Ben Jonson’s experimental and controversial Jacobean comedy takes place at Bartholomew Fair--a popular retreat for Londoners that opened annually for four days each summer from the 12th to the 19th century. The fair attracted every class of people in London (from lords to prostitutes) and was the type of place where one could buy the best meat in town, while also watching a public execution.
The play opens in the house of Mr. John Littlewit, a would-be playwright and notary. He and his friends, Quarlous and Winwife, seek the favor of Dame Purecraft, the mother of Mrs. Littlewit, who happens to be a Puritan and wealthy widow. However, Dame Purecraft has her own agenda, as she is currently in romantic talks with Zeal-of-the-Land Busy. Littlewit schemes for ways to break up Mr. Busy and Dame Purecraft, while mindlessly signing off marriage certificates for the various people who drift through his house. Littlewit decides to visit Bartholomew Fair to watch a puppet show that he produced and he convinces both Zeal-of-the-Land Busy and Dame Purecraft to join him and his friends.
At Bartholomew Fair, Adam Overdo bemoans the amoral atmosphere he sees all around him. However both he, and the various London residents who visit the attraction, gradually fall under the fair’s corruptive influence. While Quarlous and Winwife fight over Overdo's beautiful young ward, Grace Wellborn, and Littlewit and Overdo's wives are mistaken for prostitutes, Littlewit’s puppet show finally begins. Led by Lant Leatherhead, the Hobbi-horse seller), the show is soon interrupted by Mr. Overdo, who claims that the play is immoral as the puppets are not wearing gender appropriate clothes. In response, the puppets lift up their clothes to reveal that they don’t have genitals. Shocked, Mr. Overdo reveals that he is actually a Justice of the Peace and he recites all of the crimes he has witnessed at the fair. However, when his wife vomits all over him after drinking too much, he decides to turn a blind eye. Instead, the “Fair” concludes with the everyone venturing to Mr. Overdo’s house for dinner.
Bartholomew Fair guide sections