Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Shakespeare and the Parables (part 5)

Shakespeare Apocrypha: The London Prodigall,
which was also incorrectly added to Shakespeare's Third Folio


There are numerous other allusions to parables in Shakespeare’s works that are also exceedingly evident. The Merchant of Venice, for example, clearly refers to the prodigal son’s leaving home and returning bedraggled after his dissolute living (2.6.14-19; cf. the use of “younker” by Falstaff in 1 Henry IV 3.3.79-80):

How like a younger [“younker”] or a prodigal
The scarfed bark puts from her native bay—
Hugg’d and embraced by the strumpet wind!
How like the prodigal doth she return
With over-weather’d ribs, and ragged sails—
Lean, rent, and beggar’d by the strumpet wind!

Gratiano, who utters this speech, himself echoes aspects of the prodigal’s story (e.g., his drinking and desire for “mirth and laughter,” 1.1.80-1; he also is “too wild, too rude, and bold of voice,” 2.2.172). This speech not only uses the word “prodigal” and the analogous bedraggled state of return that echoes the parable; it also, by twice using the term “strumpet” may subtly bring to mind the “strumpets” (i.e., prostitutes) with whom the prodigal (allegedly) consorted (Luke 15:30). This prodigal, like the one in Luke 15, departs to be “Hugg’d and embraced” by a strumpet and returns “Lean, rent, and beggar’d.” In addition, Shylock in this play may serve as one illustration of an elder son, one who, in this interpretation, refuses the invitation to join in the celebration of forgiveness (see Tippens 1988: 61-4, 72).

Shylock in this play may interestingly serve as one interpretation of the elder son in the parable, who serves in Luke to characterize the “Pharisees and their scribes” (Luke 15:2). In this interpretation, Shylock refuses to join the celebration of forgiveness (cf. the stained-glass windows of Chartres Cathedral, the prodigal son play by Antonia Pulci, and the blues song, The Prodigal Son, by Robert Wilkins, in which the elder brother joins the celebration), and he therefore is cut off from community/family. Jessica, his daughter, could also be seen as echoing aspects of the prodigal in that she defies her father, steals some of his wealth (“two sealed bags of ducats” and jewels, 2.8.12-22), and leaves home to marry Lorenzo, who is a Christian (see Tippens 1998: 61-64, 72; Parsons 1996: 156-8). Gratiano’s “prodigal” speech, in fact, takes place in the context of Jessica’s acts of defiance against Shylock (2.5-2.8).


In fact, the Prodigal Son story, more than any other parable of Jesus, significantly influences a number of Shakespeare’s plays. The prodigal son narrative was almost omnipresent in Shakespeare’s world, especially in Protestant areas, where it was often used to portray the primacy of faith (the younger son) over works (the elder son). Prodigal Son plays became exceedingly common in England, becoming “the oldest, most prevalent, and most important species of English Renaissance drama” (see Young 1979 ix, 318-20, who lists thirty-five Prodigal Son plays extant in England before 1642; Tippens 1988: 59-60), an emphasis that continued through the Elizabethan era (see Helgerson 1976). A play directly based on the Prodigal Son, The London Prodigal, was even incorrectly attributed to Shakespeare in the first edition of the Third Folio of Shakespeare’s works.

The Third Folio



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