“’Contemporary’ Urban London and Popular Festivity in Ben Jonson’s ‘Bartholomew Fair’” by Frances Chen

‘Contemporary’ Urban London and Popular Festivity in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair

Academic Essay by Frances Chen

In The Popular Culture of Shakespeare, Spenser and Jonson, Mary Lamb outlines three distinct conceptualizations of “popular culture”. She notes that there has been a shift away from an earlier construal of popular culture as the activities and practices of a population subset, and a growing emphasis on “popular” as encompassing most of society (1). Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair is in line with the latter, as the play brims with interactions between individuals from all walks of life. However, it would be misleading to regard such mingling of classes to be the norm for Jonson’s London, which was experiencing increasing stratification and was beset by political discord (McDonald 122). Rather, the unique setting and centerpiece of the play, the fair, renders this reality possible, if only for a little while. Jonson makes every effort to embroil his characters in the “pleasures and dangers” of the fair, but the playwright does not simply stop there – he goes one step further by including his audience in the mix (Pinciss 351). Much like the characters, we too possess expectations, attitudes, and beliefs that we are reluctant to part with, and are in opposition to Jonson’s own realist outlook. In Bartholomew Fair, Jonson discourages nostalgic propensities and adherence to unfounded predictions. Instead, he advocates for characters and spectators to immerse themselves in the present festivities, despite the un-romanticness of it all, for there is no use in trying to escape the here and now.

We are first greeted by the stage-keeper, who engages the audience in conversation, or perhaps more accurately, invites us to listen to his passionate rant about the deficiencies of the play. When he is harshly ridiculed by the Book-holder and Scrivener for his “rare discourse,” (ind.41) he is quick to assert that “the understanding gentlemen o’ the ground here asked [his] judgement (ind.44-45). Though the audience may not agree with all that the stage-keeper has uttered, a few tenets are quite reasonable, especially with regards to the absence of “many of the characters [that are traditionally] associated with the fair” (Campbell 20). According to the stage-keeper, Jonson “has not hit the humours – he does not know ‘em; he has not conversed with the Bartholomew-birds, as they say; he has ne’er a sword-and-buckler man in his Fair, nor a little Davy, to take the toll o’ the bawds there, as in my time . . . none of these fine sights” (ind.10-18). And in the ensuing “Articles of Agreement indicted between the spectators and hearers . . . and the author of Bartholomew Fair . . . on the other party,” Jonson does not offer much by way of justification or explanation (ind.58-61). He merely asserts that “no person here is to expect more than he knows, or better ware than a Fair will afford; neither to look back to the sword-and-buckler age of Smithfield, but content himself with the present” (ind.102-105). At this point, we may not feel appeased by the playwright’s curt response; however, Jonson proceeds to elaborate on his reasoning for why a nostalgic lens is inappropriate for the occasion.

In Act I of Bartholomew Fair, the characters’ tendency to forget is repeatedly highlighted. Consider, for instance, Proctor John’s initial conversation with Quarlous, which is almost laughably unproductive. Littlewit seeks confirmation about an earlier arrangement, only for Quarlous to declare that he remembers “nothing that [he] either discourse or do, [and that] at those times [he forfeits] all to forgetfulness” (1.3.17-18). Quarlous then accuses his friend of having a “dangerous memory” – one that can be used against him (1.3.22). Still, it should be noted that Littlewit himself is not much better at recollection. After receiving warnings from Winwife that “wit is a dangerous thing” to have in abundance (1.5.69), John readily agrees and promises that “[he’ll] take heed on’t hereafter” (1.5.71). Yet as soon as Winwife and company take their leave, Littlewit begins to conceive of a “device” that he can use to persuade his mother-in-law to visit the fair. What is apparent from these examples is that the course of a day, or a few minutes on Proctor John’s part, is capable of inducing forgetfulness. If so, sentimentalities about the so-called glory days of Smithfield are also subject to misrepresentation, exaggerations and manifestations of falsehood. Moreover, they do not reflect conditions in Jonson’s London, which is a decidedly different order, be it socially, politically or otherwise. As a means of deterring his audience from dwelling on the past, the playwright provides a number of “modern” substitutes: for instance, instead of a Kindheart, there is “a fine oily pig woman with her tapster to bid you welcome, and a consort of roarers for music” (ind.108-110). In this manner, Jonson compels his audience to focus on what is being presented, as opposed to what is missing or omitted from an outdated roster.

