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Paul A. Cantor


At first glance, Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair may seem to

be the Seinfeld of the English Renaissance--the comedy about

nothing. One can imagine the befuddled looks Jonson got when he

first pitched the concept to London theatre companies: "I've

written a play about Bartholomew Fair--a bunch of people go to

the fair, they mill around, and then they go home." Compared to

Jonson's earlier comic masterpieces, Volpone and The Alchemist,

Bartholomew Fair seems unfocused and diffuse.1 It lacks a pair

of central characters around whom the play is organized and who

appear to direct its action, like Volpone and Mosca in Volpone or

Face and Subtle in The Alchemist.2 The play is constantly

threatening to veer off into irrelevance, incoherence, and even

absurdity, as the characters get wrapped up in word games that

fly in the face of normal dramatic logic. Just as in Seinfeld,

the characters often appear to be talking merely to fill the time

and not because they have anything in particular to talk about.

But Bartholomew Fair only appears to be about nothing.

Again like Seinfeld, the play tells us something about its

characters by showing them engaged in so much meaningless

dialogue. And its apparent formlessness and lack of a center

reflect a deeper order and sense of form. By liberating the

dialogue from the normal constraints of dramatic action, Jonson


freed himself to put an unparalleled slice of Renaissance life on

the stage. What may at first seem to be a weakness of

Bartholomew Fair--its lack of focus--turns out to be its great

strength--its ability to embrace a wide variety of human types

and develop them in their full diversity, without imposing any

narrowing artistic or moral conceptions upon them.

Jonson's play is thus deeply paradoxical. Though a highly

artful play, it succeeds in concealing its artifice and may at

first seem to be just thrown together on the stage like an

improvisation.3 Though seemingly the most formless of Jonson's

plays, it actually obeys the unities of time and place as

strictly as any of his other works.4 Remarkably, in Bartholomew

Fair Jonson found a way of remaining within the bounds of his

neoclassical conception of dramatic form, while still imparting a

feeling of spontaneity to the play. In short, the play obeys

Jonson's cherished law of the unities, while appearing to be

wholly free and above or beyond any formal law.5

The tension between law and spontaneity evident in the form

of Bartholomew Fair turns out to be at work in the content as

well. Despite ostensibly being about nothing, Bartholomew Fair

is of course really about Bartholomew Fair, one of the great

marketplaces of Renaissance London.6 Throughout his career,

Jonson was fascinated by the emerging market economy in

Renaissance Europe. He was intrigued by the new categories of


human identity the market was creating (the roles of merchants,

bankers, financiers, and entrepreneurs) and he was evidently

troubled by the new forms of corruption and vice endemic to

proto-capitalist life. Bartholomew Fair gave Jonson a chance to

anatomize the lawlessness of the marketplace. Through the

comments of his Puritan characters, Jonson shows how the fair

violates religious law, and he uses Adam Overdo, a Justice of the

Peace, to rail against the ways the merchants continually violate

the criminal law as well. As Jonson presents it, Bartholomew

Fair is the original home and headquarters of all the charlatans,

cheaters, and thieves in London.

And yet, strangely enough, for all his criticism of the

marketplace in Bartholomew Fair, Jonson ends up being more

critical of its critics.7 From the standpoint of traditional

religion and politics, the market may look lawless, but Jonson at

least explores the possibility that it may obey laws of its own.

In a remarkable anticipation of free market economics, he

appears to sense that the market may be a self-regulating

mechanism, capable of bringing peace to a society that seems

otherwise to be tearing itself apart in religious and political

conflicts. The characters who stand up for religious and

political principles in Bartholomew Fair turn out to be the

divisive forces in the play, while the seemingly lawless

participants in the fair work to bring about a kind of civil


harmony, based on the satisfaction of basic economic needs and

natural human desires. Jonson exposes all the faults of an

unregulated marketplace, but he more profoundly subjects its

would-be regulators to a withering critique. He reveals their

self-interested motives for wanting to regulate the fair and,

more importantly, he lays bare their sheer incompetence to manage

the marketplace successfully.

In contrast to what happens in Jonson's earlier

masterpieces, Volpone and The Alchemist, in Bartholomew Fair the

apparent forces of disorder triumph at the end and frustrate the

efforts of those who try to impose order on their economic

activities.8 As grave as Jonson's doubts about an unregulated

market may be, in the end he seems to suggest that a regulated

market would be a good deal worse, if only because the regulators

are no better than the regulated. For all its faults, the market

in Jonson's portrayal answers to deep-seated needs in human

nature and he ultimately seems to recognize the value of the

freedom it offers, as well as the fact that freedom is compatible

with its own kind of order. In short, Jonson seems to have an

inkling of the idea of spontaneous order as it was to be

developed in the twentieth century by the Austrian economist

Friedrich Hayek. Bartholomew Fair offers an example in miniature

of a community that is ordered, not by regulations imposed from

above by an outside authority, but by self-regulating principles


generated from within, a system of checks and balances that

relies on the common material interests of its participants to

bring about their harmony. Bartholomew Fair may be the first

portrait in literary history of how a free market operates.

If Jonson displays unusual sympathy for the nascent free

markets of the Renaissance in Bartholomew Fair, the reason may be

that he recognized that as a professional dramatist and actor he

was a participant in a marketplace himself. Bartholomew Fair may

be the headquarters of charlatans and thieves, but it is also the

home of playwrights and actors. Jonson seems to have come to

realize that if marketplaces are regulated, the theatre will

always be among the first to come under government control and

the results will not always be beneficial to the theatre and its

public.9 In Bartholomew Fair Jonson seems to allow his

professional commitment to the theatre to overcome his

longstanding aristocratic contempt for the world of commerce. He

even seems to have tried to shape a new dramatic form in

Bartholomew Fair that would mirror the freedom and spontaneity of

the marketplace it represents. The apparent formlessness of the

play actually answers to an inner law--the spontaneous order of

the free market--and its artful artlessness suggests in aesthetic

terms how the principles of order and freedom can be

reconciled.10 Bartholomew Fair thus explores the issue of law on

several levels at once--religious law, political law, economic


law, and aesthetic law--and charts the complex interaction of

these various legal domains.


At first sight, Bartholomew Fair seems to carry on

vigorously the critique of the nascent market economy of the

Renaissance Jonson had developed in earlier plays like Volpone

and The Alchemist. Like many of his contemporaries, Jonson was

particularly suspicious of the move in his day from a conception

of wealth based on land to one based on money. In Volpone, he

satirizes the way money begets money in the devious schemes of

Volpone and Mosca, who appear to be utterly unproductive and

living like parasites off the wealth of others. In The

Alchemist, Jonson images the world of trade and finance as a

giant con game, in which greedy and ambitious men on the make are

seduced into a variety of get-rich-quick schemes by the

charlatans Face and Subtle. To Jonson, the act of market

exchange looks like alchemy, the fraudulent promise to create

value out of nothing, to change something worthless into

something precious, as the alchemist claims to transmute base

metals into gold.

Jonson is thus a good illustration of Hayek's claim that the

market economy looks like magic to people who do not understand

the complexities of economic transactions. Ignorant of the

genuine contributions entrepreneurs make to economic life by


their risk-taking and ferreting out knowledge of market

conditions, many people picture the businessman as a kind of

sorcerer. As Hayek writes:

Such distrust and fear have, since antiquity and in many

parts of the world, led ordinary people as well as socialist

thinkers to regard trade not only as distinct from material

production, not only as chaotic and superfluous in itself, .

. . but also as suspicious, inferior, dishonest, and

contemptible. . . . Activities that appear to add to

available wealth, 'out of nothing', without physical

creation and by merely rearranging what already exists,

stink of sorcery. . . . That a mere change of hands should

lead to a gain in value to all participants, that it need

not mean gain to one at the expense of the others (or what

has come to be called exploitation), was and is nonetheless

intuitively difficult to grasp. . . . As a consequence of

all these circumstances, many people continue to find the

mental feats associated with trade easy to discount even

when they do not attribute them to sorcery, or see them as

depending on trick or fraud or cunning deceit.11

As Hayek points out, this kind of distrust of the businessman is

particularly acute early in economic history, for example, during

the Renaissance, when capitalist principles were just beginning

to dissolve feudalist ways of doing business and many people were


confused and alienated by the initial results.

