Jonson’s exuberant comedy uses the carnival energy of Bartholmew Fair, an actual fair held in a disreputable suburb of London, to dramatize, satirize and celebrate the appetites and comic frailties of the human body.
The depiction of the Fair, teeming with sleazy but energetic life, is one of the great creations of English drama. There are crowds listening to a ballad-singer while a cutpurse plies his trade; sellers of toys and gingerbread raking in customers; drunken quarrels, arrests, and beatings. The climax is a puppet show in which a classic love story is reduced to raucous obscenity. At the centre is the gigantic pig-seller Ursla, whose tent, full of smoke, flame and frying carcasses, also doubles as a privy and a brothel.
There are also a number of respectable (and not so respectable) Londoners drawn to the Fair. Those who come to judge it end up in trouble. Those who come to enjoy it, and get something out of it, do not always get what they expect. Jonson’s gift for elaborate plotting draws all of his vivid characters together in a complex, beautifully structured mercantile cacophony.
Bartholmew Fair is said to have been first performed in 1613 at the Hope playhouse.