Ben Jonson & Bartholomew Fair

Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair has been a play I’ve wanted to read time and again. Unlike most plays during the era, the play is written entirely in prose (rather than blank verse) and it’s a book length play. I started out with the sparsely annotated Yale edition (The Yale Ben Jonson) bought many years ago, but was thoroughly lost by the end of the second act. Completely. Lost. I had no idea what was going on. And with only the thinnest of thin annotations, Jonson’s topical allusions, references and Latin jokes went straight over my head. I can’t fathom what Yale was thinking when they printed this play. Did they think we were all taught Latin and Greek at an Elizabethan grammar school? So I shelved my Yale edition and ordered the Revels Student Edition, edited by Suzanne Gosset, and started once again from the beginning—this time with ample annotations.

Part of what makes Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair so challenging is that it’s, well, a fair, and stuffed with principle characters. There are so many that rather than being about individual characters, the play is really more about groups of characters. Additionally, because there’s so much going on, the first two acts are more or less exposition, establishing the various comedic entanglements that will unravel in the last two acts.

Of course, the play wasn’t written to be read like a closet drama but to live and breathe on the stage. I don’t doubt that actually watching the play would make following the plot lines simpler—characters are far easier to follow and differentiate when they’re embodied by actors, but the trade off would be the loss of nearly all the topical Elizabethan humor—Elizabethan puns, the various allusions to goings on in London, and the clothing. Much of the punning on sex might be lost as well without some signaling from the actors.

So what kind of playwright was Jonson? Ben Jonson was generally considered Shakespeare’s rival in his own day, though perhaps less for Jonson’s poetic and dramatic skills (which were still formidable) than for his notoriety. Jonson was an inveterate self-promoter, loud, picked fights, killed a man and was thrown in prison, had grandiose notions of himself as a writer, and had very set ideas about how plays should be written. He could be dogmatic to a fault, insisting that Elizabethan Drama conform to the classical unities of action, time and place (making his unpopular tragedies more like historical reenactments than works of drama). Shakespeare’s prologue to Henry V, which wafted excited playgoers from one side of English channel to the other, was something Jonson jeered at. Like any charismatic personality, Jonson acquired a number of followers who became known as the Tribe of Ben. The result is that Jonson’s theories of poetry and drama greatly influenced the next generation. Shakespeare, whose primary ambition (it seems) was to retire as Stratford’s wealthiest Gentleman, left much less of a mark on the generation that followed.

All that said, Jonson was capable of writing genuinely great poetry, On my First Son and Song: to Celia, among others, and among his comedies, Volpone, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair. There’s also The Sad Shepherd, his final unfinished play that nevertheless contains, in my opinion, his most beautiful poetry and comes nearest to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. That Jonson’s reputation survives today is a testament to these plays, his flair for comedy and his true poetic genius.

So why can’t we find a complete edition of Jonson’s plays? One can find Marlowe’s complete plays, but then Marlowe was a great poet and dramatist comparable to Milton, Keats and Shakespeare. Likewise, one can easily purchase the complete plays of Middleton, and yet his best plays, though labeled masterpieces, are generally considered inferior to those of Jonson and he seemed to have no poetic ambition. He imitates poetry rather than writing poetry and apart for the rare gem like the one from A Game at Chess, “I’m taken like a blackbird/ In the great snow,” his imagery is conventional and workaday. Yet if you want a complete print edition of Ben Jonson you can expect to pay upwards of a thousand dollars. I find that astonishing. By in large, Jonson is ranked second only to Shakespeare, and yet in the 21rst century English readers can’t obtain a hard copy of Jonson’s works without paying a fortune!

Probably the most cogent explanation for Jonson’s comparative neglect comes from T.S. Eliot’s famous (in its circles) essay on Jonson:

THE REPUTATION of Jonson has been of the most deadly kind that can be compelled upon the memory of a great poet. To be universally accepted; to be damned by the praise that quenches all desire to read the book; to be afflicted by the imputation of the virtues which excite the least pleasure; and to be read only by historians and antiquaries—this is the most perfect conspiracy of approval. For some generations the reputation of Jonson has been carried rather as a liability than as an asset in the balance-sheet of English literature. No critic has succeeded in making him appear pleasurable or even interesting.