Jonson is an especially interesting example of early

hostility to the market economy. He seems to have spent much of

his career in reaction to and rebellion against what can be

described as his lower middle-class origins.12 His stepfather

was a bricklayer, and by following in his footsteps, Jonson was

exposed early in his life to the world of trade. Fortunately

Jonson received an excellent education at the famous Westminster

School in London, and when the opportunity presented itself, he

pursued the typical middle-class path of rising in society by

using his wits and learning.13 Probably in 1594, he entered the

world of the professional theatre, first as an actor and soon as

a playwright. The theatre was one of the more advanced segments

of the Elizabethan economy, employing financial and marketing

techniques that were sophisticated for the time (for example, the

theatres were early examples of joint-stock companies and were

heavily capitalized by Renaissance standards). As the cases of

Marlowe and Shakespeare had already shown, the Elizabethan

theatre offered a marvelous opportunity for a talented young man

to make money and a name for himself.14

Though Jonson prospered in the theatre world, he seems to

have resented the source of his income and success. He

repeatedly shows signs of believing that the conditions of the

commercial theatres forced him to compromise his art to please


the debased taste of the public. He made fun of the way other

playwrights (including Shakespeare) catered to their audience and

he often got embroiled in controversy as a result. He sought to

purge the theatre of what he perceived to be its vulgarity,

conceiving of himself as the playwright who would restore

classical dignity to drama, in part by consciously imitating

Roman models in many of his plays. Jonson was the first English

playwright to bring out a published edition of his plays (in

1616), no doubt with a view to proving that his works were not

the mere ephemeral products of the entertainment marketplace but

literature of lasting value.15

Throughout his literary career, Jonson did everything he

could to escape the commercial theatre world, above all turning

to aristocratic and royal patronage as an alternative to his

bourgeois source of income in the entertainment business. He

wrote poetry in quest of aristocratic patrons and even in his

dramatic career, he alternated between writing for the public

theatres and writing for the royal court.16 He was the great

master of the court masque, and was richly rewarded over the

years by James I for his contribution to royal entertainments.

Aside from the financial advantages of writing for the court,

Jonson seems to have been attracted by the prospect of composing

with aristocratic taste in mind, rather than the lower- and

middle-class taste that prevailed in the commercial theatres.


The stage history of Bartholomew Fair encapsulates Jonson's

theatrical career in miniature. The play was first staged on

October 31, 1614 at one of the public theatres, the Hope, and

then the following evening it was performed at the court before

James I.17 In the published version of the play, both the

prologue and the epilogue are addressed to James, and Jonson

shamelessly flatters the king for having taste superior to the

mob's. In this one play, Jonson for once seems to have it both

ways.18 He gives his popular audience the kind of vulgar

spectacle it craves and then he repackages the same material for

a royal audience, presenting it in a condescending fashion and

implying that he and his aristocratic patrons are above this sort

of foolery and derive their enjoyment from looking down upon


In that sense, Bartholomew Fair seems to embody everything

that was conservative and backward-looking in Jonson's drama. He

seems to side with the aristocracy and its world of feudal

privilege against the rising middle class and its world of money

and commerce.20 For critics with socialist leanings, it is

tempting to read Bartholomew Fair as a proto-Brechtian work, as

if Jonson were criticizing the early signs of capitalism from the

left. But insofar as the play satirizes the commercial world, it

does so from the right. One must remember that even (and

especially) in Marxist terms, capitalism was the progressive


force in Jonson's day, working to dissolve centuries of

antiquated feudal privilege and unleash unprecedentedly

productive forces. At first glance, Jonson's view of capitalism

in Bartholomew Fair thus seems reactionary. Turning his back on

his own class origins, and scorning the original source of his

theatrical success, he identifies with an aristocracy we now know

to have been dying. In fact, Bartholomew Fair does a remarkable

job of showing how chaotic and morally dubious the new world of

trade and money looked to the old order it was displacing.

Jonson seems to give a very negative portrait of the protocapitalist

world in Bartholomew Fair. The marketplace apparently

flouts all conventional notions of morality, decency, and fair

play. Jonson portrays the fair as basically a den of thieves.

Ezekiel Edgworth is a professional cutpurse, but Jonson does not

present him as the one criminal among a group of honest

tradespeople. On the contrary, the seemingly honest merchants at

the fair work hand in hand with Edgworth, identifying victims for

him, setting them up for the actual robberies, and helping him to

dispose of the stolen goods.

Even when the merchants of Bartholomew Fair are not

participating in outright thievery, Jonson presents them as

looking to cheat their customers. He makes the familiar charge

that the merchants adulterate their products to increase their

profits. Many of the tradespeople deal in suspicious merchandise


(see, for example, II.ii.3-9), but the prize for adulteration at

the fair goes to Ursula the pig-woman. She also does a thriving

business in alcohol and tobacco on the side, and instructs her

assistant Mooncalf on how to stretch their supplies and increase

their sales:

But look to't, sirrah, you were best; threepence a pipeful I

will ha' made of all my whole pound of tobacco, and a

quarter of a pound of coltsfoot mixed with it too, to eke it

out. . . . Then six and twenty shillings a barrel I will

advance o' my beer, and fifty shillings a hundred o' my

bottle-ale; I ha' told you the ways how to raise it. Froth

your cans well i' the filling, at length, rogue, and jog

your bottles o' the buttock, sirrah, then skink out the

first glass, ever, and drink with all companies, though you

be sure to be drunk; you'll misreckon the better, and be

less ashamed on't. (II.ii.86-95)

The density of detail in this passage suggests that Jonson was

uncannily familiar with the dark side of Renaissance commerce.

Perhaps in his apprentice days in the theatre, he helped run a

food concession during intermission.

But Jonson's critique of the marketplace goes deeper than

simple charges of thievery and cheating. He is not interested

only in aberrations of the market principle, moments when

unscrupulous individuals might be said to depart from the decent


norms of business as usual. Jonson's satire goes right to the

heart of the market principle itself. He is extremely skeptical

about the way products are merchandised, and displays a

surprisingly sophisticated understanding of how tradespeople are

able to prey upon the desires of potential customers. Jonson's

portrait of the fair suggests a world that has gone mad with

consumerism and the young gallant Bartholomew Cokes is the

maddest of them all, Jonson's image of everything that can go

wrong when a market liberates the desires of its customers.21

Jonson is particularly struck by the power of what we would call

advertising. He shows the customers at the fair continuously

bombarded by the din of the merchants hawking their wares: "What

do you lack? What is't you buy? What do you lack? Rattles,

drums, halberts, horses, babies o' the best? Fiddles of the

finest?" (II.ii. 28-30).

Cokes's tutor, Humphrey Wasp, describes him as mesmerized by

the power of advertising, the many signs displayed at the fair:

Why, we could not meet that heathen thing, all day, but

stayed him; he would name you all the signs over, as he

went, aloud; and where he spied a parrot or a monkey, there

he was pitched, with all the little long-coats about him,

male and female; no getting him away! (I.iv.102-6)

As a result of being bombarded with advertising, Cokes has his

desires awakened and he cannot control his appetites:


If he go to the Fair, he will buy of everything to a baby

there; and household-stuff for that too. . . . And then he

is such a ravener after fruit! You will not believe what a

coil I had t'other day to compound a business between a

Catherine-pear woman and him about snatching! (I.v.100-106)

In Cokes, Jonson creates an unforgettable portrait of the

helpless consumer, caught in the webs of advertising and

overwhelmed by the wealth of goods now available in the

Renaissance marketplace:

And the three Jew's trumps; and half a dozen o' birds, and

that drum (I have one drum already) and your smiths (I like

that device o' your smiths very pretty well) and four

halberts--and (le'me see) that fine painted great lady, and

her three women for state, I'll have. (III.iv.67-71)

Wasp sees the logical conclusion of Cokes's infinite desire:

"No, the shop; buy the whole shop, it will be best, the shop, the

shop!" (III.iv.72-73). Cokes recognizes the truth of Wasp's

charge--"I do want such a number o' things" (III.iv.82)--and

finally asks one merchant: "What's the price, at a word, o' thy

whole shop, case and all, as it stands" (III.iv.129-30).

