“Bartholomew Fair” by Ben Jonson

A friend of mine, who has been an avid theatre-goer for more years than I think he cares to remember (he knows who he is!) tells me that he has seen a few productions of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, and that it works very well indeed on stage. Which frankly surprised me: I did enjoy reading it, but it seemed to me that there was so much play on language that is likely to be lost on modern audiences; that there were so many contemporary references; that there was so much use of stock comic characters and situations that were then easily recognised, but have now fallen by the wayside; that any modern production would have to work very hard indeed to make an impact. Even as I was reading it, I had to consult the annotations frequently, and, alas, even the best of jokes lose something when they have to be explained through scholarly exegesis.

It’s a teeming, bustling play, with a vast array of characters – rogues, fools, eccentrics, madmen, conmen, bawds and whores – all thrown together in Smithfield market in London on Bartholomew Fair. It is a play that delights in colour and exuberance; and, true to the tradition of British humour from Chaucer to Dad’s Army or even the Carry On films, it delights in human eccentricity. Eccentricity is inevitably, to a lesser or greater extent, subversive in nature, since it cannot do other than disrupt a well-ordered society: the greater the divergence from the norm, the more dangerous the challenge to the authority whose purpose it is to maintain order. It is perhaps for this reason that eccentricity is so potent a force in comic tradition: order is no doubt important if we are to maintain the stability of society; but equally, cocking a snook at the guardians of order is important if we are to maintain the sanity of individuals. This, I think, has been long recognised, even by those in authority: the very day after the first performance of this play in Hope Theatre, Bankside, in 1614, it was performed at Court, without any controversy at all. Authority seemed more than happy to have a snook cocked in its direction – whatever that may literally mean.

I suppose it could be argued that this lack of controversy even when performed in court argues a lack of bite in the play itself, but I’m not sure Jonson intended the comedy to have any “bite” as such. Sure, neither of the two figures of authority in this play – the Justice of the Peace Adam Overdo, and the Puritan humbug Zeal-of-the-Land Busy – come out well: Overdo follows the time-honoured ruse of walking amongst the commonality in disguise to observe their ways, but here, meets only with a good thrashing (Jonson’s age, like Fielding’s being remarkably less squeamish than ours in these matters), is put into the stocks, and, finally, is humiliated when the prostitute he thinks he is unmasking ends up being his wife; meanwhile the splendidly named Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, surely a forerunner to Dickens’ Chadband, has the piss ripped out of him something rotten. But Jonson’s mood in this play is one of geniality rather than anger: at the end, the entire cast, bawds and whores and even Puritans, are all invited to dinner. Authority has been suitably mocked, but now that’s over, Jonson, rather than rub it in, is more concerned with celebrating a sense of community, however difficult it may be to believe that such a rag-bag of strange and weird characters could possibly cohere together to form one.

The plot is minimal, and Jonson doesn’t seem too interested in it anyway. Once the exposition in Act One is over, and we find ourselves in Smithfeld market, Jonson’s interest is not in the plot at all, but in his remarkable cast of characters: those scenes that advance the plot seem almost to be dropped in here and there casually. Some of the comic characters are, it must be conceded, tiresome: one doubts, for instance, whether Whit’s provincial accent represents any great height of comic inspiration – although, I suppose, his talk of “shitting” when he means “sitting” could raise a laugh or two. But there are many others who are presented with such tremendous exuberance and comic gusto that it perhaps doesn’t matter too much that one needs to consult the notes to fully get their jokes: good comic actors can, I suppose, get laughs out of just about everything.

After all, there’s more to comedy than mere joke-count. This is not of course to denigrate the importance of the joke-count: I’m sure Jonson himself didn’t. But at least as important as the joke-count is the creation of a comic environment, an enticing fictional milieu that can accommodate the author’s comic vision. Without the creation of such a milieu, all we’d end up with is the equivalent of a joke-book: pleasant to dip into perhaps, but tedious to read from cover to cover. And Jonson’s comic milieu is one full of colour and vigour and vitality, peopled with strange and mad characters who all share so much their creator’s love of words that none of them can bear to stop talking. Not even to get the plot moving.

Some of the comedy in Bartholomew Fair is old and time-honoured, but it’s funny nonetheless; the servant being smarter than the master is always good for a laugh (as Wodehouse well knew), and if in this instance the master, Bartholomew Cokes, is merely the traditional silly arse, his servant, the wonderfully short-tempered, irascible and waspish Humphrey Wasp, continually taking offence at everything, is a delight. Then there’s Ursula, the “Pig Woman” and keeper of the jordans for those who need to relieve themselves – a  vast, Falstaffian character dripping sweat and constantly deflating the pompous and the pretentious with her no-nonsense earthiness; there are crooked and roguish ballad-sellers, tapsters, hobby-horse-sellers, cutpurses; there’s a character named Trouble-All, wandering in and out of the action demanding that there be legal warrants for everything, and that nothing must on any account be done without one; and there’s a Punk Alice, described in the Dramatis Personae as “Mistress of the Game”. And so on. And no matter how roguish or how foolish or how plain mad they are, Jonson seems to love them: the only character he appears to dislike is the killjoy Puritan Zeal-of-the-land Busy, but even he isn’t excluded from the dinner invitation at the end. Whether he will accept or not, and how he could possibly fit into the communal celebrations even if he does, Jonson prefers not to address. The existence of those who will not, can not, fit into a general harmony causes problems for the comic writer: the likes of Malvolio or Beckmesser create uncomfortable dissonances that disturb the harmony. In Twelfth Night, the dissonance deepens the shadows in the play, without, by some miracle, distracting from the comedy; the dissonance at the end of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg remains, on the other hand, for me at any rate, somewhat uncomfortable. But Jonson allows no such dissonance at the end of this play: whatever we may feel about Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, it is swept away by the general air of geniality and good humour. After the mocking of authority, all is forgotten and forgiven: what remains is celebration.