T.S. Eliot (1888–1965). The Sacred Wood.  1921.

So what makes Bartholomew Fair worth reading? First and foremost, alongside Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday, Bartholomew Fair is possibly as close as you’ll get to glimpsing what Elizabethan life must have been like in London (if that interests you). Jonson has a brilliant ear for the language of the street. And what you’ll discover is that any one of us would have fit right in.

For me, one of the more interesting characters was Zeal-of-the-land Busy, a satirical portrait of the Puritans who railed against playgoing, among other social innovations, and who would eventually, some forty years later, succeed in temporarily closing down London’s theaters. The character of Busy is readily found among our modern day populists, evangelists and reactionary conservatives.

Look not toward them, hearken not; the place is Smithfield, or the field of smiths, the grove of hobby-horses and trinkets, the wares are the wares of devils, and the whole Fair is the shop of Satan: they are hooks and baits, very baits, that are hung out on every side, to catch you, and to hold you, as it were, by the gills, and by the nostrils, as the fisher doth; therefore you must not look nor turn toward them.—The heathen man could stop his ears with wax against the harlot of the sea; do you the like with your fingers against the bells of the beast.

Act III Sc. 2

As compared to our present day “Puritan”, Evangelist John Ramirez on Halloween:

“…did you know that as soon as you dress up, whether you color yourself or put on a costume, the enemy owns you? Because by doing so, you have turned over your legal rights, and you have dedicated yourself and your kids to celebrating the devil’s holiday You have just made a pact with the enemy, and you are already sacrificing your children spiritually by dressing them up and changing their identity.”

And a little later Busy, using the “rhythms, divisions and repetitions” [Gosset p. 68] typical not only of Puritan rhetoric but religious and evangelical speechifying to this day, will say:

I will remove Dagon there, I say, that idol, that heathenish idol, that remains, as I may say, a beam, a very beam,—not a beam of the sun, nor a beam of the moon, nor a beam of a balance, neither a house-beam, nor a weaver’s beam, but a beam in the eye, in the eye of the brethren; a very great beam, an exceeding great beam; such as are your stage-players, rimers, and morrice-dancers, who have walked hand in hand, in contempt of the brethren, and the cause; and been born out by instruments of no mean countenance.

Leath. Sir, I present nothing but what is licensed by authority.

Busy. Thou art all license, even licentiousness itself, Shimei!

Leath. I have the master of the revels’ hand for’t, sir.

Busy. The master of the rebels’ hand thou hast. Satan’s! hold thy peace, thy scurrility, shut up thy mouth, thy profession is damnable, and in pleading for it thou dost plead for Baal. I have long opened my mouth wide, and gaped; I have gaped as the oyster for the tide, after thy destruction: but cannot compass it by suit or dispute; so that I look for a bickering, ere long, and then a battle.

Act V sc. 5

Jonson was surely capturing some of what he heard. Some four hundred years later the American preacher Billy Sunday, who apparently never bothered to read Jonson (though he seems to have Shakespeare) will sermonize:

If you want obscenity you will find it in the theater.  If you want to see character destroyed, you will find that both behind and before the footlights.  Your show has to be tainted in order to gather in the coin.  The capacity for amusing people along decent lines seems to have gone by.  That may sound foolish, but you let somebody go out on the road with a Shakespearean play and that somebody will go into bankruptcy while the musical show and the burlesque show and the leg show are playing to full houses across the street and the people are drinking in from them gutterish ideas and filthy lines and obscene songs. 

I do not mean to say that all plays and all actors are rotten.  But you will have to hunt pretty hard to find those that are not.  They will tell you that there is money in the theater.  Well, there’s money in highway robbery and there’s money in prostitution and there’s money in the saloon.  Sure, there’s money in it! 