Without skipping a beat, Leatherhead calculates the sum: "Sir, it

stands me in six and twenty shillings sevenpence halfpenny,

besides three shillings for my ground" (III.iv.131-32). This is

Jonson's image of the new world of capitalism--everything has its


price in money and everything is up for sale. To emphasize the

point, and suggest that even human flesh can be bought in the

marketplace, Jonson makes prostitution an integral part of the

fair. He presents the marketplace as a deeply confused and

confusing realm, a topsy-turvy world in which moral values are

inverted and characters lose their bearings. As the consumer par

excellence, Cokes ends up completely bewildered and disoriented

by his experience at the fair: "By this light, I cannot find my

gingerbread-wife nor my hobby-horse man in all the Fair, now, to

ha' my money again. And I do not know the way out on't, to go

home for more. . . . Dost thou know where I dwell?" (IV.ii.20-22,

25). Assaulted from all sides by thieves, charlatans, and

advertisers, Cokes utterly loses all sense of his own identity:

"Friend, do you know who I am?" (IV.ii.71).


Jonson develops a strong case against the market in

Bartholomew Fair. He shows the amorality, venality, lawlessness,

and even the criminality of the unregulated marketplace, thus

portraying a world that seems to cry out for some form of

economic regulation. And he includes in the play characters who

vehemently condemn the fair and call for its regulation. But for

once Jonson asks the follow-up question: who are these would-be

regulators and are they fit to impose law and order on the

sprawling marketplace they profess to despise? This is not a


trivial question, and just by posing it, Jonson takes a

significant step toward arguments that eventually were to be

developed by economists like Adam Smith in favor of free markets.

The fact that an unregulated market may have its faults and

disadvantages does not in itself prove that a regulated market

will not have its faults and disadvantages as well, and perhaps

end up producing an even worse situation. In Bartholomew Fair

Jonson finally gets around to scrutinizing the proponents of law

and order, to see if they really are capable of living up to

their promise of improving the world.

The simplest case Jonson examines is Humphrey Wasp, who is

devoted to restraining the appetites of his charge Cokes. Given

how freely young Bartholomew spends his money, one can sympathize

with Humphrey's attempts to be strict with him. But Wasp

responds to Cokes's excesses with moral indignation. As his name

indicates, Humphrey is waspish, always ready to fly off into fits

of anger and quarrel with anyone in sight. It is thus by no

means clear that his disposition is preferable to Cokes's or any

less passionate and excessive. Bartholomew is a fool but he is a

relatively harmless fool, and unlikely to cause much trouble for

others. By contrast, Wasp is always provoking conflict and

getting himself and others into difficulties. Mistress Overdo

views him as an enemy of the "conservation of the peace" (I.v.12)

and instructs him: "do you show discretion" (I.v.10-11),


eventually pleading with him: "govern your passions" (I.v.21).

Here is the irony of Wasp's role in the play: he sets himself up

as the governor of his charge's passions, and yet he cannot

govern his own. He presents himself as the champion of law and

order, and yet he is in fact one of the chief forces for disorder

in the play.

The game of vapours that breaks out in Act IV is very funny

and borders on absurdity, but it may reflect a serious threat

Jonson sensed in his world. In his image of people contradicting

each other merely for the sake of contradicting each other,

Jonson offers a comic reflection of Elizabethan and Jacobean

society--a nation riven by all sorts of competing claims and

authorities, political and religious. With the benefit of

historical hindsight, we can read Bartholomew Fair today and see

the forces at work in the London of the play that were in a few

decades to plunge Britain into civil war. But Jonson himself

evidently saw the Puritan Revolution coming, or at least had an

inkling of what might spark it. As the game of vapours gets out

of hand and starts to become dangerous, Mistress Overdo once

again tries to rein in Wasp and his quarrelsome companions:

"conserve the peace" (IV.iv.101). She sees the direction in

which his waspishness is leading: "Are you rebels? Gentlemen?

Shall I send out a sergeant-at-arms or a writ o' rebellion

against you?" (IV.iv.128-29). The threat of revolution does seem


to be hovering in the background of Bartholomew Fair, and Jonson

traces it not to the childish appetites of a Bartholomew Cokes

but to the fiery indignation of a Humphrey Wasp.

In fact, the only way to contain Wasp's rebellious anger

turns out to be to place him in the stocks. In another ironic

twist, the would-be restrainer ends up in restraint. The irony

is not lost even on the dim-witted Bartholomew; learning of his

tutor's disgrace, Cokes is no longer disposed to honor his

authority: "Hold your peace, Numps; you ha' been i' the stocks, I

hear" (V.iv.88). Wasp immediately recognizes the implications

for his continued rule over his charge: "Does he know that? Nay,

then the date of my authority is out; I must think no longer to

reign, my government is at an end. He that will correct another

must want fault in himself" (V.iv.90-91). Wasp's last statement

may represent Jonson's great discovery in the course of thinking

through and writing Bartholomew Fair.22 The principle that only

a superior, indeed a perfect, person has the right to regulate

others does not apply just to Wasp in the play. In fact it is

the governing principle of Jonson's critique of all the would-be

forces of law and order in the play, and especially Zeal-of-the-

Land Busy.23


The fact that a fanatical Puritan is one of the chief

critics of the marketplace in Bartholomew Fair suggests that


Jonson may well be reconsidering his earlier attacks on the new

economic freedom of his era.24 Jonson's portrayal of Busy makes

it clear that arguments against the free market are often

ultimately based in religion, not economics. Busy's objections

to advertising and to the products displayed at the fair are

rooted in his Puritanism and specifically his hatred of idolatry:

For long hair, it is an ensign of pride, a banner, and the

world is full of those banners, very full of banners. And

bottle-ale is a drink of Satan's, a diet-drink of Satan's,

devised to puff us up and make us swell in this latter age

of vanity, as the smoke of tobacco to keep us in mist and

error. But the fleshly woman which you call Ursula is above

all to be avoided, having the marks upon her of the three

enemies of man: the world, as being in the Fair; the devil,

as being in the fire; and the flesh, as being herself.


Busy is convinced that the economic activity at the fair is not

merely disordered and unregulated but sinful and evil. For him

the fair is "wicked and foul" and "fitter may it be called a foul

than a Fair" (III.vi.79-80). He claims to know what is good for

his fellow human beings and what is bad for them. Indeed he

thinks he knows better than they themselves what is in their

interest. Thus he arrogates to himself the right to tell people

what they can and cannot do in the marketplace. Jonson himself


had a strong streak of moralism and in many of his plays he sets

himself up as the arbiter of good and evil. But his creation of

the character of Busy seems to reflect a growing doubt about the

social consequences of moralistic attitudes.

Busy is a busy-body, constantly meddling in other people's

affairs and trying to reorder their lives. He criticizes pride

but he is exceedingly proud himself, and enjoys lording it over

others. It surely was not lost on Jonson that it was people like

Busy who were attacking the London theatres and constantly trying

to shut them down. Anyone who condemns attempts to please

consumers is eventually going to get around to condemning the

theatre. In short, if the Puritans were enemies of the

marketplace, Jonson may have begun to wonder if the marketplace

was his friend. The way Jonson sets up the terms of Bartholomew

Fair, economic freedom is pitted against religious tyranny.

