The play is set at Bartholomew Fair, which from 1133 to 1855 was one of London's preeminent summer fairs. It opened on 24 August each year at Smithfield, in the northwestern part of the city. Smithfield, a site of slaughterhouses and public executions, was a fitting place for a fair that was part commerce and part spectacle. At once a trading event for cloth and other goods and a pleasure fair, the four-day event drew crowds from all classes of English society.
Jonson's play uses this fair as the setting for an unusually detailed and diverse panorama of London life in the early seventeenth century. The one day of fair life represented in the play allows Jonson ample opportunity not just to conduct his plot but also to depict the vivid life of the fair, from pickpockets and bullies to justices and slumming gallants. Jonson also uses the characters that he creates as a way to comment on the social, religious and political conflicts of London society in Jacobean England.