As the play begins, the Stage-keeper delivers a brief introduction. A different writer, he says, could have created a much more exciting work, but this one (Jonson) would not listen to the more experienced man’s advice.
[S]ome writer that I know had had but the penning o’ this matter, he would have made you such a jig-a-jog in the booths, you should have thought an earthquake had been in the Fair! But these master poets, they will have their own absurd courses; they will be informed of nothing.
A Scrivener enters and reads a lengthy contract for the audience’s agreement, indicating that they will exercise their free will to like or dislike the play and not be unduly swayed by another’s opinion: “not censure by contagion . . . from another’s voice.”
Jonson both establishes an intricate plot and makes the characters’ dialogue hard to deliver by using names that are puns on the characters’ personalities or roles in the play. Quarlous, for example, is quarrelsome. Winwife has set out to do exactly that: win a wife. Littlewit has little success in deciphering the other men's motives, because he is not smart. Once the plot is established, Littlewit’s summation of what has occurred so far comes out as a jumble of words. As he attempts to explain why Winwife is pursuing his mother-in-law, a much older woman, as a bride, he urges his wife—whose first name is Win—not to be shy about letting the other men kiss her.
[M]aster Quarlous is an honest gentleman, and our worshipful good friend, Win; and he is master Winwife’s friend too: and master Winwife comes a suitor to your mother, Win; as I told you before, Win, and may perhaps be our father, Win: they’ll do you no harm, Win; they are both our worshipful good friends. Master Quarlous! you must know master Quarlous, Win; you must not quarrel with master Quarlous, Win.
Young Bartholomew Cokes finds himself torn between two desires when he sets out for the fair (which appeals to him because it bears his name). He arrives with his servant, Humphrey Waspe, whom he calls Numps. Bartholomew intends to maximize his commercial opportunities but also aims to entertain his beloved, Grace Wellborn. As her name indicates, she is of higher status, which is reflected in her superior attitude. Grace tells him that she is not impressed by the fair.
Cokes: Well, Numps, I am now for another piece of business more, the Fair, Numps, and then—
Waspe: Bless me! deliver me! help, hold me! the Fair!
Cokes: Nay, never fidge up and down, Numps, and vex itself. I am resolute Bartholomew in this; I’ll make no suit on’t to you; ’twas all the end of my journey indeed, to shew mistress Grace my Fair. I call it my Fair, because of Bartholomew: you know my name is Bartholomew, and Bartholomew Fair . . .
Grace: Truly, I have no such fancy to the Fair, nor ambition to see it: there’s none goes thither of any quality or fashion.
Cokes: O Lord, sir! you shall pardon me, mistress Grace, we are enow...
(The entire section is 805 words.)