Jonson portrays Busy as an overreacher, a man who sets

himself up as a god over his fellow human beings and fails to

live up to his inflated self-image. But he also shows that Busy

is a hypocrite. He condemns the money-making activities of the

marketplace and yet he is obsessed with money-making himself.25

In general, as if he were anticipating Max Weber's The Protestant

Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Jonson shows the Puritans

devoting themselves quasi-religiously to the acquisition of

wealth. In the fifth act, Dame Purecraft finally reveals that


she is "worth six thousand pound" (V.ii.46)--a huge sum in those

days--and she goes on to explain the devious means by which she

accumulated the money:26

These seven years I have been a willful holy widow, only to

draw feasts and gifts from my entangled suitors. I am also

by office an assisting sister of the deacons, and a

devourer, instead of a distributor, of the alms. I am a

special maker of marriages for our decayed brethren with

rich widows, for a third part of their wealth, when they are

married, for the relief of the poor elect; as also our poor

handsome young virgins with our wealthy bachelors or

widowers to make them steal from their husbands when I have

confirmed them in the faith, and got all put into their

custodies. (V.ii.48-57)

Here the Puritan Dame Purecraft begins to sound a good deal like

one of Jonson's conmen in earlier plays.

But Purecraft defers to Busy as the chief money-maker of

them all:

Our elder, Zeal-of-the-Land, would have had me, but I know

him to be the capital knave of the land, making himself rich

by being made feoffee in trust to deceased brethren, and

cozening their heirs by swearing the absolute gift of their

inheritance. (V.ii.59-63)

Jonson gives Busy mercantile origins; the fact that he began as a


baker (I.iii.107-112) stresses his kinship to the tradespeople he

later condemns. Toward the end of the play, in Busy's debate at

the puppet show, the Puppet Dionysius points out that the

Puritans are heavily involved in the clothing trade and thus

implicated in the very luxuries they rail against (V.v.75-84).27

By revealing the Puritans to be hypocrites, Jonson

undermines their authority as advocates of law and order. He

further shows that Busy is willing to bend the law to suit his

own purposes.28 Despite their claim to adhere strictly to

religious law, the Puritans turn out to be extremely flexible

when it comes to interpreting the law in accord with their own

desires. When Win Littlewit expresses her deep longing for roast

pig at the fair, her mother at first urges her to resist the

temptation, but soon is willing to endorse the desire "if it can

be any way made or found lawful" (I.vi.27-28). Dame Purecraft

enlists her spiritual advisor Busy to find a way of pronouncing

Win's appetite lawful. Busy sets to work interpreting the law,

but it is a difficult case:

Verily, for the disease of longing, it is a disease, a

carnal disease, or appetite, incident to women; and as it is

carnal, and incident, it is natural, very natural. Now pig,

it is a meat, and a meat that is nourishing, and may be

longed for, and so consequently eaten; it may be eaten; very

exceeding well eaten. But in the Fair, and as a Bartholomew


pig, it cannot be eaten, for the very calling it a

Bartholomew pig, and to eat it so, is a spice of idolatry.


Purecraft urges a liberal understanding of the law on her fellow

Puritan: "Good Brother Zeal-of-the-Land, think to make it as

lawful as you can" (I.vi.54-55). Busy proves equal to the task:

It may be eaten, and in the Fair, I take it, in a booth, the

tents of the wicked. The place is not much, not very much,

we may be religious in midst of the profane, so it be eaten

with a reformed mouth, with sobriety, and humbleness; not

gorged in with gluttony or greediness. (I.vi.63-67)

The ease with which Busy is able to interpret the law to

legitimate desire raises doubts about the whole status of law in

the play. The advocates of the law present it as the moral

alternative to the marketplace. The law is supposed to be

immutable and incorruptible, as opposed to the mutable and

corrupt marketplace, where everyone is on the make and values and

prices change from minute to minute. But Jonson shows the

Puritan characters making and remaking the law before our eyes.

The law loses much of its prestige when it is revealed to be

changeble and even pervertible according to the dictates of

desire. In the puppet show debate, lawfulness turns out to be a

matter of semantics, the product of mere wordplay and not of any

fundamental principle. The puppet has an easy answer to Busy's


charge that the theatre lacks lawfulness:

BUSY I mean no vocation, idol, no present lawful calling.

PUPPET DIONYSIUS Is yours a lawful calling? . . .

BUSY Yes, mine is of the spirit.

PUPPET DIONYSIUS Then idol is a lawful calling.

LEATHERHEAD He says, then idol is a lawful calling! For

you called him idol, and your calling is of the spirit.

(V.v.49-50, 52-55)

By the time Jonson is through ringing changes on the word law in

Bartholomew Fair, the term has become virtually meaningless. The

law no longer appears to stand majestically above the marketplace

and hence entitled to regulate it. Rather the law is negotiated

and renegotiated just like any other item at the fair.

Jonson's antipathy to the Puritans led him to probe deeper

into their hostility to the marketplace. The gamester Quarlous

notes that Busy, as a Puritan, rejects all tradition and claims

to remain true to a purified notion of an original faith: "By his

profession, he will ever be i' the state of innocence, though,

and childhood; derides all antiquity; defies any other learning

than inspiration; and what discretion soever years should afford

him, it is all prevented in original ignorance" (I.iii.129-33).

Busy's hatred for the marketplace grows out of his Puritan

hostility to tradition. For Busy the marketplace is the locus of

business as usual, where men and women go about satisfying the


desires they have always had. By catering to what people want,

the market stands in the way of the moral reformation Busy is

striving for. Unlike the merchants of Bartholomew Fair, he will

not accept human beings as he finds them, but rather wants to

remake them in one grand revolutionary effort. That is why Busy

images the moral reformation of the world in terms of an

apocalyptic abolition of the marketplace. He defines himself as:

"one that rejoiceth in his affliction, and sitteth here to

prophesy the destruction of fairs and May-games, wakes and

Whitsun ales, and doth sigh and groan for the reformation of

these abuses" (IV.vi.78-80). Jonson understands that Busy

rejects the world as such and wants to see it fundamentally

remade. His hostility to life as usual dictates his hostility to

business as usual, and hence demands the overthrow of the

marketplace as the center of existing abuses. Jonson saw how

deeply revolutionary the Puritan mentality was, and events in a

few decades were to prove him right.

The Puritan revolutionary impulse manifests itself even on

the level of language. Refusing to accept the common names of

things, the Puritans become involved in a laughable process of

trying to rename everything, including themselves: "O, they have

all such names, sir; he was witness for Win here--they will not

be called godfathers--and named her Win-the-fight. You thought

her name had been Winifred, did you not?" (I.iii.116-19). In a


play in which signs are often more important than substance, the

impulse to rename things is tantamount to the impulse to remake

them. Thus, although Busy appears to be an advocate of law and

order, like Wasp he turns out to be a force for disorder. Again

like Wasp, he is guity of incivility, as Quarlous makes clear in

his final summary of the Puritan character: "Away, you are a

herd of hypocritical proud ignorants, rather wild than mad,

fitter for woods and the society of beasts than houses and the

congregation of men. You are. . . outlaws to order and

discipline" (V.ii.38-41).


Adam Overdo is Jonson's most interesting example of the need

to tame the regulatory spirit. Like Wasp and Busy, he claims to

devote himself to repressing passions and correcting excesses in

others, and yet he is in the grip of passion himself and goes

from one excess to another.29 Though he presents himself as a

disinterested servant of "the public good" (II.i.9; see also

V.ii.84), Jonson suggests that he may be just a social climber,

using his office to advance his own cause. Wasp reproaches

Mistress Overdo: "Why mistress, I knew Adam, the clerk, your

husband, when he was Adam scrivener, and writ for twopence a

sheet, as high as he bears his head now, or you your hood, dame"

(IV.iv.141-43). Overdo is a little man who puffs himself up with

the thought that he is better than his fellow human beings and


seeks to prove it by imposing order on their lives.

Unfortunately for Overdo, he is not equal to the task he

sets himself as the overseer of law and order. He prides himself

on his judgment of human nature and his ability to spy into the

souls of men. But Jonson shows him making one mistake after

another.30 He thinks that the robber Edgworth is in fact a

"civil" young man and tries to become his patron (II.iv.30).

