Bartholomew Fair

by Ben Jonson

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In Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, what is Zeal-of-the-Land Busy's character and fate?

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Zeal-of-the-land Busy, a character in Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair, is one of the typically hypocritical Puritans whom Jonson so often satirizes in his works.  Jonson disrespected the Puritans for criticizing the alledged sins of others while being so full of flaws themselves. Thus, the first extended description of Busy suggests that although he is ostensibly opposed to gluttony, he is himself a glutton. Another character reports that he is cleaning his beard (which is presumably dirtied with food droppings) and says,

I found him, fast by the teeth, i’ the cold Turkey-pie, i’ the cupboard, with a great white loaf on his left hand, and a glass of Malmsey [that is, wine] on his right. (29; citations are to pages of the early Yale edition [see link], which does not provide continuous line numbers. Quotations are modernized.)

Nevertheless, Busy is regarded, at least by the other Puritans, as a particularly pure man and as a kind of prophet. Jonson therefore mocks not only Busy but also his gullible admirers. In his first major speech, Busy speaks with the kind of pompous rhetoric that Jonson found so laughable in so many Puritans (29), whom he considered not only hypocritical but pretentious and self-important. In presenting the same speech, Jonson also mocks the theological nit-picking and unthinking anti-Catholicism that helped make the Puritans such a source of controversy in the commonwealth (29). Thus, Busy proclaims that although eating pig is permissible, eating pig at the fair is not, since the fair is traditionally associated with Catholic "idolatry"

Busy soon decides, however, that eating pig at the fair is indeed permissible if the pig is eaten “with a reformed mouth” (29). Jonson thus mocks not only Puritan hypocrisy but their self-serving adaptability as well.  They pretend to be principled, but their principles can easily be adjusted in their own. Later, Jonson once again mocks Busy’s over-blown rhetoric when the latter warns, concerning the fair, that

. . . the place is Smithfield, or the field of smiths, the grove of hobbyhorses and trinkets, the wares are the wares of devils. And the whole Fair is the shop of Satan! They are hooks, and baits, very baits, that are hung out on every side, to catch you, and to hold you as it were, by the gills; and by the nostrils, as the fisher doth . . . . (54-55)

Jonson believed that such rhetoric debased not only language but Christianity as well. He regarded such self-conscious, hyperbolic religious enthusiasm with extreme suspicion. Thus, Jonson later mocks Busy by making him behave like a sniffing dog (56) as he scents out the smell of roasted pig.  Busy can always find ways to justify his own behavior and make it seem religious; he can split any theological hair to achieve his own goals (56). He is quick to condemn the alleged sins of others but just as quick to excuse his own (75). Little wonder, then, than another character condemns him as “An excellent right Hypocrite” and notes that “He eats with his eyes, as well as his teeth” (76). Jonson presents Busy as guilty of the central sin of pride. Busy presumes to speak for God, when actually his main objective is to satisfy his own desires. He is irrational both in his speech and in his actions (77) and is a threat to civil order. Appropriately, then, he is imprisoned in the stocks (77), although when he later manages to escape them by accident, he typically feels that he has been “delivered by miracle” (105).

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