The picture is by William Hogarth of the seedy medieval Southwark Fair, commonly known as “an occasion fir revekry and debsuchery” which accompanied his series The Rake’s Progress. Like the more famous Gin Lane it is really a novel in a single picture. So much is happening. Every part tells a tale, including the collapsing stage on the left bringing Shakespearean characters Pistol, Falstaff and Justice Shallow and others to the ground. A grim horseman enters right, challenging everyone, and a fashionable lady with a large drum marches in the middle accompanied by a black bugle boy. See here for John Trusler’s extended interpretation of the scene.
Southwark Fair and its more famous near-neighbour Bartholomew Fair are often dismissed as low life interludes of little cultural significance. But as Tiffany Stern pointed out in a fascinating recent lecture to London Historians, there was a symbiotic relationship between the London playhouses on Bankside and the fairs. Theatres were forced to close down when the fairs were on, as they couldn’t really stand the competition. The empty playhouses were often used as medieval Airbnbs for performers at the fairs. The fairs were supposed to last only a few days, but expanded to almost two weeks.
The rivals started feeding off each other. The fairs would stage mini-plays – like Julius Caesar or Tamburlaine the Great – often through Punch and Judy shows. They had the advantage of not needing to be pre-approved by the authorities, because they were improvised by “interpreters” and so had no written-down text. This practice came in handy when the playhouses were later shut under the rule of Puritans during the interregnum.
Playwrights in turn introduced fairground references to hold the attention of the audience as well as classical ones, such as Virgil. This is not surprising, as the same range of people came to both forms of entertainment. The impression given is that the clientele from the playhouses, including the upper classes, groundlings, hucksters and prostitutes, all moved eastward to Southwark or northwards to Bartholomew at Smithfield when the fairs were on.
Southwark Fair has been set in aspic by Hogarth. He never painted Bartholomew Fair, which was left to a playwright, Ben Jonson, to immortalise. Both give us an unrivalled insight into England at play in that period. It was not always a pretty sight. Southwark Fair was abolished in 1762 because of increasing vice and disturbances.
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