Overdo is particularly susceptible to anyone who will flatter his

ego, as becomes evident in his encounter with Trouble-All, a man

who went mad when Overdo dismissed him from his position in the

Court of Piepowders at the fair. Trouble-All is unwilling to do

anything without a written warrant from Overdo, a form of madness

that initally strikes the Justice as evidence of Trouble-All's

wisdom: "What should he be, that doth so esteem and advance my

warrant? He seems a sober and discreet person!" (IV.i.23-24).

Overdo's continuing misjudgment of the other characters in the

play makes him a laughing-stock and ultimately undermines his

authority. As Quarlous points out to him at the end of the play:

"your 'innocent young man' you have ta'en care of all this day,

is a cutpurse that hath got all your brother Cokes his things,

and helped you to your beating and the stocks" (V.vi.72-75).

Overdo claims to be able to bring moral order to the world, and

yet he cannot tell good from evil, as he mistakes criminals and

madmen for model citizens. The complete collapse of his regime


occurs when he goes to punish a group of prostitutes and

discovers that one of them is his own wife in disguise.

When Overdo speaks out against the fair's merchandise,

chiefly alcohol and tobacco, one might be tempted to sympathize

with his criticism, but Jonson goes out of his way to caricature

Overdo's complaints and make them sound foolish. Busy inveighs

against the products of the fair because he is trying to save the

souls of its customers; Overdo is trying to save their bodies.

He cautions against alcoholic beverages: "Thirst not after that

frothy liquor, ale; for who knows when he openeth the stopple

what may be in the bottle? Hath not a snail, a spider, yea, a

newt been found there?" (II.vi.11-14). Overdo is also on an

anti-smoking crusade: "Neither do thou lust after that tawny

weed, tobacco. . . Whose complexion is like the Indian's that

vents it! . . . And who can tell, if, before the gathering and

making up thereof, the alligator hath not pissed thereon?"

(II.vi.21-26). Overdo may be raising slightly different doubts

about the safety of alcohol and tobacco products than we hear

today, but the basic principle is the same. He distrusts

anything exotic and loves to dwell on the worst-case scenario.

He goes on to lament the amount of money he thinks is wasted on

these luxury products: "Thirty pound a week in bottle-ale! Forty

in tobacco! And ten more in ale again" (II.vi.77-78). At times

Overdo sounds much like a contemporary campaign against smoking:


"Hence it is that the lungs of the tobacconist are rotted, the

liver spotted, the brain smoked like the backside of the pigwoman's

booth here" (II.vi.39-41).

Overdo thus offers a puritanism of the body to correspond to

Busy's puritanism of the soul. In either case, the result is the

same: strict government control over the everyday activities of

ordinary people, with prohibition as the ultimate goal. If it is

not clear from the way Jonson has the Justice characteristically

overdo his tirade against alcohol and tobacco that he is making

fun of this health-conscious puritanism,31 one might recall that

Overdo's attack on drinking and smoking is identical to Puritan

strictures against theatre-going ("it's bad for you," "it wastes

your money," and so on). Evidently by the time of writing

Bartholomew Fair, Jonson had begun to wonder whether concern for

saving souls and bodies would result in the end of the

entertainment business as he knew it.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Jonson's critique of

authority in Bartholomew Fair is his anticipation of Hayek's

theory about the benefits of dispersing knowledge in society.

Overdo's scheme to disguise himself and spy out enormities at the

fair is an attempt to gain the knowledge he would actually need

to regulate the marketplace. Modelling himself on "a worthy

worshipful man" (II.i.11-12), probably "Thomas Middleton, the

reforming Lord Mayor of London in 1613-14,"32 Overdo uses his


masquerade to seek out a synoptic, even a panoptical view of the

economic world of London:

Marry, go you into every alehouse, and down into every

cellar; measure the length of puddings, take the gauge of

black pots and cans, aye, and custards with a stick; and

their circumference with a thread; weigh the loaves of bread

on his middle finger; then would he send for 'em, home; give

the puddings to the poor, the bread to the hungry, the

custards to his children; break the pots and burn the cans

himself; he would not trust his corrupt officers; he would

do't himself. (II.i.16-24)

As Overdo describes the Mayor's procedures, they seem a model of

regulating the economy. He oversees all economic activity in the

city, down to the last detail, and he uses his comprehensive

knowledge to correct all injustices, with a particular care to

redistributing goods to the poor and needy. The actions of

Overdo's model are in fact what most people have in mind when

they talk about correcting the failures of the market.

But Bartholomew Fair is a comedy and Overdo is one of the

chief targets of its satire, not a model of enlightened rule in

Jonson's eyes. There is more than something faintly absurd about

the Justice's view of a centrally planned economy. Indeed he

inadvertently reveals the impossibility of the task. For a

government to regulate the economy successfully, it would need


knowledge of every detail of its working, all the way down to

weighing every single loaf of bread to the ounce. But in fact

this knowledge in all its complexity of detail is never available

to any one person or centralized authority, as Jonson's example

suggests. The mayor's idea of regulating the economy is to do

every job himself, a telling image for the ultimate consequences

of government intervention in the economy. The mayor violates

the principle of the division of labor, which is the foundation

of any advanced economy. In fact, the market works precisely by

dispersing knowledge of economic phenomena among a myriad of

people and using the pricing mechanism to coordinate their

efforts.33 The central thrust of entrepreneurial activity is the

creation, or at least the ferreting out, of knowledge, and this

process works best precisely when it is not centralized, but pits

many individuals against each other, in active competition (with

success rewarded and failure punished in financial terms).

Recognizing this point was Hayek's great contribution to the

so-called economic calculation debate concerning socialism,

inaugurated by his teacher, Ludwig von Mises, in the 1920s.34

Without going into the details of this debate, one may say that

events in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in the formerly

communist world would appear to have vindicated the Austrian

economists Mises and Hayek in their claim that true economic

calculation is impossible in the absence of open markets and the


monetary accounting they make possible. The Soviet economy

eventually collapsed precisely because its central planning

proved unable to coordinate, or even just to ascertain, all the

economic data involved in a modern system of production and

distribution. As the Russian economist Yuri Maltsev writes:

"When the Soviet government set 22 million prices, 460,000 wage

rates, and over 90 million work quotas for 110 million government

employees, chaos and shortages were the inevitable result."35

Jonson surely could not have anticipated the economic calculation

debate concerning socialism; he would not even have known what

socialism is. But he does look forward to the core of the Mises-

Hayek argument, that would-be government regulators are simply

inadequate to the task of overseeing the complex division of

labor in a modern economy.

Jonson specifically presents the problem of government

regulation of the economy as a problem of knowledge. Overdo's

model mayor has ambitious plans for restructuring the economy,

and yet he himself does not "trust his corrupt officers"; hence

he gets involved in the hopeless task of doing everything in the

economy by himself. Overdo realizes the limitations of his

knowledge as a government official:

For (alas) as we are public persons, what do we know? Nay,

what can we know? We hear with other men's ears; we see

with other men's eyes; a foolish constable or a sleepy


watchman is all our information; he slanders a gentleman by

virtue of his place, as he calls it, and we by the vice of

ours, must believe him. . . . This we are subject to, that

live in high place; all our intelligence is idle, and most

of our intelligencers, knaves; and by your leave, ourselves

thought little better, if not arrant fools, for believing

'em. (II.i.24-34)

By impeaching his sources of knowledge, Overdo undermines his

authority to regulate the marketplace. He points out all the

reasons why government officials are not in a position to know

the relevant economic facts, and his scheme to gain access to

that knowledge proves to be a complete and humiliating failure

for him. Overdo's noble-sounding vision of an all-seeing and

all-knowing government turns out to be a fantasy and a farce.

Government officials are limited and fallible human beings

themselves and just as likely to make mistakes as merchants in

the marketplace. The only and the crucial difference between

civil servants and private businessmen is that when a central

planner makes a mistake, he is likely to disrupt the whole

economy, and not just his own business.


