Bartholomew Fair

by Ben Jonson

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In Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, who are the Puritan characters and their significance?

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Ben Jonson's play Bartholomew Fair contains many characters who are easy to identify as Puritans. These include Zeal-of-the-Lady Busy, Dame Purecraft, Win-the-Fight Littlewit, and John Littlewit. All four of these characters are guilty of hypocrisy, self-righteousness, pride in their own virtue, and/or a tendency to interpret the Bible in their own way so as to justify their own actions. They also tend to be fanatical and irrational – all traits that Ben Jonson associated with many Puritans in his day.

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The Puritan characters in Ben Jonson’s comedy Bartholomew Fair include the following:

  • Zeal-of-the-Lady Busy , a leader of other Puritans who thinks of himself as a kind of inspired prophet. His first name suggests his pride (a common trait of Jonson’s Puritans); his last name suggests that he is...

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  • a kind of busy-body who meddles in matters he should properly ignore. Jonson uses Busy to mock what he considered the self-righteousness and hypocrisy of the Puritans of his day. Jonson also mocks Busy’s complicated theological hair-splitting – a kind of “reasoning” that usually permits him, in the end, to find divine sanction for anything he himself already personally approves.
  • Dame Purecraft, whose last name suggests her Puritan leanings and whose foolishness is (in Jonson’s eyes) typical of most Puritans. Her religious fanaticism is suggested, for instance, when she proclaims,

Now, the blaze of the beauteous Discipline, fright
away this evil from our House!

She is superstitious, fanatical, and irrational – all traits that Jonson associated with Puritanism in general.

  • Win-the-Fight Littlewit, whose first name is an example of Jonson’s mockery of the Puritan habit of giving children ridiculously allegorical religious names in order to emphasize the zealous piety of their parents.
  • John Littlewit, Win’s husband, who seems far less fanatical than Busy and Dame Purecraft, as even his simple name suggests. Nevertheless, even John can seem “Puritanical,” as when he justifies his desire to eat pig meat by saying,

I will eat heartily too, because I
will be no Jew, I could never away with that stiffnecked
generation . . . .

John, in other words, is also a hypocrite, and it was hypocrisy and pride that Jonson considered two of the most typical traits of most Puritans.

  • Solomon, John Littlewit’s servant, is presumably also a Puritan, although he is a minor character.

Jonson regarded Puritans as dangerously unstable members of the commonwealth. As a one-time Catholic for many years, he must have resented the disdain and contempt that Puritans felt for Catholics and Catholicism. Yet he generally seems to have regarded Puritans as irrational, proud, self-righteous, uneducated, and duplicitous – just a few of the many reasons he mocks them so often in his works, including Bartholomew Fair.

Something extra: Jonson's Puritan characters, as well as his own attitudes toward Puritanism, invite attention from "historicist" schools of literary criticism. "Historicist" approaches emphasize the need to read works of literature in relation to the times, places, and cultures in which they were written. Jonson was hardly the only person of his time, for instance, who felt contempt for Puritans. Another very important person who felt such contempt was King James VI & I, the monarch who did so much to promote Jonson's career and the monarch who seems to have been greatly on Jonson's mind when he wrote Bartholomew Fair. Jonson seems to have hoped that this play would particularly appeal to James, and his satire on the Puritans in this work can be interpreted partly in that context.

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