Bartholomew Fair

by Ben Jonson

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 324

Set within the boisterous environment of London's Bartholomew Fair, this comedy by Ben Jonson involves intricate plots regarding courtship and marriage. The playwright combines satire and farce in poking fun at human foibles and criticizing contemporary English society.

Human Nature as Naïve and Gullible

Much of the humor in the play derives from the innocent, trusting nature of the characters. Bartholomew Cokes, the protagonist, is blithely unaware of his own gullibility, which makes it all the more fun for the audience to see him in situations where that quality gets him into trouble. Both John and Win Littlewit go along with a variety of schemes, largely because they trust that things will turn out all right—even when it might place their own daughter at risk.

The Injustice of Entrenched Social Hierarchy

As a work of satire, Bartholomew Fair makes the inequality of English society one of its primary targets. The elaborate schemes involving marriage are often related to one party’s desire to advance in the social ranking. Even a foolish man like Cokes takes pain to remind others of his social position. Waspe, his servant, serves as the voice of social critique by continually putting him in his place. The character of Adam Overdo, deeply committed to dispensing his brand of justice, serves to reinforce the idea that injustice is built into the social system. The rascals at the fair do not seem as bad as the highborn people who manipulate others to their advantage.

Using Disguise and Deception to Take Advantage of Others

In this play, very little is what it seems on the surface. A central thread of the plot involves Tom Quarlous’s disguising himself as Troubleall to trick Dame Purecraft. Leathercraft and Edgewater make their living through deception and sometimes outright theft, but they may in turn be manipulated by others into deceiving the innocent. Justice Overdo also dons a disguise in his zeal to find and punish the sinful.

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