In the eyes of government officialdom, the disguised Overdo

appears to be a criminal, and, he like Wasp and Busy, ends up in

the stocks. When he himself is charged with "enormity," Overdo


sees the irony of the situation: "Mine own words turned upon me

like swords" (III.v.203). The would-be regulators in the play

are not happy when they themsevles fall under the power of

government regulation. Wasp objects to the intrusion of

strangers into his business: "Cannot a man quarrel in quietness,

but he must be put out on't by you?" (IV.iv.147-48). When he

learns that the intruders are "His Majesty's Watch," Wasp is not

pleased with the government's panoptical surveillance: "A body

would think, an you watched well o'nights, you should be

contented to sleep at this time o'day" (IV.iv.149-52). Wasp

would like a respite from the all-seeing eye of the government.

One gets the sense from Bartholomew Fair that Jonson, several

times the victim of government surveillance himself, sympathized

with this position.

The madman Trouble-All provides the inverted mirror image of

an all-seeing, all-knowing government in Jonson's play. He is

the perfect subject of a panoptical regime,36 the man who will

not make a move without express warrant from a government

official: "he will do nothing but by Justice Overdo's warrant: he

will not eat a crust, nor drink a little, nor make him in his

apparel ready. His wife, sir-reverence, cannot get him make his

water or shift his shirt without his warrant" (IV.i.51-54).37

Here finally is someone who would presumably heed Overdo's

invectives against alcohol and tobacco. But Trouble-All provides


the reductio ad absurdum of the world of government regulation.

He reveals what would be the disturbing but logical result of a

total command economy, in which no human action took place

without a government decree. Even Overdo is appalled at what he

has done to transform Trouble-All into a figure wholly dependent

on authority for guidance: "If this be true, this is my greatest

disaster!" (IV.i.55).

From his encounter with Trouble-All, Overdo learns a very

Hayekian lesson, what one might call the law of unintended

consequences: "To see what bad events may peep out o' the tail of

good purposes!" (III.iii.12-13).38 Jonson seems to measure his

characters by the results of their actions, not their motives.

The do-gooders in Bartholomew Fair are the cause of most of the

difficulties in the play and all the near-disasters. And the

reason is that in Jonson's view, life in general and the

marketplace in particular are just too complicated for these

simplistic and moralistic regulatory schemes to work

successfully. Actions have unanticipated consequences and

efforts to control events only succeed in producing disorder and

eventually chaos. Overdo must learn to accept life for what it

is, admit his own limitations, and abandon his plans for

perfecting and reforming the world.39 As Quarlous tells him in

the end: "remember you are but Adam, flesh and blood! You have

your frailty; forget your other name of Overdo, and invite us all


to supper. There you and I will . . . drown the memory of all

enormity in your biggest bowl at home" (V.vi.93-97). Jonson

presents the festive spirit of comedy as the triumph of humanity

and freedom over petty moralism and officious government.40

The spokesmen for authority in Bartholomew Fair want to

contrast the ordered and stable world of law with the chaotic and

unstable world of the marketplace. But Jonson's satiric view of

the would-be regulators suggests a different perspective. He

seems to contrast the rigid and stultifying world of law with the

fluid and vibrant world of the marketplace. As happens in many

comedies, in Bartholomew Fair Jonson portrays the dead weight of

the law as the obstacle standing in the way of the characters

satisfying their normal human desires. The law appears in the

first speech in the play proper, appropriately in stilted legal

language: "Here's Master Bartholomew Cokes, of Harrow o'the hill,

i'the county of Middlesex, Esquire, takes forth his license to

marry Mistress Grace Wellborn of the said place and county"

(I.i.3-5). The first manifestation of the power of law in

Bartholomew Fair significantly takes the form of a marriage

license.41 Jonson emphasizes the way the law gives power to some

human beings to dispose of the lives of others, with men usually

ruling over women, and parents over children. Jonson makes one

of the marriage plots turn on the fact that Grace Wellborn is the

legal ward of Adam Overdo, and thus his to dispose of in


marriage. In Grace's statement of her position, Jonson stresses

the arbitrariness of her status and her dissatisfaction with it.

When asked how she became Overdo's ward, Grace bitterly replies:

"Faith, through a common calamity: he bought me, sir; and now he

will marry me to his wife's brother, . . . or else I must pay

value o' my land" (III.v.260-62). Evidently, human beings are

bought and sold in the legal world just as commodities are bought

and sold in the marketplace.42 Far from providing an alternative

to the venality of the market, the law seems to operate according

to the same principles. Indeed in Jonson's presentation, the law

seems worse than the market: it gives people the right to buy and

sell other human beings, and not just commodities.

Women especially do not fare well in the legal world of

Bartholomew Fair. In their homes, they seem to be the chattle

property of their husbands, fathers, and guardians. That perhaps

explains why the women in the play are particularly eager to go

to the fair. For them, entering the marketplace represents a

kind of liberation. Jonson suggests this point comically when

several of the women quite literally enter the marketplace, that

is, are enlisted into prostitution. He certainly is not

advocating prostitution as a way of life, but he approaches the

subject with greater freedom and less moralism than Justice

Overdo does. Half jokingly, Jonson has the bawd Captain Whit try

to teach Win Littlewit that she ought to prefer the life of a


prostitute to that of a married woman: "de honest woman's life is

a scurvy dull life" (IV.v.26-27). The chief reason Whit offers

for his claim is that a wife leads "de leef of a bondwoman,"

whereas he tells Win: "I vill make tee a free-woman" (IV.v.29-

30). In Bartholomew Fair, the legal institution of marriage is

presented as a form of slavery, while entering the marketplace as

a prostitute appears to be a form of freedom.

Viewed from one perspective, prostitution is one of the

chief vices of the fair, but in the full context of the play, it

is difficult for the advocates of law and order to use

prostitution as an argument against the marketplace. Jonson does

everything he can to efface the distinction between prostitutes

and married women, as he shows men buying women in marriage.43

Quarlous thinks of the legal institution as in fact a way to

marry money itself: "Why should not I marry this six thousand

pound. . . ? And a good trade too, that she has beside, ha?. . .

It is money that I want; why should I not marry the money, when

'tis offered me? I have a license and all; it is but razing out

one name and putting in another" (V.ii.69-75). Quarlous also

reveals the arbitrariness of legal documents: they are supposed

to embody the sanctity of the law, but it is an easy matter to

doctor them.44 A legal document can mean almost anything,

depending on how the writing is altered. There are a number of

"blank checks" in the form of legal documents circulating in


Bartholomew Fair,45 including the open warrant Overdo thinks he

is giving to the madman Trouble-All but which actually falls into

the hands of Quarlous. He immediately grasps the possibilities

of having the justice's signature on a blank document: "Why

should not I ha' the conscience to make this a bond of a thousand

pond, now?" (V.ii.112-13). But Quarlous finds a better use for

this blank document: to certify transferring Grace as a ward from

Overdo to himself. Thus he, not Overdo, becomes the beneficiary

when Grace must pay money to her guardian for the right to marry


Jonson's criticism of the law is double-edged. On the one

hand, the law appears to be too rigid; with its iron hand, it

tries to define all human relationships, and keep people confined

to the straight and narrow path. But on the other hand, the law

appears to be too flexible and arbitrary; with a stroke of a pen,

a man can alter a legal document and redefine a human

relationship. Ultimately in Jonson's portrayal the problem with

the law is its mindless legalism. The law tries to codify the

fluidity of life into binding rules, but as Jonson shows in

Bartholomew Fair, once a legal document is written down, it can

all too easily be rewritten and hence become fluid itself. As

Jonson presents it, the law seems to alternate between defining

the terms of human life too tightly and defining them too

loosely. In either case, the law gives some human beings a


despotic power over others.


