Bartholomew Fair Summary

Ben Jonson

Bartholomew Fair

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Bartholomew Fair Summary

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“Bartholomew Fair” (1614) by 16th-century English playwright Ben Johnson is a comedy in five acts. A contemporary of Shakespeare, Johnson’s “Bartholomew Fair” is considered to be one of the most experimental plays of the time. Johnson considers the social reality and changing political times of London in the Jacobean period (1603-1625), while blending farce with meta-commentary on playwriting.

The story takes place at Bartholomew Fair, a four-day popular summer retreat for Londoners that ran from the 12th to the 19th century. Along with getting the best meat in town, one could also watch a public execution. It is a very rich setting for a story as Bartholomew Fair attracted everyone in London, from members of the House of Lords to prostitutes.

The preamble begins with Johnson saying he hopes to give people their money’s worth through this play. Then the stage manager (stage-keeper) comes out, bemoaning the fact that there isn’t a great romance in the play he’s about to stage. An accountant (book-keeper) then informs the audience that they can only criticize the play in direct proportion to how much they spent on a ticket.

The play opens in the house of Mr. John Littlewit, a would-be playwright and notary. Littlewit and his friends, Quarlous and Winwife, talk about how they can incur the favor of Dame Purecraft, the mother of Mrs. Littlewit, a Puritan and wealthy widow. Sadly, she’s currently in romantic talks with Zeal-of-the-Land Busy.

As they scheme for ways to break up Mr. Busy and Dame Purecraft, several people enter Littlewit’s house seeking a marriage certificate. Littlewit signs off on their pledges without much thought. Littlewit and his friends intend to visit Bartholomew Fair to watch a puppet show that Littlewit produced. Littlewit convinces Dame Purecraft to join them by telling his wife to say she has a great urge to eat pig. Initially, Dame Purecraft says that pigs are unclean animals, but she’s persuaded to dine on ham after the others claim that by eating pig she will declare how much she dislikes Jews.

The second act opens to Adam Overdo, a police officer, strolling through the somewhat amoral happenings of Bartholomew Fair and talking to himself about the decline of civilization. He plans to right these many wrongs by disguising himself as a prince. But after he tries to stop a pickpocket (aka a “cut-purse”) he is accused of stealing and condemned to the stocks. Meanwhile, Winwife (true to name, he’s looking for a wife) decides to no longer pursue Dame Purecraft, but the younger and more beautiful Grace Welborn. But as luck would have it, Quarlous, his supposed friend, also wants to marry Grace. The two fight over her.

The wives of Mr. Littlewit and Mr. Overdo, now unsupervised, fall under the amoral character of the fair and are registered as sex workers by a pimp. Elsewhere at the fair, one woman, Ursula, has a pot of hot sausage water burn her leg because of the careless swag of Mr. Littlewit. When a man named Costard drops a basket of pears, others take advantage of his vulnerable position to steal his purse and sword.

Someone complains that Mr. Busy is preaching in the streets without a license. He’s thrown in the stocks, thus joining Mr. Overdo in public confinement. Fortunately (for some), everyone escapes jail when Trouble-All, a massive madman, exclaims a fierce love for Dame Purecraft. He fights with the guards over her, giving everyone the opportunity to escape.

Finally, the puppet show begins. The show is led by Lant Leatherhead, aka “the Hobbi-horse seller”). Mrs. Overdo and Mrs. Littlewit appear on stage playing prostitutes. It’s clear that Madam Overdo has overdone it with the Schnapps. Between acts, Quarlous somehow managed to dress up as Trouble-All. He scared certain people into giving him the marriage license of Mr. and Mrs. Littlefit; he has crossed out names accordingly to make it appear that he is married to Dame Purecraft.

The puppet show begins but is soon interrupted when Mr. Overdo (now dressed up as a doorman) stands up to declaim that the play is immoral: the puppets are not wearing gender appropriate clothes. In response, the puppets lift up their dresses or bring down their pants to reveal that they don’t have genitals.

At this point, Mr. Overdo reveals his true identity: a police officer. He then recites all of the crimes (or near crimes) he has witnessed at the fair. While he is discussing each of their punishments, Mrs. Overdo vomits on his chest. Embarrassed by the spectacle and eager to get away, Mr. Overdo declares that the sins of the Bartholomew Fair will be forgiven.

Winwife ends up marrying Grace, and Dame Purecraft has little choice but to be married to Quarlous, who has acquired a forged wedding certification. “Bartholomew Fair” concludes with the characters venturing to Mr. Overdo’s place for dinner.