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.
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...
(The entire section contains 1582 words.)
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