The fact that Jonson develops such a devastating critique of

the law and its representatives in Bartholomew Fair does not mean

that he is blind to the failings of the marketplace. On the

contrary, as we have seen, he was well-aware of all the

shortcomings of the fair and the emerging market economy it

represents--if anything, he exaggerates them. But when Jonson

compares the would-be regulators of the market with the people

they wish to regulate, on balance he seems to side with the

latter. On the whole, the apparently unregulated markets of the

fair stand for order in the play, while their would-be regulators

actually prove to be the motive forces for disorder. Jonson

presents the merchants as generally cooperating with one another,

if only in schemes to defraud and rob their customers. They are

of course not saints, but they are not quite sinners either, at

least not in the evil terms in which men like Busy and Overdo try

to portray them. Many of the merchants provide legitimate goods

and services to their customers and Jonson presents the fair as a

life-enhancing force. After all, people flock to it voluntarily

and thus it must be performing some sort of service to the


By contrast, the characters who try to shut down the fair

are the spoilsports of the play, and must be defeated for the


comic ending to be possible. In seeking to please the public,

the fair may cater too much for Jonson's taste to the baser

appetites of the London populace. And yet all the opponents of

the fair have to set against these natural desires is their anger

and their moral indignation, as Wasp, Busy, and Overdo repeatedly

prove. And in Jonson's portrayal, this anger turns out to be

just as irrational as desire and more socially disruptive. As we

have seen, Jonson suggests at several points that religious and

moral hostility to the marketplace easily translates into a

revolutionary impulse and may in fact tear the fabric of society


In earlier plays like Volpone and The Alchemist, Jonson had

dwelled upon the ways in which the emerging market economy was

itself a revolutionary force, threatening to upset the settled

order of society and above all to overthrow the social hierarchy

by making poor men rich and rich men poor. But in Bartholomew

Fair, Jonson appears to rethink his view of the social effects of

the market economy, or at least to refine it. He now dwells on

the ways in which the market allows people to negotiate their

difference and thus actually helps to bring them together. The

market provides an image of social harmony in Bartholomew Fair,

not a harmony without conflict, but one in which the tensions

among the characters can be worked out as the participants in the

fair come to realize their common economic interests.


Jonson shows the way the market tends to level out

differences. Bartholomew Fair is a place where people from all

walks of life meet and interact freely.46 The market does a

particularly good job of levelling social pretensions. Winwife

tries to put on airs when he first comes to the fair and acts as

if the commercial world were beneath him: "That these people

should be so ignorant to think us chapmen for 'em! Do we look as

if we would buy gingerbread? Or hobby-horses?" (II.v.10-12).

But Quarlous points out that to enter the fair is to accept it on

its own terms and acknowledge kinship with the rest of the

customers: "Why, they know no better ware than they have, nor

better customers than come. And our very being here makes us fit

to be demanded as well as others" (II.v.13-15). In fact the only

people the fair works to exclude are zealots like Busy and Overdo

who will not accept its terms and admit their common humanity.

Unlike the merchants, they are uncompromising and refuse to

negotiate their differences with others.47 By contrast, in the

fair money provides a common currency by means of which people

can settle their accounts, financial and otherwise.

It would be easy to overstate the extent to which Jonson

anticipates the arguments in favor of free markets developed long

after his death. He has a weak grasp of how free markets

operate, which is only natural for someone who was in effect

witnessing their troubled birth. He has only the barest sense of


how markets are self-regulating mechanisms; he does at least have

some inkling of how Bartholomew Fair, left to itself, constitutes

a kind of rough-and-tumble order. But one could not credit

Jonson with anticipating the full concept of spontaneous order as

it was to be developed by Mises, Hayek, and other Austrian

economists. Where Jonson does genuinely anticipate later

economic thinking is in his critique of efforts to regulate the

marketplace. Here his thinking becomes rather sophisticated

economically, as he shows how efforts to reform the market

actually tend to make things worse, and how efforts to impose

order on the economy only succeed in making it more chaotic. In

short, his negative case for not regulating the market is much

stronger than any positive case he makes for leaving the market

to regulate itself. This is only to be expected of a writer who

had extensive experience with government regulation of the

economy, living as he did in a world still largely feudal and

mercantilist, but only limited experience with genuine economic

freedom, which was only just beginning to emerge in his day.

Though Jonson could not fully understand how merchants regulate

themselves, he knew enough to be suspicious of the kind of people

who seek to regulate them.

Jonson's sympathy for the free market in Bartholomew Fair

makes the play unusual if not unique in his dramatic output. As

we have seen, in other plays he can be highly critical of the


marketplace and its effect on society. But it seems that for

once in this play he decided to give the market its due and

explore what kind of case could be made for economic freedom, or

at least against economic regulation. If this seems like an

implausible concern for Jonson, one must remember that by

participating in the English Renaissance theatre, he was

experiencing one of the most sophisticated and advanced segments

of the economy of his time, and also one that was heavily

regulated by the government. Jonson's experience in the theatre

in fact put him in an excellent position to examine the question

of government regulation of the economy, of the law versus the

marketplace. His new-found sympathy for the marketplace seems to

have grown out of a new recognition of the way his theatre world

was inextricably intertwined with the emerging market economy of

his day.


. T. S. Eliot claimed that Bartholomew Fair had "hardly a plot at all." See his

"Ben Jonson" in Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950), p. 134. See

also Richard Levin, The Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama (Chicago:

University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 202: "We cannot find any central line of

action which holds everything together." In his Introduction to English

Renaissance Comedy (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1999), Alexander

Leggatt quotes Terry Hands, who, in connection with his 1969 production of the

play for the Royal Shakespeare Company, described it as "an enormous canvas with

no particular focus" (p. 138). I quote Bartholomew Fair from the edition of

Gordon Campbell in Ben Jonson, The Alchemist and Other Plays (Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 1995), with citations incorporated in the text.

. See Levin, Multiple Plot, p. 208 and Eugene M. Waith, ed., Ben Jonson:

Bartholomew Fair (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1963), p. 2.

. Martin Butler says that Jonson manages "to give an illusion of randomness

which is carefully and rigorously premeditated." See his The Selected Plays of

Ben Jonson (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989), Vol. 2, p. 147.

. See Waith, Bartholomew Fair, p. 20.

. See Leggatt, English Renaissance Comedy, pp. 136-37, E. A. Horsman, ed.,

Bartholomew Fair (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1960), p. xi, and Anne

Barton, "Shakespeare and Jonson," in Essays, mainly Shakespearean (Cambridge, UK:

Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 294: "[Bartholomew Fair] maintains the most

delicate balance between order and chaos, between structure and a seemingly

undisciplined flow which is like the random, haphazard nature of life itself."

. For information on the actual Bartholomew Fair and Renaissance fairs in

general, see Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of

Transgression (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), especially Chapter 1.

Stallybrass and White correctly emphasize the modernity of the fair and its role

as a harbinger of developing market principles, and they criticize a nostalgic

view of the fair as a backward-looking, medieval institution.

. See Waith, Bartholomew Fair, p. 3 and William W. E. Slights, Ben Jonson and

the Art of Secrecy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), pp. 149, 152,

and 211 (note 34).

. See Stallybrass and White, Transgression, p. 66, Jonas Barish, Ben Jonson and

the Language of Prose Comedy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), pp.

212-13, and Katharine Eisaman Maus, Ben Jonson and the Roman Frame of Mind

(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 132.

. For examples of government regulation during the Elizabethan period that

proved disastrous to the theatre companies and to Jonson in particular, see David

Riggs, Ben Jonson: A Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), pp.


10. For an excellent attempt to sketch out the structural pattern of Bartholomew

Fair, see the section on the play in Levin's Multiple Plot, especially pp. 211-


11. Friedrich Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (Chicago:

University of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 90, 91, and 93.

12. This is one of the main themes of David Riggs's biography of Jonson; see

especially Jonson, pp. 4-5.

13. On Jonson's ambition, see Riggs, Jonson, pp. 2-3.

14. See Riggs, Jonson, pp. 24-25.

15. On Jonson's motives for bringing out the 1616 Folio, see Barish, The

Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), p.

138, Leggatt, English Renaissance Comedy, p. 135, and Stallybras and White,

Transgression, p. 75.

