Bartholomew Fair Summary
The play Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson is a broad, loosely plotted comedy, set mainly in the fun, riotous backdrop of the fair itself as it revolves around the various pursuits of its main characters. With a massive cast of thirty speaking parts and dozens of background characters, the play has a fast-paced, carnival atmosphere as it depicts a single day of events in the life of the fair.
Four distinct plots play out at the fair. The first three plots are introduced in act 1, in the morning at the home of the proctor John Littlewit and his wife, Win-the-Fight Littlewit, who are great hosts and friends with the various folk we meet, as they prepare to go to Bartholomew Fair that day.
The first plot is the courtship of the aforementioned characters Winwife and Quarlous. They are friends and friendly rivals, and they both want to make decent (and wealthy) matches. The women they have their eyes on are Grace Wellborn and Dame Purecraft.
The second plot follows the secondary, and more broadly comical, characters Bartholomew Cokes and his irascible servant, Waspe. Cokes begins the play engaged to Grace Wellborn, but he manages to lose his engagement by the play's end. He is an innocent, sometimes foolish man surrounded by tricksters. Waspe is a country bumpkin and a hothead, best at starting fights.
The third plot involves the man who is initially engaged to Dame Purecraft, the Puritan Zeal-of-the-Land Busy. Busy is a long-winded fellow whose appetites for "vice" are scarcely concealed by his rationalizing. He readily agrees to go to the fair because his presence there, he says, will be godly:
we may be religious in the midst of the profane, so it be eaten with a reformed mouth, with sobriety and humbleness; not gorged in with gluttony or greediness . . .
The fourth plot starts at the fair, in act 2, as we meet the judge Justice Overdo, who is taking it upon himself to wear a disguise so that he may ferret out the "enormities" of the fair, thus revealing to all of London the fair's vices and reforming it. He is gathering intelligence, as he puts it:
all our intelligence is idle, and most of our intelligencers knaves; and, by your leave, ourselves thought little better, if not arrant fools, for believing them. I, Adam Overdo, am resolved therefore to spare spy-money hereafter, and make mine own discoveries.
Each of the four plots play out this day at the fair, raveling and unraveling—for the fair itself is a wild, fractal affair, and nothing plays out as the characters expect.
Winwife and Quarlous arrive first at the fair and immediately manage to provoke an altercation with several of the sellers there. They have "nothing to do but see the sights," until the objects of their affection, Dame Pureblood and Grace Wellborn, arrive, so they fall into the company of Ursula, who runs a pig-booth, and Knockem, a horse seller. The slumming gallants only seem interested in making fun of Knockem and Ursula and antagonizing them, picking a fight with Knockem, until Ursula angrily rushes out and returns:
Re-enter URSULA, with the dripping-pan.
Edg. Night: ’Ware the pan, the pan, the pan! she comes with the pan, gentlemen! [Ursula falls with the pan.]— God bless the woman.
[Exeunt Quarlous and Winwife.]
This moment is typical of the play, with its broad, coarse humor. Ursula has returned to bash the snobbish men with her frying pan, but she accidentally trips over it as Winwife and Quarlous dash out to escape. It is one wild incident after another at the fair today.
Playwright Jonson turns the various "courtly" and "noble" pursuits of the characters on their heads. The courtships of Winwife and Quarlous actually revolve around the theft of the marriage licenses that can be used to prove wedlock with Dame Pureblood and Grace Wellborn. And Quarlous is a fun-loving rogue, with little respect for anyone, including the women he pursues:
My roarer is turn’d tapster, methinks. Now were a fine time for thee, Winwife, to lay aboard thy...
(The entire section is 3,015 words.)