Bartholomew Fair

by Ben Jonson

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Where can I find a study guide for Ben Jonson's play "Bartholomew Fair"?

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Unlike Shakespeare, Ben Jonson can be challenging for students not already familiar with the conventions and contexts of Elizabethan and Jacobean theater. Jonson is often satirical, so one needs to recognize the targets of his satire. He also enjoys displaying his learning, so critical editions of the texts are important.

Summaries and modernizations such as one finds with Shakespeare don't exist, as there is likely less of a market for them with Jonson. eNotes does have some useful guides, but it might be important for you to ask targeted questions if something seems puzzling.

Cambridge University has a web site that can offer some broad overviews of text and staging history (see link below). The published Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson offers a wealth of information on Jonson and this play, with David Bevington's chapter on the comedies being most helpful.

This play is less like Jonson's other plays due to it being a city comedy, offering a panorama of the characters one might find at a Jacobean street fair. Jonson seems to delight in constructing these characters in all their grotesqueness, ignorance, zealousness, and garrulousness. The play is similar to Chaucer's General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, offering a wide variety of human foibles and evils to satirize. When reading the play, it might be helpful to identify the character objective for each of the main characters and then follow the consequences of that and how Jonson satirizes them.

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There is a Study Guide for the play on eNotes. The URL is provided here.

Bartholomew Fair has been called Ben Jonson's masterpiece, and dates to his main period of comic production. Deploying a complex plot, it is a biting satire of society's foibles in his day. One notable feature is a puppet play-within-a-play.

The guide includes a summary, a list of the characters with a sketch of the major characters, a critical essay, and a brief synopsis with an annotated list of five references on this play and on Jonson's work more generally including its historical context.

You can also consult the eNotes Study Guide biography of Ben Jonson. The URL is also provided here. It contains one lengthy essay and eight more shorter entries.

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