16. For the tension running throughout Jonson's theatrical career, see Riggs,

Jonson, pp. 63-64, 69, 234, Stallybrass and White, Transgression, pp. 66-79,

Barish, Antitheatrical Prejudice, pp. 132-54, and Kate McLuskie, "Making and

Buying: Ben Jonson and the Commercial Theatre Audience," in Julie Sanders, Kate

Chedgzoy, and Susan Wiseman, eds., Refashioning Ben Jonson: Gender, Politics and

the Jonsonian Canon (London: Macmillan, 1998), pp. 134-54.

17. See Waith, Bartholomew Fair, p. 205, Butler, Selected Plays, p. 148, Leggatt,

English Renaissance Comedy, p. 136, and Campbell, Alchemist, p. 503. As these

editors point out, a measure of the "popularity" of the Hope Theatre is the fact

that it was still being used for the "sport" of bear-baiting.

18. See Horsman, Bartholomew Fair, pp. xii-xiv, Butler, Selected Plays, p. 149,

and Julie Sanders, Ben Jonson's Theatrical Republics (London: Macmillan, 1998),

pp. 92-93.

19. See McLuskie, "Making and Buying," pp. 144-45.

20. This was L. C. Knights' view of Jonson and his "fellows" in his famous book,

Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (London: Chatto & Windus, 1937). See

especially p. 7: "The standards of judgement that they brought to bear were not

formed in that new world of industrial enterprise. They belonged to an older

world which was still 'normal,' a world of small communities."

21. On the stimulation of desire in Renaissance fairs, see Stallybrass and White,

Transgression, pp. 38-40.

22. This point is reinforced by the fact that the Wasp-Cokes story in Bartholomew

Fair may reflect events that actually happened when Jonson accompanied Sir Walter

Raleigh's son Wat as his tutor on a trip to Paris. See Riggs, Jonson, pp. 206-7,

Barish, Prose Comedy, p. 213, and Butler, Selected Plays, p. 137: "during this

trip the pupil triumphantly exposed his mentor to public view in a cart while he

was prostrated in a bout of drunkenness."

23. On the parallels between Wasp and Busy, see Levin, Multiple Plot, pp. 204-5.

24. Riggs (Jonson, p. 195) suggests that in creating the character of Zeal-ofthe-

Land Busy, Jonson may have had a personal score to settle with a particular

Puritan preacher named Robert Milles.

25. See Slights, Art of Secrecy, p. 158.

26. See Slights, Art of Secrecy, p. 159.

27. See Leggatt, English Renaissance Comedy, p. 139.

28. See Slights, Art of Secrecy, pp. 157-58.

29. See Levin, Multiple Plot, pp. 206-7.

30. See Leggatt, English Renaissance Comedy, p. 149 and Slights, Art of Secrecy,

pp. 154, 169.

31. Evaluating Overdo's attack on tobacco is complicated by the fact that it

resembles sentiments expressed in James I's Counterblast to Tobacco (published in

1604). It is difficult to determine if these parallels are meant to raise Overdo

in our esteem or lower James, but on balance the latter possibility seems more

likely. Barish, Prose Comedy, pp. 319-20 (note 23), details a number of the

parallels between Overdo's speech and James's Counterblast, but "wonders what

Jonson's royal patron thought of this scene." Horsman, Bartholomew Fair, p. xxi,

is even more skeptical: "It is tempting to suspect that the attack on tobacco was

added to please James I, whose views were known, at the court performance; but

this seems ruled out by the uncomplimentary resemblance between James and the

Justice." Sanders, Theatrical Republics, pp. 94-95, also discusses the

complexities of the parallels between Overdo and James I.

32. Gordon Campbell's note in his edition (Alchemist, p. 507, line 12). See also

Butler, Selected Plays, pp. 137 and 530. The claim that the mayor referred to

was Thomas Hayes can be found in Horsman, Bartholomew Fair, pp. xviii-xix and

Michael Jamieson, ed., Ben Jonson: Three Comedies (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin

Books, 1966), pp. 481, 483. Slights (Art of Secrecy, pp. 153, 209, note 14)

settles the identification in favor of Middleton.

33. Leggatt, English Renaissance Comedy, p. 150, speaks of the "principle of

dispersed attention" in Bartholomew Fair. In a very different context,

Stallybrass and White make an argument similar to Hayek's: the traditional view

of the fair "consigns the subordinate classes to contesting state and class power

within a problematic which has positioned them as ignorant, vulgar, unitiated--as

low. In fact 'low' knowledge frequently foregrounds not only the actual

conditions of production but also the conditions of bodily pleasure"

Transgression, p. 43). If I am reading them correctly, Stallybrass and White

are in effect making the point of Austrian economics that consumers are in a

better position than government officials to know what their desires are and how

best to satisfy them.

34. The socialist calculation debate began with Mises' essay "Die

Wirtschaftsrechnung in sozialistischen Gemeinwesen," published in the Archiv für

Sozialwissenschaften, 47 (1920). For an English translation by S. Adler of this

essay, see Ludwig von Mises, Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth

(Auburn, AL: Praxeology Press, 1990). For Hayek's key contribution on the

problem of knowledge, see his "The Use of Knowledge in Society" in his

Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).

This volume also contains several other chapters on the socialist calculation

debate (chapters VII-IX). For further contributions to the debate from the free

market side, see Ludwig von Mises, Socialism (New Haven: Yale University Press,

1951) and Volume 10 in The Collected Works of Friedrich Hayek, Socialism and War

(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). For overviews of the socialist

calculation debate, see Trygve J. B. Hoff, Economic Calculation in the Socialist

Society (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981) and David Ramsay Steele, From Marx to

ises: Post-Capitalist Society and the Challenge of Economic Calculation

(LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1992).

35. See Maltsev's foreword to Mises' Economic Calculation, p. vi.

36. Leggatt, English Renaissance Comedy, describes Trouble-All as a "citizen of

an authoritarian state" and "a figure Kafka might have invented" (pp. 150-51).

37. See also IV.ii.4-5, 86-87, 98-99, IV.vi.4, 114-15.

38. On the importance of the "unintended result" in the play, see Levin, Multiple

Plot, p. 211.

39. See Horsman, Bartholomew Fair, p. xii.

40. See Barish, Prose Comedy, p. 236 and Maus, Roman Frame, p. 134.

41. On the importance of the marriage license in the play, see Sanders Theatrical

Republics, pp. 90-91 and Slights, Art of Secrecy, pp. 161-62.

42. See Leggatt, English Renaissance Comedy, p. 145.

43. See Leggatt, English Renaissance Comedy, p. 147 and Slights, Art of Secrecy,

pp. 160, 163, 166.

44. For a good discussion of the dubious status of legal documents in the play,

see Slights, Art of Secrecy, pp. 154, 170.

45. See Leggatt, English Renaissance Comedy, p. 140.

46. See Barish, Prose Comedy, pp. 189, 231. Horsman (Bartholomew Fair, p. 189)

quotes a near contemporary description of the fair (1641): "Hither resort people

of all sorts, High and Low, Rich and Poore, from cities, townes, and countrys; of

all sects, Papists, Atheists, Anabaptists, and Brownists: and of all conditions,

good and bad, vertuous and vitious, Knaves and fooles, Cuckolds and

Cuckoldmakers, Bauds, and Whores, Pimpes and Panders, Rogues and Rascalls, the

little Loud-one and the witty wanton."

47. Slights (Art of Secrecy, pp. 160-61) makes a similar point and in support of

it quotes the Table-Talk of Jonson's friend John Selden: "Disputes in Religion

will never be ended, because there wants a Measure by which the Business would be


decided: The Puritan would be judged by the Word of God: If he would speak

clearly, he means himself. . . . Ben Johnson Satyrically express'd the vain

Disputes of Divines by Inigo Lanthorne, disputing with his puppet in a

Bartholomew Fair. It is so; It is not so: It is so, It is not so, crying thus

one to another a quarter of an Hour together."