. His female counterpart Win-the-Fight gullibly believes a bawd’s promise that the path to wealth is the body.
These characters and many others come together to witness a fifth-act play-within-a-play. Puppets perform a debased version of an idealistic story about love and friendship. The puppet play reminds the fair-goers that human behavior inevitably falls short of expectation and self-image.
Barish, Jonas. Ben Jonson and the Language of Prose Comedy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960. A masterful discussion of Jonson’s comic language and an important starting point for study of Jonson’s dramatic works. Convincingly argues for Bartholomew Fair as Jonson’s masterpiece.
Barton, Anne. Ben Jonson, Dramatist. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Compelling discussion of Jonson’s interests in chaos and order. Offers an important chapter on the use of names and naming—an obsessive interest of Jonson’s across his career—in the context of discussions of names and language from Plato to historian William Camden, Jonson’s contemporary and teacher.
Donaldson, Ian. The World Upside Down. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1970. Views the play as festive in its forms and themes, and explores the anthropology of festivity. Excellent insights into the play’s relevance to the court of James I.
Hamel, Guy. “Order and Judgement in Bartholomew Fair.” University of Toronto Quarterly, 43, no. 1 (Fall, 1973): 48-67. Discusses how the staging of the theatrically complex play reinforces Jonson’s themes about justice in a complex world. An important essay for establishing Jonson’s deliberate dramatic strategy for what was once considered the play’s greatest flaw: its seemingly unwieldy theatrical structure.
Orgel, Stephen. The Jonsonian Masque. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965. Although mainly about Jonson’s masques, Orgel’s discussion is invaluable for his insights into Jonson’s political use of costume, spectacle, and disguise, key elements of Bartholomew Fair.