Bartholomew Fair

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 497 words.)

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