After nearly four hundred years, Bartholmew Fair remains one of the quintessential citizen dramas of the age. Although not considered Jonson’s most successful play, it was quite successful in its dual purpose of entertaining while criticizing. Like many depictions of the Elizabethan and Jacobean middle classes, Bartholmew Fair divides its labor among poking fun at the socially stagnant, exaggerating the mannerisms of nearly every archetype of character, commenting on the less refined results of the human condition, and advancing a considerable number of political views – both popular and otherwise. But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the play is its unique treatment of the common theme of social mobility. There are the usual distinct boundaries separating class in the play; however, rather than employing the traditionally didactic structure of the morality play in order to illustrate good and evil, Jonson presents a complex whirlwind of characters, ranging from bumbling, to crude, to hopeful.
Placed casually into the mix is one Tom Quarlous, a character whose informed, no-nonsense sarcasm we soon learn to appreciate as a breath of fresh air among the base or flawed discourse of his peers. Never passing up an opportunity to quip, Quarlous quickly emerges as the play’s primary source of witty humor. His independence from traditional moral constraints complicates his image, but it also allows him to make some of the most consequential decisions of the play. Quarlous also plays the primary vessel through which Jonson himself “preaches” to the audience. Especially considering his allegorical significance, then, Quarlous’s final victory is particularly vital.
Quarlous the Character
The name “Quarlous” can be considered a play on several homophonic ideas. Perhaps the most obvious word is quarrellous – which the Oxford English Dictionary notes was in common use during Jonson’s time – meaning “Quarrelsome, contentious, fault-finding.” The name also resembles querulous: “Complaining, given to complaining, full of complaints.” Another simple resemblance is found in parlous, for which the OED provides myriad meanings, including “clever”, “eager,” “keen,” “shrewd,” “mischievous,” and “extraordinary.” Certainly, Jonson’s Quarlous offers an overwhelming majority of these traits. Essentially, many of these words can also carry either positive or negative connotations; this is a notable aspect of Quarlous’s personality that has caused endless contention among critics. In fact, it is the multifaceted capacity of the character that renders him so immune to the strict moral boundaries constructed (and adhered to) by his peers.
G.R. Hibbard also provides an alternative meaning for quarrelling in the gloss of the New Mermaids edition of the play, describing it as “The vogue for fencing and dueling with sword and dagger” (Jonson 69). This interpretation, when applied to the character, fits even more exquisitely, as most of his quarrels end up being more like duels than arguments; the numerous spectators of these conflicts would likely agree with this assessment. He even engages in physical fighting more than once. Quarlous’s endless wit supplies pun after pun; in this sense, he is also aptly named, as he essentially “quibbles,” even with himself. In fitting with his sardonicism, he often combines his puns with insults: “Look, here’s the poor fool again that was stung by the wasp erewhile” (3. 2. 124). In this style, it takes little time for Quarlous to make up for the intellectual and articulatory shortcomings of the rest of the cast.
Functionally, Quarlous is Jonson’s closest implementation of the voice of reason. Lake and Questier observe: “Quarlous… [is] the character most likely to tell the unvarnished truth to his variously deluded fellows” (597). Not only is this often humorous, but it also provides a built-in commentary on the actions of the other characters from within the play.
Quarlous the Victor
By the end of the play, there is little (if any) doubt as to whom has come out on top. Although Winwife wins Grace as his wife, Quarlous wins both her fortune and that of Dame Purecraft. Hamel notes: “Insofar as there is a dominant character in Bartholomew Fair that person is Quarlous” (58). Indeed, throughout the last several acts of the play, Quarlous consistently proves that he is better fit to prevail than Winwife: “Quarlous proves equally adept in using the language of the Fair… By his mastery of the two main levels of language employed in the play – the language of reasonable discourse… as well as the colorful pidgin Bartholomese… Quarlous demonstrates his capacity to bridge the worlds of disparate experiences and values implied by each mode of expression” (Hamel 58-59). Haynes agrees: “It is not hard to see why Quarlous ends up holding all the cards… he is hostile to the Fair… but he is much more willing to plunge in than the squeamish Winwife” (128).
Despite these glowing appraisals of Quarlous’s abilities, some critics are less certain of the value of his spoils. Jennifer Panek refers to Purecraft as “a highly equivocal prize,” based on Quarlous’s early criticisms to and of Winwife regarding widows (67). She argues: “Quarlous, who sets himself up as the play’s final unmasker of folly, tricks [her] into marrying him, but his doing so constitutes the unmasking of his own folly… [by flying] in the face of his own common sense… the joke is on Quarlous… who gets a thoroughly undesirable wife – and probably none of her money either” (67-69). Along with the fact that Quarlous deals shamelessly with Edgworth, these criticisms are not unfair. But Hamel has his response prepared: “Despite his recognition that he is tainted by [hypocrisy], Quarlous pursues his intrigues. His moral position remains equivocal. Nevertheless, a defense can be made of his role. The result of his knavery is to improve the conditions we first meet” (59). Indeed, if moral criteria are no longer factored in, then there is no denying that Quarlous is the victor – regardless of the spoils.