This play is, in essence, Jonson’s love-letter to London, and to the people of London. It is not, I’d imagine, a very easy play to put on in modern times, but given that it can still hold the stage, I’d love to see it performed. I imagine, though, that the jokes would be delivered in performance somewhat more quickly than I managed to read them.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on February 2, 2015 at 11:46 pm

    Thanks for that. In Patrick O’Brian’s sea stories “Bartholomew Fair!” would occasionally be shouted as a rebuke to a mariner who handled his craft incompetently. Until your post I never thought to look it up.


  2. If you’re anywhere near Guildford, the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre is hosting a production in March: http://www.yvonne-arnaud.co.uk/production/bartholomew-fair


    • Laura, thank you very much for that.

      I do indeed live fairly close to Guildford, and am no stranger to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre (I remember especially a magnificent production of Ibsen’s The Master Builder there directed by Stephen Unwin and starring Timothy West), and I’ll certainly be booking tickets for Bartholomew Fair.

      Best wishes, Himadri


  3. Posted by Johannes on February 5, 2015 at 10:03 pm

    With apologies for homing in on something of a sideline in your post, the whole of which I enjoyed a lot, I found the Beckmesser comment very interesting.

    My experience of actually seeing Wagner in production is quite limited, and in the one Meistersinger that I have seen, I believe an interpretation of the score was given that allowed for a harmonious ending. The Hans Sachs monologue that forms the closing lesson of the opera is a reminder that art is effective only insofar as it achieves innovation, deviation in conjunction with respect for cultural tradition. Thus the point is that Walther is taught his lesson, forcibly dismounted from his high horse, and united with the Meistersinger, including Beckmesser, in mutual respect. On stage, at least in the Glyndebourne production, which is the one I’ve seen, this is made manifest by Hans Sachs shaking hands with, and physically bringing Beckmesser back into the fold after his defeat. Since Wagner’s main point concerns the acceptance of new ideas in society (which lends the opera an autobiographical element…), this seems to me a very effective means of making it.

    Of course, this is not in the stage directions in the score. Now that your comment has made me think about it a little more, I tend to worry that this kind of correction might be problematic.

    There is dissonance, without this little touch, since there is no obvious possibility for reconciliation in Beckmesser’s part, and it offers no effective closure. He is supposed to storm off, or at least disappear somehow after his defeat. Some have advanced the thesis that this is because Beckmesser is a manifestation of Wagner’s anti-Semitism, which seems not at all unlikely. One could then well make the argument that the amendment above “airbrushes” out an imperfection that serves as an important reminder of the dangers, not only of Wagner’s personal beliefs, but of attitudes and prejudices responsible for more than their share of human tragedy this past century.


    • Hello Johannes, this may be tangential to the post, but it’s a fascinating question, and thank you for raising it. I have considered writing a separate post on this, but I don’t know if my thoughts on the matter are as yet sufficiently coherent.

      I think it is quite common in productions to bring Beckmesser back into the fold at the end. In the DVD from Bayreuth conducted by Daniel Barenboim, Beckmesser (played by Andreas Schmidt) comes back at the end, and, as the standards are raised to the final triumphant fanfares, Hans Sachs (played by Robert Holl) puts his hand on Beckmesser’s shoulder and points at the raised standards, as if to say “Let us put our petty squabbles aside – isn’t our art greater than all of this?” I can certainly understand why producers do this: it works, and it completes the sense of harmony. But, as you say, there’s no mention of any of this in Wagner’s libretto. There, we see the last of Beckmesser when he is humiliated, and is, quite literally, laughed off the stage. Possibly Wagner had intended Beckmesser to be absent from the final celebrations; possibly he felt that someone like Beckmesser had no business to be part of the final harmony, and that is the way it should be. But whatever Wagner may have intended on this point, I find the producer’s revision more satisfying.

      (As for Beckmesser being a caricature of Jewishness, I have heard it said that Beckmesser’s absurd song in Act 2 is a parody of the singing of Jewish cantors, but I am not knowledgeable enough to judge whether or not this is true.)

      It is a tricky issue: if a comedy is to end in harmony, then what do we do to those who can’t fit into such a harmony? It is an issue Shakespeare often faced. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock cannot fit in; and indeed, the immensity of his tragic downfall (for indeed he is a tragic character) makes the harmony that comes about in the end seem (to me at any rate) rather trivial. The tragedy here seems to outweigh the comedy.

      In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare took pains to keep the villain, Don John, well in the background, and ensured that he was not present at the denouement, as his presence there would certainly have unbalanced the harmony. In As You Like It</em. – the villains (Oliver and the usurping Duke) miraculously reform, and become good: Shakespeare provides a magical comic world where this is possible. But in both these plays, Shakespeare cheated: there’s sleight of hand to avoid the issue. In Twelfth Night, however, he faces the issue full on. We are encouraged through most of the play to laugh at the absurd figure of Malvolio, but by the end, we are made to feel ashamed that we had laughed at him. And he cannot fit into the final harmony: it is not that he is rejected (quite the contrary, he is invited to join in) – rather, it is he who rejects the others: given his public humiliation, he can do no other. And Shakespeare somehow accommodates this into his comedy: he acknowledges that the harmony achieved can at best be partial. It is indeed the saddest of all comedies.

      Regards, Himadri


  4. […] as illustrated in 1808 Smithfield is best known as the site of Bartholomew Fair  celebrated by Jonson in his play of the same name from 1614  This annual extravaganza of debauchery. dating back 1133, was the only […]


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