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Taking Liberties: The Influence of the Architectural and Ideological Space of the Hope Theatre on Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Tom HarrisonORCiD


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The performance of Bartholomew Fair at the Hope Theatre in 1614 was the play’s first and only recorded public performance in Jonson’s lifetime, and the playtext still bears the stamp of this theatrical debut. Using the spatial theories of Foucault, de Certeau, and Lefebvre, I suggest that Jonson takes advantage of the liminal spaces of his performance venue, the ideologically ambiguous space of the Liberty that contained it, as well as his play’s fictive setting (the Fair itself), to pass comment on the more ideologically solid and austere environment of the City of London. I also argue that in some ways this first performance can be read as ‘proto-site-specific,’ inasmuch as the play relies on the particularities of its environment to achieve Jonson’s aim—to exhort his audience into a more sophisticated ‘understanding’ of the play’s action—an understanding that he hoped would, in turn, affect their reading of the real urban space outside the playhouse. The Jonsonian ‘third way’ between represented and representational spaces takes advantage of the heterogeneous environment of the playhouse and elides together the heterotopian environments of Fair and Liberty to invite a correspondingly unstable interpretive response from its audience. This experiential division is enforced in the space of the stage and auditorium, with Jonson’s use of inductive techniques, staging, and direct address—which frequently privileges some groups of spectators, to the detriment of others—helping to enforce divisions within the audience. The interpretive openness of Jonson’s spatial practice becomes in effect a microcosm for the vast number of spatial practices performed by the inhabitants of the real city beyond the Hope’s walls. However, in his emphasis on ‘understanding’ spectators Jonson provides his audience with the cognitive tools to be the actors rather than the acted-upon in the dog-eat-dog environment of London’s urban space, and it is within the triangulation between text, playhouse and suburban environment of the play’s first performance that this effect is most pronounced.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Harrison T

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Ben Jonson Journal

Year: 2017

Volume: 24

Issue: 1

Pages: 73-95

Print publication date: 28/02/2017

Online publication date: 28/02/2017

Acceptance date: 26/10/2016

ISSN (print): 1079-3453

ISSN (electronic): 1755-165X

Publisher: Edinburgh University Press Ltd.


DOI: 10.3366/bjj.2017.0180


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