In this plate Hogarth represents a teeming scene from Southwark Fair, though he certainly intends it as a picture of all such fairs (in an advertisement he calls it "The Fair" and "The Humours of a Fair"). This event was held annually in September and often lasted a full fortnight; because of the riot and disorder that attended it, it was suppressed in 1762.
In "Southwark Fair" Hogarth plays on the incongruities between the high and low, the sublime and the ridiculous that appear in the scene. Exalted forms of art and entertainment (or what pass for these), many of them employing mythic subject matter, are being performed literally above the heads of the crowd. On the ground, scenes from common life take place along with entertainments of a criminal or frivolous nature. At several points the high and low mingle in a chaotic human circus.
At the extreme left the stage collapses (in a pun on the play, The Fall of Bajazet), heaving earthward, with complete loss of dignity, a company of regally costumed players who include the famous Cibber and Bullock. They fall into a china shop and onto a dice player and a gambler who are too engaged in a dispute to hear the warning of the latter's child.
The showcloth below the terrified monkey, "The Stage Mutiny," is a copy of a print by John Laguerre. It portrays a rift in the Drury Lane theatre that occurred after it was taken over by John Highmore, a gentleman turned amateur actor and director. Under the banner "We'l Starve em out," Highmore, who had bought control of the theater, points to a scroll reading "it Cost £6000." On his side are the company's scene painter, part-owner Mrs. Wilks (in mourning) and her daughter. Between the opposing factions hangs a monkey, Highmore's surrogate, protesting, "I am a Gentleman." Under the banners "Liberty & property" and "We eat," Theophilus Cibber ("Pistol's alive") and the bulk of the actors advance on the owners. Colly Cibber, who has sold his shared to Highmore, sits apart from the fray, "Quiet & Snug," with a money bag on his lap. The showcloth for a freak show below this one advertises the presence of a giant.
Amid the placid Surrey hills, a figure waving a flag from someone's shoulder has won a quarter-staff contest. A tame high-rope artist and a daredevil competitor perform, one on each side of the center stage. The reckless fellow takes his flight from a steeple, implying the church's involvement in the fair. A showcloth announces The Siege of Troy; it is presently being rehearsed for advertising purposes. To the right, on a more popular level, Punch's horse steals a clown's kerchief and a Punch and Judy show is performed. Above, a showcloth portraying Adam and Eve announces a scriptural drama; next to it a comic scene entitled "Punches Opera" shows a merry figure wheeling his wife into the jaws of a dragon. In the open area between the buildings on the right, a hat and shirt hoisted above the crowd are prizes for wrestling and running competitions.
At the extreme right stands the stall of the "Royal Was worke"; "The whole Court of France is here." A monkey beating a drum, and a wax model, advertise the show. Below, a showcloth announcing "Fawxs Dexterity of hand" pictures two contortionists and the juggler beside his own portrait. Fawkes performs with a bird and a tumbler. In the foreground, a professional fighter, head wounds well displayed, enters the fair on horseback, his sword drawn and his face screwed up in challenge. A pickpocket purposefully points him out to an astonished couple. Two bailiffs who fail to see the crime to the right arrest an actor dressed as an emporer.
To the immediate left of the fighter, a couple embrace; beside them a man inspects two young girls (the motif is similar to the central action in A Harlot's Progress, Plate I). In front of them a woman with a small barrel organ on her back runs a peep show. On a platform among the crowd a physician eats fire to attract attention while his assistant retails his quackeries. In the center foreground a youthful drummer girl accompanied by a bugler advertise their play. Her striking beauty is admired awkwardly by two bumpkins. To the left a pathetic child operates puppets with his foot (his shoes are much too large for him) and plays the bagpipes to himself. Beside his ragged figure he keeps a dog dressed as a foppish gentleman.