Theatre of Judgment: Space, Spectators, and the Epistemologies of Law in Bartholomew Fair
This article investigates how Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair exploits conceptual affinities between theatrical spectatorship and the collaborative practices of evidence-gathering and critical evaluation that characterized early modern common law, envisioning the playhouse as a space where the judging faculties of ordinary theatregoers might be powerfully solicited and interrogated. Jonson’s characters negotiate the bewilderingly dense spaces of the fair in pursuit of social advancement, collective spectacle, and sheer gustatory pleasure, making use of both the investigative methods of the law and the flexible discernment of wit as they vie for knowledge and advantage. But the play’s persistent metatheatricality also draws audience members into a parallel competition for epistemological authority by playfully challenging them to venture their own socially revealing judgments on the dramatic action. In this way, Bartholomew Fair provides Jonson’s spectators with a distinctively spatialized venue for participatory thought, investigation, and response — the vital seeds of London’s burgeoning public sphere.
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