Bartholomew Fair

by Ben Jonson
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Last Updated on August 17, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1020

Bartholomew Fair is a comedy play in five acts, written by Ben Jonson, an English poet and playwright who lived during the Jacobean era. First performed at the Hope Theatre, on the south side of the River Thames, on October 31, 1614, the play would have been seen by King James I and Queen Anne—it was indeed performed at the Royal Court in a second production that same year.

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Bartholomew Fair is a comic burlesque that pokes wicked and satiric fun at all of its characters. The centerpiece and main setting of the play is Bartholomew Fair itself, an enormously popular summer fair that took place yearly, from 1133 to 1855, outside of the ward of Aldersgate, London. At the time of Jonson's play, the fair lasted a fortnight and was internationally popular. While it was primarily known as a trading fair for cloth and other items, it was also a pleasure fair.

The fair is named after St. Bartholomew, one of the apostles of Jesus, who became a martyr after being flayed alive. His flayed skin is considered a precious religious artifact. Because of the nature of his death, he is the patron saint of tanners and tailors. Bartholomew Fair was at first primarily a trade fair for cloth—and tanners and tailors—which is how it got its name from the saint.

In this play, Jonson focuses primarily on the pleasures of the fair. After introducing most of the primary characters in their homes (preparing to go to the fair) in the first act, in the second act, Jonson introduces several of the pleasure booth denizens of the fair as they receive customers and go about their business. Most memorable is Ursula, a "pig-woman" (a seller of roasted pigs). Her booth is a centerpiece for the action of the play, as well as a lively crossroads for various nefarious characters (with colorful names like Whit, Edgworth, Nightingale, Haggise, and Bristle) who are engaged in criminal activities: fencing stolen goods, pimping for prostitutes, "cutpurses" and other rogues. Ursula describes herself as follows:

I am all fire and fat . . . I shall e'en melt away to the first woman, a rib, again, I am afraid. I do water the ground in knots as I go, like a great garden-pot; you may follow me by the S's I make.

In a way, Ursula can be seen to metaphorically represent the fair itself. She is like a carnival barker who oversees the primal, lusty proceedings of the fair, from the indulgence of eating greasy cooked pig meat to running interference and making use of the work of all the petty criminals who operate in the underbelly of the fair. Gluttony, debauchery, and drunkenness await all of the characters who are going to attend the fair on this day.

The Hope Theatre, where the play was performed, was built in 1613–1614, and this was one of the very first plays to be performed there. The man responsible for building the theater was Philip Henslowe, a well-known impresario of the time. Much of what we know about Renaissance theater of the day comes from a diary that Henslowe wrote. The new theater replaced a former bear-baiting arena. It was built to mimic and compete with other famous theaters of the day, such as the Swan and the Globe. The troop that performed the play was called (usually) Lady Elizabeth's Men, under the patronage of James I and Queen Anne.

In performance there, it seems likely that much of play, especially the scenes at the fair, were staged with "simultaneous loci": a series of canvas booths were arranged on the stage to represent the totality of the fair all at once. This is born out by the evidence of a staging receipt that reads,

Canvas for Boothes and other necessaries for a play called Bartholomewe Fair.

The play itself frequently refers to the various "mansions," "booths," and "tents" where the fair takes place. The three main locales at the fair are Ursula's pig booth, the area where the public stocks are (where at least three of the main characters find themselves temporarily imprisoned for their raucous activities), and the large puppet booth of Lantern Leatherhead, where the characters watch and become engaged with a puppet show in act 5.

Since these various set areas were all placed on one stage together, very much in the fashion of older medieval plays that staged allegorical scenes for playgoers to walk through one by one, the play's staging would have been both very familiar to the audience and more fluid to stage. By all accounts, it was as lively to watch as the fair itself, with simultaneous actions happening in different booths all around the stage.

Indeed, the jumbled, colorful staging of the play at the Hope Theatre perfectly reflects the farcical, episodic plot of the play. The main characters (Cokes, Quarlous, Winwife, Wasp, Trouble-All and Zeal-of-the-Land Busy) dash about trying to win the attention and the affection of two women, Grace Wellborn and Dame Purecraft. The men take turns stealing marriage certificates from one another, deceiving one another, and generally engaging in acts of competition and bravado—they seem much more interested in one-upping each other than in actually getting married. As a result, the play's plot, such as it is, is frantic and chaotic. By the time we reach the end of the play and watch the Puritan Zeal-of-the-Land Busy having an argument about morality with one of the puppets from the puppet show, we know we are part of a merry, ridiculous world.

Jonson harshly satirizes the Puritan—Puritans are a frequent target of Jonson and of all Jacobean playwrights. The Puritans had been busy trying to shut down theaters and fairs in England for many years. Jonson, never afraid of controversy or of confronting his enemies, was openly hostile to the Puritans. He paints them as greedy, hypocritical half-wits in his plays. Zeal-of-the-Land Busy is horrified by Bartholomew Fair and its "profane feasts," and yet he manages to eat two whole pigs at Ursula's pig-booth in order to refute the charges of "Judaism" he says have been leveled at Puritans.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 321

*Bartholomew Fair

*Bartholomew Fair (BART-le-mee). London’s raucous Bartholomew Fair, held at Smithfields from 1120 onward. The original site was the area where animals were slaughtered and sold. During the reign of Queen Mary, the fair was suspended, and Smithfields became the site where heretics were burned at the stake. The fair was reestablished in the 1560’s after the accession of Elizabeth I. Symbolically, the fair represents the world, with all its liveliness, riot, and sinfulness. Representatives of the law, such as Justice Overdone, and the rigid Puritan sect, such as Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, invade the fair to ferret out its evils and ultimately shut it down. Their encounters with the cutpurses, pimps, horse thieves, pig women, and gingerbread sellers, who ply their wares at the fair, leave these self-righteous individuals humiliated and chastened. The vitality of the fair exerts its influence and defeats the intentions of those who would condemn it.

*Ursula’s pig booth

*Ursula’s pig booth. Booth at which “Bartholomew Pig” is sold—where the fair’s ultimate excesses are centered. The Littlewits go to the booth hoping that indulgence in greasy roast pork will help Win to conceive. Mrs. Overdone and Dame Purecraft, representatives of middle-class morality, become drunk and are mistaken for whores.

*Leatherhead’s puppet booth

*Leatherhead’s puppet booth. Country bumpkin Bartholomew Cokes, who thinks the fair is his fair since they share the same name, is drawn into the world of the puppet show featuring Hero and Leander, though he understands not a word of it, just as he is lost in the world of the fair.

*Hope Theatre

*Hope Theatre. Bankside theater in which Jonson’s play was first produced in 1631. It becomes the site of a scene in the play itself. The introduction sees the book holder, the stage manager, and the scrivener make a compact with the audience not to condemn the excesses of either the stage production or Bartholomew Fair.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 241

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.

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