Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Shakespeare and the Parables (part 6)

Shakespeare's First Folio

As noted in the previous post, many interpreters have argued that the Prodigal Son story, which permeated so many aspects of culture during this era, influenced a number of Shakespeare’s plays in significant ways. The first scene of As You Like It, for example, utilizes the Prodigal Son parable in a powerful way in an exchange between two brothers who are at odds with each other over an inheritance: Orlando and his older brother Oliver. Their father had passed away, and the older brother Oliver had received the vast bulk of the inheritance, whereas Orlando received a mere one thousand crowns. Although Oliver was supposed to provide for Oliver’s education, he only does so far their other brother, Jacques, and instead keeps Orlando “rustically at home” (i.e., like a peasant, not like the nobleman he is). Orlando complains that his brother takes better care of his animals than he does his brother, and Orlando “begins to mutiny against this servitude” (1.1.1-24). When Oliver arrives, the bickering starts in earnest. Orlando exclaims to his (1.1.43) brother: “Shall I keep your hogs and eat husks with them? What prodigal portion have I spent that I should come to such penury?” (1.1.36-38). The use of “husks” suggests that Shakespeare here was dependent on the Geneva Bible (most of the other contemporary translations use “cods” instead of “husks”; Shaheen 1999: 216). The dispute turns violent (1.1.51-54), and Orlando once again alludes to the parable by stating this Oliver must either allow Orlando to “train” to become a gentleman or give him “the poor allottery my father left me by testament; with that I will go buy my fortunes” (1.1.69-72). Oliver retorts that the dispensing of the inheritance would do little good: “And what wilt thou do? Beg when that is spent?” (1.1.73).

As Susan Snyder and others have demonstrated, King Lear is also permeated with echoes of the Prodigal Son parable, both in its primary plot (with Lear and his daughters Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan) and in its subplot (with the Earl of Gloucester and Edgar, his son, and Edmund, his illegitimate son). The story itself is dependent upon earlier works, such as the anonymous play, The True Chronicle History of King Leir (ca. 1605), but Shakespeare incorporated a number of biblical references not found in his sources and, it seems, a story that in many respects parallels that of the Prodigal Son:

The protagonist starts by rejecting the one who loves him most [i.e.,, Lear rejects Cordelia], embarks on a reckless course which brings him eventually to suffering and want—and, paradoxically, to the self-knowledge he lacked before—and finally is received and forgiven by the rejected one (Snyder 1979 362-3).

Although specific allusions in the play to the text of the Prodigal Son parable are sparse (e.g., Lear “hoveling” with swine may not be a specific reference; 4.7.39), many other broad parallels are evident as well, such as the premature granting of an inheritance and the resulting drama of broken family relationships—and the restoration of some (for more details, see Snyder 1979).

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