Having taken sufficient pains to address the problem of nostalgia, Jonson turns his attention to an equally irritating inclination: clinging to baseless predictions about the future. A plethora of characters are guilty of this, including Dame Purecraft, who is supposed to be a “wise wilful widow” (1.5.146). We learn that she is determined to follow a prophecy cast by the “cunning men in Cow Lane,” which states that she will never be content unless she marries someone certifiably insane (1.2.42). For this reason, she visits Bedlam, London’s most notorious psychiatric hospital, twice a day to “enquire if any gentlemen be there, or to come there, mad” (1.2.50). Rather than evaluating those who are openly vying for her hand in marriage, Purecraft devotes a disturbing amount of time to fulfilling an unfounded claim. Likewise, when Overdo adopts the guise of a madman “in justice’ name, and the King’s; and for the Commonwealth,” he does so with the intention of uncovering impending enormities – whose nature and embodied form are utterly unbeknownst to him – at the fair and subsequently bringing the offenders to justice (2.1.1-2). However, it is doubtful whether he has even managed to successfully resolve his existing cases. As Justice Overdo eagerly sets out for Smithfield, there is a shift from the primarily middle and upper-class visitors to the fair – Littlewit, Win, Quarlous, and so forth – to the carnies themselves, who are far less susceptible to the above-mentioned tendency.

The denizens of Bartholomew Fair demonstrate little care for either the past or what has yet to come. They live moment by moment, reaping all the rewards they can, while simultaneously engaging in revelry and merriment. Though Jonson does not necessarily condone or applaud such conduct, he emphasizes the practicality of favoring the present. The carnies waste no time with idle speculation; they create and act effectively on opportunities. This is evident in the speedy actions of the cutpurses – moments after coming into contact with Bartholomew Cokes, they resolve to rob the esquire’s purse. After a fruitful first attempt, they immediately stage a repeat performance; only this time, Cokes is swindled of his coin while he is partaking in a song with the ballad man about being “better starved by [one’s] nurse / Than live to be hanged for cutting a purse” (3.5.74-75). Nightingale’s acute understanding of the dismal fate of thieves rules out the possibility that the carnies do not consider the consequences of their actions. They are, in fact, the ones who face the greatest pressure from the law, and are constantly hounded by individuals like Justice Overdo and his men. This was especially the case  during Jonson’s lifetime, as bills were introduced to root out and punish vagabonds without ever addressing the problem of how they came to be poor or vagabonds in the first place (McDonald 124). And yet, despite these realities, the carnies still engage in festive practices with enthusiasm. Nightingale and their accomplices, for instance, can be perceived as “contemporary” incarnations of the folkloric figure of the trickster. They spew obscenities, devise tricks, sell ballads, and marvel over the chaos that they have caused amidst the induction of increasingly stringent regulations.

Aside from the cutpurses, two other characters that are worth looking at are Ursula and Trouble-All. The former’s interests do not extend much beyond her pigs, brew, and how to maximize her profits relative to her competitors at the fair. Ursula herself recognizes that she has little to look forward to – a fact that is captured by her very first speech:

“Fie upon’t! Who would wear out their youth and prime thus, in roasting of pigs, that had any cooler vocation? Hell’s a kind of cold cellar to’t, a very fine vault, o’ my conscience.” (2.2.41-43)

But rather than wasting her time with hypotheticals and generating implausible predictions about the future, Ursula makes the most of what she has at her disposal, and comes to be perceived as a force to be reckoned with by the other carnies. She is referred to as “mistress,” (2.1.45) “she-bear,” (2.3.1) and “mother of furies” (2.5.69) with grudging respect, and has the upper hand in most business dealings. Moreover, despite her unpleasant occupation, Ursula retains the capacity to be festive; in her case, by excessively indulging in food and drink at every available opportunity. Her grotesque consumption habits are highlighted at multiple points during the play, as she continuously demands Mooncalf to bring her ale and “pig’s head [that] will . . . stay the stomach” (2.4.44-45). Upon first glance, there does not appear to be any similarities between Ursula and Trouble-All. One may go so far as to declare that they are polar opposites of each other. However, a closer look reveals that the latter also devotes himself wholeheartedly to the present.