In the end, based on these redefined conditions for success, the game is as good as changed from its state at the beginning of the play. Rather than a running commentary on what Overdo perceives as “enormities,” the play can now be analyzed as having been a social contest. The fact that the end of the play sees nothing but idyllic acceptance of Quarlous’s philosophy emphasizes Jonson’s intent to glorify that philosophy. As Haynes concludes in The Social Relations of Jonson’s Theater: “Quarlous… does his own plotting in the Fair: He establishes not what he is, but what he can do. The suspension of normal social relations leads… to an acceleration of the process of social Darwinism” (129).
Quarlous as the Voice of Jonson
The deeper analogies of Bartholmew Fair regard what Jonson perceives as the nonsensical mandates and restrictions of Puritanism at the time. This is a view that is widely accepted among critics: “It is, of course, through Quarlous that the play’s most dismissive and condemnatory judgements against the godly are delivered and, like Quarlous, the play and perhaps Jonson himself seem, if not happiest, then at least morally at ease, excoriating Puritans” (Lake 599).
Joke after joke, obscure reference after blatant reproach, Jonson speaks through Quarlous against the fundamentalists. For instance, in the middle of the play, Quarlous compares Leatherhead and Trash to Orpheus and Ceres, mythical deities traditionally emblematic of pagan feasting; this would be a horrendous metaphor for anyone of a Puritan persuasion. Additionally, Quarlous’s matter-of-fact musings could frequently apply to Jonson’s own opinions: “Why, they know no better ware than they have, nor better customers than come… Would Cokes would come! There were a true customer for ’em” (2. 5. 12-15). At this point, it could be assumed he is making a reference to Puritans and subsequently suggesting that Puritanism’s “best customers” bear resemblance to Bartholmew Cokes.
Quarlous is not constrained by Puritanical tunnel-vision, nor does he resort to what he would surely consider arbitrary moral guidelines. As a result, he is allowed to prosper in the end – and, indeed, as a function of steady reasoning throughout the play. Following this, he contrasts quite easily with Zeal-of-the-land Busy, who is painstakingly analogous to a Puritan preacher (as Hibbard’s gloss notes on multiple occasions). Busy is placed in the stocks and steadily earns the disdain of every other significant character in the play; Quarlous, on the other hand, ends up winning their affections, as well as the hand of Dame Purecraft and his two accompanying fortunes. Lake and Questier observe that Quarlous’s social superiority to Busy is far from accidental, both in the play’s context and from the perspective of the playwright: “For [Jonson] it was precisely the godly who were unfit for society, denying the conventional markers of sociability… then finding spurious ‘moral’ reasons to indulge their own individual appetites before denouncing the sinfulness and corruption of everyone else” (588).
There are numerous instances during which Jonson’s critique of Puritanism is both verbally and physically manifested in Quarlous’s character. When Purecraft first sees Busy locked up, she cries, “Oh me! In the stocks! Have the wicked prevailed?” (4. 6. 103). Although Purecraft is not here referring to Quarlous, her outcry resonates with the play’s sardonic opinion of Puritanism. Indeed, Busy’s pathetic response that it is “done for my better standing” (105) only reinforces the effect. Later in the play, when Purecraft expresses her “love” for the disguised Quarlous, his reply contains the telling remark, “Leave your canting” (5. 2. 18). He rebukes her soon afterward: “You are the second part of the society of canters, outlaws to order and discipline, and the only privileged church-robbers of Christendom” (39-41). While this condemnation could also refer to thievery (as Hibbard notes), it obviously directly comments on what Jonson regards to be the perversion of Christianity by Puritanism. This conclusion is especially tempting considering Quarlous’s subsequent musing that Purecraft has “a good trade too” (5. 2. 70). Quarlous demonstrates no qualms about thievery regarding his new wife, despite that fact that, “as Dame Purecraft confesses, the religious sect that is supposed to be a model community is revealed to be a collection of greedy hypocrites who thrive on cheating each other” (Mickel 143).
In his essay “Order and Judgement in Bartholomew Fair,” Guy Hamel suggests a unifying theme to tie together the various aspects of Quarlous’s character: “Quarlous, the final figure of authority in the play and its spokesman, himself accommodates successfully the obligations to perceive accurately and to amend judiciously… The discrepancy between perception and correction – between what is observably wrong and what of it can be amended – reveals itself not through the failure or strain of the attempt to reconcile the two but through the conditions that make a successful reconciliation possible. The order that Quarlous establishes represents a pragmatic and limited achievement” (61).
On the whole, Quarlous is a natural-born capitalist, with a streak of his own “moral” considerations. If anything, these considerations are based upon realistic concepts of utility, rather than on futile self-deprivation or dogmatically twisted constraints. These qualities alone would ensure that, had Jonson not himself created Quarlous, he would surely have been endeared to him. The role of this character, then, could be considered “hero” – only in a novel sense, and particularly in the name of pragmatism.
Jonson, Ben. Bartholmew Fair. New Mermaids, 2nd ed. (Revised). London: A&C Black Publishers Limited, 2007. Print.
Lake, Peter, and Michael Questier. The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat: Protestants, Papists, and Players in Post-Reformation England. 1st ed. London: Yale University Press, 2002. Print.
Hamel, Guy. “Order and Judgement in Bartholomew Fair.” University of Toronto Quarterly. 43.1 (1973): 48-67. Print.
Haynes, Jonathan. The Social Relations of Jonson’s Theater. 1st ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Print.
Mickel, Lesley. Ben Jonson’s Antimasques: A History of Growth and Decline. 1st ed. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1999. Print.
Panek, Jennifer. Widows and Suitors in Early Modern English Comedy. 1st ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.