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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

I. Ben Jonson

§ 16. Bartholomew Fayre

In the presentation of manners and character Bartholomew Fayre may, indeed, be held to outrank even The Alchemist. In many respects, however, its inferiority is palpable. It is unwieldy in structure; its fun is often gross and farcical; and it is overcrowded with persons and incidents. There are thirty speaking parts and many supernumeraries. Nowhere else, perhaps, in literature, have so many people been so vividly presented in a three hour entertainment as here. The usual pair of witty friends, a pompous judge bent on reform, a proctor who has written a puppet show, a foolish widow, a puritan zealot, Cokes, a booby, and his man Waspe, mingle in the fair with a cutpurse, a ballad singer, a tapster, a bawd, a bully and that Falstaffia of the stews, Ursula the pig woman. The trouble here, as in other plays by Jonson, is that every character is worked out with elaborate detail. If some of the subordinate parts were removed, and other reduced in proportion, the play, doubtless, would be improved. Certainly, much of Littlewit’s puppet play could be spared. But all the personages mentioned, and as many more, are drawn not only with painstaking exactness, but, also, with unflagging animation. A play which unites such masterpieces of comic characterisation as justice Overdo, Cokes and Zeal-of-the-land Busy, together with much uproarious fun, must, surely, be accounted an amazing achievement of comic invention.

In the amusing induction, Jonson protests against the attribution of personal satire to the play, and against the tendency of the public to judge everything by their old favourites, such as Jeronimo and Andronicus. His protests, in fact, are directed at the whole field of romantic drama, and include scoffs at A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.

  • If there be never a servant-monster in the fair, who can help it, he [the author of Bartholomew Fayre] says, nor a nest of antiques? he is loth to make nature afraid in his plays, like those that beget tales, tempests, and such like drolleries, to mix his head with other men’s heels; let the concupiscence of jigs and dances reign as strong as it will amongst you; yet if the puppets please any body, they shall be intreated to come in.
  • “The concupiscence of jigs and dances,” to which he also alludes in the address “To the Reader” prefixed to The Alchemist, seems to refer to the introduction of dances and other elements from court masques into comedy, as in A Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and other contemporary plays. Jonson, always a precisian, preferred to keep his masques and comedies separate. It seems clear that he intended to make Bartholomew Fayre an example of pure realism. Perhaps for this reason he wrote it, like Epicoene, wholly in prose, remarkable for its clearness and flexibility, admirably suited to the different speakers and imitative of the manners of the time. Characters and incidents, also, are freer from imitation of Plautus or Aristophanes than are those of any other of his comedies, though the usual scheme of gulls and knaves is preserved and amplified. Further removed from classical models than his other comedies, nevertheless, it is Aristophanic in the breadth and liveliness of its mirth and in its unhesitating realism. Original in its scheme and subject, daring in its invention, it marks the highest development of the comedy of humours as a national type. The kind of comedy which it presents has continued in prose fiction, in Fielding, Smollett and Dickens; but, since the Elizabethan period, our theatre has never permitted such robust fun and so unvarnished a presentation of the absurdities of human nature.