Trouble-All is a madman who demonstrates a most bizarre fixation: one that prevents him from doing anything, and even knowing anything, without a warrant. In effect, he is only capable of reacting to situations as they arise and nothing more. According to Bristle, Trouble-All has been displaced from his position in the Court of Piepowders by Justice Overdo, and subsequently “took an idle conceit, and’s run mad upon’t” (4.1.50). Ironically enough, however, he demonstrates more purposefulness than many of the sane characters of the play, who are absorbed in ruminations and are not to be relied on. Trouble-All takes to “haunting” Bartholomew Fair with vigor, approaching visitor and denizen alike with the question, “Have you a warrant? An you have a warrant, show it” (4.2.94). He is only deterred from his task when he comes into conflict with the watchmen, whose patience for his antics have reached an end. Trouble-All is, arguably, the most extreme example of someone who exemplifies a here-and-now approach to life; yet, all things considered, his existence is not unbearable. He is free to engage in the general merry-making of the fair. As a matter of fact, his identity as a madman, in itself, carries elements of festivity, for it “[transgresses] the limits of normalcy” (Vaught 120). With all that being said, it is important to realize that the visitors to Bartholomew Fair are also capable of anchoring themselves to the present; however, unlike the carnies, they require a bit more prompting and assistance. Furthermore, without reinforcement, they are prone to relapsing into their unproductive inclinations, particularly unfounded nostalgia.

By the end of the play, Bartholomew Cokes is “bereft of everything – money, toys, expensive clothes, sword, and even his fiancée. But just possibly in his losses he has also gained an unexpected freedom” (Pinciss 349). Cokes’ losses derive in part from becoming more and more immersed in the spectacles of the fair. He is finally provided with an opportunity to enjoy himself to the fullest without Wasp, his voice of reason, breathing down his neck about his impending marriage to Grace and all the ways he could jeopardize his own union. Cokes has always been something of a fool, but in the festive context of Bartholomew Fair, such a label invites more delight than disdain. At one point, Edgworth even “remarks of Cokes that like a true martyr of the Fair,” (Pinciss 349) “a man might cut out his kidneys, I think, and he never feel ’em, he is so earnest at the sport” (4.2.39-40). Nonetheless, at the climax of the action, Cokes is unable to inhibit his nostalgia from resurfacing once more. In Carnival and Literature in early Modern England, Jennifer Vaught writes, the titular character’s allusion to the popular ballad, “you thinke my Hobby-horse is forgotten” accentuates the diminishing of older festive customs and a growing nostalgia for them in Jonson’s time (138). Thus, although Cokes has had a taste of how liberating it is to only be concerned with present affairs, he is unable to fully commit to doing so. Still, in Jonson’s mind, such an outcome is preferable to nothing. The same can be said for Quarlous and Winwife, who increasingly acknowledge the value of seizing the moment. For instance, when Quarlous adopts the disguise of Trouble-All, he abandons the realm of hypotheticals in favor of concrete actions with immediate rewards. However, when it is time to fight for the privilege of marrying Grace Wellborn and acquiring her enormous fortune, Quarlous and Winwife cannot help but revert to a feeble version of the historic knightly duel that had once taken place in Smithfield. Once again, the playwright highlights the absurdity of pursuing such a course of action in the “contemporary” era, which is sordid, unromantic and shows no signs of improving.

In his play Bartholomew Fair, Jonson is intent on achieving a variety of ends, which he establishes from the outset and carries through until the conclusion. As G. M. Pinciss writes, “Ben Jonson is a writer who leaves nothing to chance. What might seem to be random or haphazard is never without meaning in his work” (346). And as we have come to appreciate, Jonson’s depiction of “contemporary” London, though disparaging, boasts a high degree of authenticity. The playwright is keenly attuned to the realities of his time; for this reason, Jonson urges his characters, as well as his audience, to cease their preoccupation with the past, for there can be no return to a grand and heroic age. Likewise, he implores individuals to stop prophesying about what has yet to come, for such matters are ultimately inscrutable. Instead, efforts should be made to immerse oneself in the present, with all its happenings and festivities, for that proves to be the most worthwhile pursuit.




Works Cited

Coronato, Rocco. “Carnival Vindicated to Himself? Reappraising ‘Bakhtinized’ Ben Jonson.”

Connotations 6.2 (1996/97): 180-202. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

Jonson, Ben. The Alchemist and Other Plays. Ed. Gordon Campbell. Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 1995. Print.

Lamb, Ellen M. The Popular Culture of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Jonson. New York:

Routledge, 2006. Print.   

McDonald, Marcia A. “The Elizabethan Poor Laws and the Stage in the Late 1590s.” Medieval

& Renaissance Drama in England 7 (1995): 121-144. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

Pinciss. G. M. “Bartholomew Fair and Jonsonian Tolerance.” Studies in English Literature,

1500-1900 35.2 (1995): 345-359. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.  

Vaught, Jennifer C. Carnival and Literature in early Modern England. New York: Routledge,

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