Dancing, Drinking, Card Playing by Billy Sunday  (1862-1935)

Notice the similar rhetorical habits and repetition. Sunday could have been describing Bartholomew Fair. Exchange Sunday’s “highway robbery” for Busy’s “cutpurses”, Sunday’s prostitutes for Busy’s “strumpets”, and Sunday’s saloon’s for Busy’s “stalls”, and you’ve got Bartholomew Fair. The only thing missing is the stage (which is what Sunday was lambasting no less than the Elizabethan Puritans), but Jonson brilliantly solves that by featuring a puppet play in Act V—a play within the play. This is what Zeal-of-the-land Busy was excoriating in the passage above. The puppet show is an analogous stand-in for the Elizabethan Stage. And what really has Zeal-of-the-land Busy exercised?

Yes, and my main argument against you is, that you are an abomination; for the male, among you, putteth on the apparel of the female, and the female of the male.


There it is. Gender. Zeal-of-the-land Busy furiously objects to the cross-dressing, gender switching and homosexual undertones of men and boys playing women. Some things never change. The preoccupations of reactionary conservatives during the Elizabethan Era were no different then as now. The mistake that Zeal-of-the-land Busy makes is the same mistake that all modern fundamentalists make—an odd inability to discern the figurative from the literal (literal interpretation being at the very core of fundamentalism). Jonson hilariously deflates this literalism when the puppeteer raises the skirts of the puppets to show that they’re neither male nor female.

It is your old stale argument against the players, but it will not hold against the puppets; for we have neither male nor female amongst us. And that thou may’st see, if thou wilt, like a malicious purblind zeal as thou art.

[Takes up his garment.


But the deflation of Busy’s fundamentalism is only one thread in the play. Jonson also satirizes the hypocrisies of justice, both in its application and in the person of Adam Overdo, a Justice of the Peace; and also the shallowness of the monied class in the person of Bartholomew Cokes. And if you read Suzanne Gosset’s introduction to Bartholomew Fair (see the link above), you will also get a sense for the ways in which Jonson reveals, wittingly or otherwise, the objectification and commoditization of women—then as now.

There is one piece of Jonson’s poetry in the play, A Caveat for Cutpurses, because what’s an Elizabethan Fair without a good Ballad?

My masters, and friends, and good people, draw near, 
And look to your purses for that I do say; 
And though little mony in them you do bear, 
It costs more to get than to lose in a day; 
You oft have been told, both the young and the old, 
And bidden beware of the Cut-purse so bold; 
Then, if you take heed not, free me from the curse, 
Who both give you warning for and the cut-purse. 
Youth, youth you hadst better been starv'd by thy nurse, 
Than live to be hang'd for cutting as purse. 
It hath been upbraided to men of my trade, 
That oftentimes we are the cause of this crime. 
Alack and for pitty! why should it be said, 
As if they regarded or places or time? 
Examples have been of those that were seen 
In Westminster-hall, yea, the pleaders between; 
Then why should the judges be free from this curse 
More than my poor self is, for cutting a purse? 
Youth, youth, &tc. 
At Worster, 'tis known well that even in the jale, 
A knight of good worship did there shew his face. 
Against the foul sinners in zeale for to raile, 
And so lost, ipso facto, his purse in the place: 
Nay, once from the seat of judgement so great, 
A judge there did lose a fair pouch of velvet. 
Oh Lord! for thy mercy how wicked, or worse, 
Are those that so venture their necks for a purse! 
Youth, youth, &tc. 
At playes and at sermons and at the Sessions, 
'Tis daily their practice such booty to make; 
Yea under the gallows, at executions, 
They stick not the stare-abouts' purses to take; 
Nay, one without grace, at a better place, 
At Court, and in Christmas, before the Kings face. 
Alack then for pitty! must I bear the curse, 
That only belongs to the cunning Cut-purse? 
Youth, youth you hadst better been starv'd by thy nurse, 
Than live to be hang'd for cutting as purse. 
But oh, you vile nation of Cut-purses all! 
Relent and repent, and amend, and be sound, 
And know that you ought not by honest men's fall 
Advance your own fortunes to dye above ground: 
And though you go gay in silks, as you may, 
It is not the highway to heaven, as they say. 
Repent then, repent you, for better for worse, 
And kiss not the gallows for cutting a purse. 
Youth, youth you hadst better been starv'd by thy nurse, 
Than live to be hang'd for cutting as purse. 
The players doe tell you in Bartholemew Faire 
What secret consumptions and rascels you are; 
For one of their actors, it seems, had the fate, 
By some of you trade to be fleeced of late: 
Then fall to your prayers, you that are way-layers! 
They're fit to chouse all the world that can cheat players; 
For he hath the art, and no man the worse, 
Whose cunning can pilfer the pilferer's purse. 
Youth, youth, &tc. 
The plain countryman that comes staring to London, 
If once you come near him he quickly is undone; 
For when he amazedly gazeth about, 
One treads on his toes, and the other puls't out; 
Then in a strange place, where he knows no face, 
His mony is gone, 'tis a pittifull case. 
The divel of hell in his trade is not worse 
Than gilter, and diver, and cutter of purse. 
Youth, &tc. 
The poor servant maid wears her purse in her placket, 
A place of quick feeling, and yet you can take it; 
Nor is she aware that you have done the feat, 
Untill she is going to pay for her meat; 
Then she cryes and she rages amongst her baggages, 
And swears at one thrust she hath lost all her wages; 
For she is ingaged her own to disburse, 
To make good the breach of the cruel Cut-purse. 
Youth, &tc. 
Your eyes and your fingers are nimble of growth, 
But Dun many times hath been nimbler than both; 
Yet you are deceived by many a slut, 
But the hangman is only the Cut-purses cut. 
It makes you to vex when he bridles your necks, 
And then at the last what becomes of your tricks? 
But when you should pray, you begin for to curse 
The hand that first shewd you to slash at purse. 
Youth, &tc. 
But now to my hearers this counsel I give, 
And pray, friends, remember it as long as you live, 
Bring out no more cash in purse, pocket or wallet, 
Than one single penny to pay for the ballet; 
For Cut-purse doth shrowd himself in a cloud, 
There's many a purse hath been lost in a crowd; 
For he's the most rouge that doth crowd up, and curses, 
Who first cryes, "My masters, beware of your purses!" 
Youth, youth you hadst better been starv'd by thy nurse, 
Than live to be hang'd for cutting at purse. 

Anyway, if you’re interested, below is an amateur production of Bartholomew Fair from Boston University. What else have you got to do whilst stuck at home?—avoiding the plague?

2 responses

  1. A few observations:

    Jonson’s poetry/verse lacks the global self-distancing one sees in Shakespeare’s.

    I think we can reasonably assume that the legacy of the two metaphorical “Puritan” evangelicals you quoted has been safely contained to a porn addiction.

    And as for the literal Puritans you confound them with, I agree: an odious, meddlesome bunch. I would probably have several dozen more living cousins if the Puritans had stayed in England instead of bringing their abhorrent superstitions (witch trials and the like) to the New World—and then seeking compensatory redemption in ideological/moral crusades—one of which eventually led to the deaths of thousands of my Southern ancestors in an unnecessary civil war.

    Finally, the link to “Song: to Celia” goes to a blank page when I click on it.


    • //Jonson’s poetry/verse lacks the global self-distancing one sees in Shakespeare’s. //

      That’s an interesting way to put it. But I think I know what you’re getting at, and I agree.

      And yes, I almost mentioned that these were the self-same Puritans who set off for America where, free of oppression, they were free to oppress. The Elizabethans were all too happy to see them off. America’s first European poet came from this bunch, Anne Bradstreet. She’s the only redeeming piece of Puritan history I know of.


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